Saving The Baccala Salad Of Christmas Past

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Lucys’ hands – the masterful creators of homemade Italian food for over 70 years.

Sometimes food is well…more than food

I should be the last person to save the baccala salad. I had never even heard of baccala salad until I met my husband’s family. Though I’m of Italian descent the family traditions my grandparents brought back from Italy which included making fresh fettuccine and laying it out on a bed to dry faded with the next generation. My mother who referenced a dog-eared New York Times cookbook and favored Jacques Pepin endeared herself to a more American palette. Her mother was a good baker but her culinary skills were limited and she subscribed to a minimalist approach to eating. Whether it was the hardscrabble life in the Italian mountains or the immigrant experience they did not revel in excess. My paternal grandmother was a better cook but she too knew her way around stretching dinner, with a family of six to feed. Since our family typically ended up as guests, my sister and I married without the holy grail of foodstuffs that define holidays. Enter my husband’s family, this is a clan that doesn’t fool around and the calendar year represents a tour de force of indispensable holiday dishes.

Christmas Eve is the feast of the seven fishes which means the menu must feature seven kinds of fish. What it doesn’t mean is that you can get away with a simmering bouillabaisse or paella. The feast includes baked clams, shrimp cocktail followed by your choice of linguini with white clam or lobster sauce. The courses continue with fish salad a melange of calamari, shrimp, scallops, mussels, polpo, olives and celery in the correct proportion as well as baccala salad. Baccala salad is a light concoction of escarole leaves, lemony dressing and savory baccala and Greek olives. The dish strikes a perfect balance apropos for any nouveau restaurant menu, so when my sister-in-law told me we were skipping the baccala salad I spoke up.

I’d like to say this is all about the baccala salad as I’m feeling triumphant about reprising its role in our seven fish fete, but it’s about so much more. My mother-in-law Lucy’s traditions are sacred to her and she’s passed the baton to her family. Lucy has sensed the tides of change, we’ve scrapped homemade lasagna on Christmas day, citing its heftiness and vetoed cardoon the stalks of the artichoke on Thanksgiving. We are holding the torch for the next generation but also trying to shed some of the labor and calories of Christmas past. However, this year Lucy is not well. We’ve taken jobs away from her and the changing menu is unearthing fears we all bury and some of it with food. Italians do a wonderful job of washing down fear with a finely fried zeppola. It’s brilliant and though we believe we have struck a delicate balance of preserving tradition and our sanity, we ordered fish salad to save the washing of seven different pots, Lucy will make baccala salad and its presence will serve as a resounding reminder of the importance of tradition, family and love.



  1. Joan Cardona says

    Vilma, I loved this piece. I am touched by it as I had the wonderful opportunities to experience this romance with food. It has me in tears as it is definitely more about the hands that create wonderful traditions for family to be together and to treaure such meaniful memories, and carrying on making new memories.

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