The Seven Fishes

The Seven Fishes

I am not sure how we started celebrating Christmas Eve with the Feast of the Seven Fishes, but I am absolutely positive that we were clueless as to what we were doing. December 24th would arrive and hand-in-hand with my father we would join the mind-numbing scrum at Zabar’s on the Upper West Side of New York. I would be over-heated (zipped tight into my “parka”), claustrophobic and starving in the hour-long wait for the appetizing counter. Battling ancient Jews, elbows sharp like Bill Cartwright, with a penchant for that one, particular smoked chub, I would be shoved into the counter, my breath fogging the glass. We would load up on Nova, Lox, smoked sturgeon, red caviar, cream cheese with scallions, sable and bagels. In hindsight, the meal may have been a Jewish apologia for our wholesale embracing of Christmas. It wasn’t until my wonderful brother-in-law Massimo Riva joined our family that we became aware that we were following a long Italian tradition.

As the years followed, our Christmas Eve feast became more elaborate: tins of real Sevruga (during our up-tick in wealth during the Reagan years), a switch in purveyors (Russ & Daughters over Zabar’s) and me in charge of the purchasing. For years, I would arrive at Russ & Daughters at 5am to wait with a group of joyous regulars to be among the first in the door. Last year, our first in Japan, I tried to replicate the feast and give my children a Christmas that would feel as if we had never left Brooklyn. I failed miserably. I bought the wrong kind of salmon roe, I couldn’t find smoked salmon and failing to find any real Christmas Trees, I concocted a last minute fixit, cut out of cardboard that ended up looking like a decoration from the “children’s wing” of some upstate prison. I won’t say that it was an unhappy event, but we definitely felt far from home. Well, a year passed.  My children are full-fledged Japanesers, speaking with fluency, reading and writing with competency and finding joy in discovering new Kanji (the 3rd Japanese alphabet consisting of Chinese character).  I am still like their bumbling, slow-witted pal, brain a bit too calcified with age to properly learn the language.  No matter, I still pulled off a proper Christmas this year. I started with the tree.  So far as I can tell, you can either head into the forests surrounding Tokyo to chop down a little spruce or you can go to Ikea.  I did neither.  I bit the bullet, dismissed my snobbery, and purchased a fake-ass tree at that megalopolis of discount crap, Don Quixote.  We decorated it with LED lights and my daughter’s origami swans.  Pretty festive actually!  I then took control of the whole 7 Fishes thing.  Food is an acceptable Christmas gift in Japan in a way that Americans have not yet embraced.  Our local grocery store was swimming in select fruits, veggies, meat and seafood ready to be gift wrapped.  An enormous tuna head was propped up in the seafood aisle and samples of sashimi were being given out.  Remarkable.  Velvety, rich in flavor, perfectly aged.  I grabbed a pound and a half. Snow crabs from Hokaido.  Ikura (salmon roe), tobiko (flying fish roe) and a little jar of black, lumpfish caviar.  Clams.  Oooh….Cherry wood smoked salmon.

We all gathered at our small table — my father-in-law pressed beside me.  I made latkes and piled them with sour cream, ikura and tobiko.  Smoked salmon on buttered white toast.  The lumpfish caviar, with diced onion, a squirt of lemon was but a whisper, a gentle reminder of the powerful Black Sea sturgeon I had once imbibed.  I made clams possilipo (basically clams with tomatoes, onion and garlic) and my daughter set about chomping those little mollusks with abandon.  My son piled sashimi onto warm rice, wrapping the entire thing in seaweed.  My wife hungrily attacked the crab.  My in-laws gave chase, accepting the foreign tastes with great aplomb. I filled a tumbler full of frozen vodka, my fingers sticky with lemon juice, and I gazed at my family.  Watching them eat, and smile and laugh, joking with their grandparents, passing a plateful of latkes, I grew amazed at the acceptance and the gentle smoothness that they have displayed in trading one culture for another.  Of course, there has been friction at times, unpleasant fights, undercurrents of hostility — the same as any family, really.  But, no one has blamed me for making this move. Their personalities have evolved, incorporating new characteristics based on their shift in language, their deeper immersion into Japanese culture. It is an evolution where I, wistfully, am being left behind. All I can do is pile tobiko on a latke and know just how remarkable they are.      


3 Replies to “The Seven Fishes”

  1. Don Quijote does not sell ‘crap’. I have enjoyed pretty much every shopping trip into a Donki. A significant one being in December 2011, when my maladies included the worst USD to JPY exchange rate I have ever got ($1 = ¥87.7), and my fabric pants belt breaking on my way from Haneda Airport to Yokohama. It was the Mega Donki in Motomachi-Chukagai where I found a replacement belt cheaply, and which has been in usage every day since then.
    I will just briefly mention Donki has also been an on-again | off-again resource for artifacts which I bring back to Chicago from Japan. (A hint? It might have to do with rare Japanese whiskies.) The next time I visit Japan, _I will shop at Don Quijote_.

    1. I totally agree that Donki is not just “Crap.” I shop there on the regular and love it…But they do sell a lot of crap, whether good crap or bad crap! In genera, I am a fan of crap!

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