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Christmas Food Traditions

December 18, 2011
By KIM LOCCISANO - Staff Writer ( , Times Leader

This annual holiday season means traditions honoring the world's many religious, ethnic and local rituals that easily fill family calendars, and almost without fail each will include offering celebrants foods uniquely connected to a specific event.

Those who are fortunate enough to call the Upper Ohio Valley area home can count on being able to connect to a variety of cultural observances held each year in the homes of everyday people and in their houses of worship. It has become a great opportunity for learning about how others celebrate certain passages of time seen each year.

The holidays are about appreciating the blessings and gifts in your life, about family and friends-past, present, and future-and finding ways to share some of your resources with others.

The most appreciated gifts shared between friends and family are often those tied to certain foods, cultural traditions or activities.

Italian-American families often enjoy the tradition known as the Feast of Seven Fishes, a family meal like no other shared over the course of any given year.

It is truly an event to be personally experienced before it can be fully appreciated.

Like most meals held during special times of celebration, a great deal of pre-planning, discussion, shopping, and time in the kitchen are essential to what everyone involved hopes will take them back to a less hectic time when there was always something good being created in the kitchens. Kitchens were the heart of any celebration, unlike today's extreme popularity of any space allotted to gadgets involved in watching or playing video games.

It is the type of meal that is still largely based on knowledge passed from one generation to the next through trips to a favorite market and learning lessons by doing once all ingredients are gathered in the kitchen.

Explanations of details large and small connected to this traditional Italian Christmas meal are available from endless sources today, but there will never be a substitute for the opportunity to learn from the best: the women-and a few men-who have no need of measuring cups or spoons, as the idea of "when it feels right" is the best cooking or baking guide there could be.

Thanks to the Internet, the processes of preparing some of these unique dishes can be seen as a bit less daunting to those who do not have a friend or family member who grew up learning as they went from mothers, great aunts, grandmothers and great-grandmothers to make their seemingly magical concoctions.

Today's tradition of handing down information from generation to generation when it comes to preparing family foods for celebrations can be shared in many ways.

One unique method for sharing this knowledge came to life several years ago in the form of a groundbreaking book authored by Robert Tinnell on the traditions of the feast as he recalled from childhood, and is completed with the addition of a cookbook written by his wife, Shannon Tinnell.

The book, "Feast of the Seven Fishes - The Collected Comic Strip and Italian Holiday Cookbook," written by Robert Tinnell continues to be available to consumers on the Internet.

"The Feast of the Seven Fishes is the most important celebration of the year in our house. It takes a lot of work to pull it off," said Shannon Tinnell.

The mountain of work to be done to prepare the meal is no small thing, making the eventual payoff even more appreciated, according to both Tinnells. "Things really heat up about an hour before serving. All the various fried foods are being prepared simultaneously, and baked dishes go into the oven," said Sharon Tinnell. "Once the meal is on the table, dinner goes on for hours. family and friends come and go, and the laughter and joy prove contagious.

"I share all of this with you in the hope that you'll consider trying you own feast. Never mind if you're not Catholic or even Italian. It's fun, it's a wonderful traditionit's a time-honored recognition of the birth of Jesus. And it allows us to connect in some small way with our Italian heritage. My great-great-grandparents celebrated the Feast of the Seven Fishes. I hope my great-great-grandchildren will as well."

Recipes for the following are included in the back portion of the book, which is considered its cook book section: basic tomato sauce, stuffed calamari in tomato sauce, fried smelt; deep fried breaded oysters, deep fried fish or shrimp, linguine with clam sauce, marinated eel, baccala, whiting, pizzelle and tira misu.

Robert Tinnell is a screenwriter, director and award winning author.

The traditions of Italy at Christmas time, including the many traditional foods prepared at this festive time of year, are among the most widely known cultural practices of this season, a reality driven in large part by such organizations as The Sons of Italy and the Catholic Church. Residents of the Ohio Valley have always had a strong ties to the traditions of Italian culture.

Much less familiar to area residents are the traditions of people of Norwegian descent. However, as the appreciation of fish, wonderful breads and the occasional specialty dessert continues to grow, Norwegian cuisine can be looked to for new ways to connect with traditionally available ingredients.

Basic ingredients remain at the heart of this cuisine, one which was shaped by Norway's odd growing seasons, thanks in large part to the fact much of it cannot be farmed, and the majority of the country sits near the Arctic Circle.

December is the darkest time of year in Norway, and Christmas became viewed as the cure for the doldrums that come to the land of the midnight sun. Christmas Eve has long been the center of the holiday celebration for Norwegians, and it is a tradition which has continued through several generations of Norwegian-Americans.

The 'biggest meal of the season'-the most lavish of the year-is enjoyed on Christmas Eve, according to experts on Norwegian culture.

While the feasting begins on Christmas Eve, buy no means will it stop for several days time, as a full buffet is offered the following day to family and friends. According to its cultural calendar, the Norwegian Christmas is not officially over until Jan. 13, Saint Canute's Day.

If you are simply interested in finding new ways to cook fish, milk, breads, and even desserts, browse through the pages of "Authentic Norwegian Cooking" by award-winning cultural expert on Norwegian foods Astrid Karlsen Scott.

Recipes for Norwegian holiday foods almost always include a beautiful, multi-layered almond cake, which is also considered a must have at any festive occasion.

Buon Natale!

God Jul!



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