You can either live life, or write about it. This year for Christmas, I lived it. The great thing about living is you notice things like little Christmas miracles you might have overlooked. (The bad thing is your blog is late.)
I lived it so well that I now have one mother of a head-cold that only responds to hot tea with lemon, honey and Rock n’Rye. I’m not sure it’s actually responding, but it’s putting me in a better mood, which will come in handy tomorrow when I have to pay the bills for all this living I’ve done.
I enjoyed every bite of crab and shrimp drenched in Lemon-Butter-Garlic Sauce, even the drips on my chin. I relished seeing my fourteen Italian relatives, who came for my nephew’s wedding, finally getting the hang of cracking open giant king crab legs, and diving in with gusto. I loved the fact that the celebration was in my brother’s basement, just like it was in my parents’ basement for 57 years.
My mom was from Naples, where the Feast of the Seven Fishes or La Vigilia originated. The church rule was that “good” Catholics should abstain from meat (and pretty much anything else that’s fun). She and Dad started the tradition before I was born, always cooking fish on Christmas Eve. They cooked smelts, squid, pasta with octopus, eel, cod and shrimp. My father was in charge of the eels, which were iffy, at best. The octopus was great for scaring neighborhood friends. I’d reach a fork into the pot, pull out a tentacle covered chunk and show it to my neighbor, Kathy Pfleghar, who recoiled in horror. I wasn’t a fan of our dinners then, but they improved drastically in the mid ’60s.
I think it was 1965 when our first Christmas miracle occurred. My brother Bernie came home in his football shirt, with a bag of crabs and a wide grin, saying he was going to make the best sauce we’d ever tasted. It was light years ahead of my mom’s creepy octopus pasta and I was thrilled.
He came home that year and every year, ready to cook. My brother Bob followed suit, and my sister and I were always there. Sauce competitions started. Wives and children came along and we all reunited every Christmas Eve. I couldn’t wait to bring my husband and kids to enjoy the celebration, complete with accordion playing at the end. (Yet another Christmas miracle — my brother Bob’s accordion playing has improved. His accordion teacher used to tell him he died a little bit every time Bob played, but this year he sounded pretty good!)
Sometimes I think about Bernie’s decision to come home that Christmas Eve and the effect it had on our family. If he’d decided to hang out with his friends instead, years of wonderful memories might never have happened. I’m so glad he chose us.
My living caused me to notice a third Christmas miracle. My Carpatho-Russian, and Polish sisters-in-law have morphed into blonde matriarchs, who serve a meal as well, or better, than any Italian I know. (This actually happened many years ago, but this year I was there to see them in the preparation stages and it was impressive.) They knocked themselves out to make sure their homes were gorgeous, dinner was delicious and there was enough food to feed at least two small countries. My mother and father’s souls are undoubtedly bursting with pride.
As for the 14 extended Italian family members who were here, we were all completely blown away by them. How often can you get that many family members together and not just love them because they’re your relatives, but actually like each one of them? I tell you, Christmas miracles abounded this year. I’m glad I took the time to notice.
Bernie’s Christmas Eve Crab Sauce
10 cloves of garlic, minced
1/4 cup olive oil
2 Dungeness or 3 1 lb. snow crabs or a combo of both (already cooked)
1 8 oz. glass of Merlot or Cabernet
Place olive oil and garlic in pan and sautè for about three minutes over low heat. Break cooked crab into pieces and toss with olive oil, garlic mixture. Add the 8oz. glass of red wine.
Let the crab, oil, garlic and wine mixture cook for about 10 minutes.
1 28 oz. can tomato puree
(Run the crushed tomatoes through a food mill to eliminate seeds)
1 28 oz. can crushed tomatoes
1 28 oz. can crushed tomatoes with basil
1 can of tomato paste
1 28 oz can of water
3 bay leaves
1 tsp. dried oregano
1 tsp. dried basil
2 Tbsp. sugar (optional, or less if you wish)
1/2 tsp. crushed red pepper
1 Tbsp. crushed dried porcini mushrooms.
Cook on stovetop over low heat for 3 hours, stirring to make sure it doesn’t stick, or cook covered in oven for 5 hours at 185 degrees.
When sauce is cooked, remove some crab from the shells and put it in the sauce. Reserve a few claws for photo opportunities and pinching each other’s noses.