Saturday, December 20, 2008


When as kids we ate cuccia, we always knew that Christmas was less than two weeks away. Cuccia, tiny whole wheat berries swimming in milk and sugar, was always eaten on one day of the year, December the 13th, the feast day of Santa Lucia. As kids we knew she was the Sicilian patron saint of sight, and later, as an adult, I learned she is the same Santa Lucia celebrated by young Swedish girls who wear the crowns of lighted candles on their heads. Because of the custom, on that special day we never ate pasta or bread or for that matter anything made of wheat flour. But we always ate our cuccia.

Mid-December was about the same time that Grandpa cooked up his special batch of Italian cordials for holiday use. He would buy flavored extracts in those tiny bottles at the Italian store and then, mixed with grain alcohol, sugar and water, he would end up with tall bottles of anisette, rosolio or creme de menthe. In the meantime Grandma was busy in the kitchen creating what we called “Italian candy”, which was really hard torrone of almonds and honey.

About that time I was emptying out my Christmas Club savings at the bank on Union Street so that I would be able to buy gifts for the family. I remember one year, at twenty-five cents a week, I had almost nine dollars. I guess I had missed a few weeks but this was still an enormous amount that I had saved.

It was now cold outside, and the store lots, packed with trees, smelled of Christmas and the coming holidays. In front of Germain’s department store on Brooklyn’s Fifth Avenue the fake Santa Claus rang his bell to catch our attention and our coins. Right about this time one could almost feel snow in the air; it was officially the Christmas season. Soon Grandpa would hit the stores and buy the bacala and the other fish for Christmas Eve. On one evening after dinner he would even treat us all to his oven-baked castagne (roasted chestnuts).

Finally the day we had all been waiting for had quietly arrived. It was Christmas Eve, and now my mother, sister and I would decorate our small tree while the seven different fish representing the sacraments were being prepared in the kitchen. The aroma was obvious. Usually we had capitone (eel), polpo (octopus), and scungili (conch). But always we had bacala. Of course no meat was ever eaten on that holy night. We had starved ourselves all day just waiting for this magnificent meal. It was never disappointing even though I never really cared for all the different seafood. After dinner we finished the tree and rushed off to church for Midnight Mass and for viewing the Presepio (the nativity scene). Later, everyone celebrated the remaining minutes of La Vigilia by sipping anisette and eating sesame seed biscotti.

The really big feast, however, came on Christmas Day. Out came Grandma’s finest china, linen tablecloth and the good silverware. Then all of us, including my aunts and uncles, sat around tables that were put together to make one big table. We usually began with caponata and a large antipasto of salami, soppressata, caciocavallo cheese, anchovies, big green Sicilian olives and roasted peppers swimming in olive oil. Then out came the platters of ricotta-filled ravioli, sausages redolent of garlic and fennel, sliced braciole stuffed with hard-boiled eggs, raisins and pine nuts and maybe some fried eggplant and always good crusty Italian bread. Also under the table was a gallon jug of Grandpa’s homemade wine. For dessert there was usually a shimmering cassata or a nice mix of cannoli, sfogliatell’ and pasticciott’, all to be topped off with tiny cups of espresso. As Sicilians we didn’t have pannetone or panforte but there was usually a tempting hill of honey-glazed struffoli (honey balls) in the center of the dining room table, which of course, we pilfered from time to time.

At the end of the feast my grandfather would loosen his belt at least a notch. The men relaxed and talked while they cracked and ate walnuts and almonds. The women then left for the kitchen and the men lit up their Di Nobili cigars and continued sipping espresso fortified with anisette.
As for my sister and I, we sat silently under the lighted tree which would stay up until January the 6th. The house was now quiet and we were content, satisfied, even satiated. We went through our gifts one more time and searched again into our stockings to find the Baby Ruths, the tangerines, the walnuts - and the black pieces of coal.


Shan said...

Christmas in Brooklyn sounds amazing, even to a Canadian vegetarian like me.
To more beautiful memories in the new year!

MarjorieD said...

My fondest memories of growing up in Brooklyn were the times my grandmother took me to Germaine's. There was always a stop at the hot dog counter for a hot dog and chocolate drink followed by visiting the Charlotte Russe stand. At Christmas time there was Santa's workshop on the second floor. I eagerly waited with tons of kids on the steps going up to see Santa. So glad to be born in Brooklyn.