Five Curious Culinary Christmas Customs
You think fruitcake and eggnog are strange? You think houses made of gingerbread are weird? Read on about some even more off-the-wall Christmas dining habits.
5. Eels (Italy) -- A favorite in Italy come yuletide are the slimy, slippery, finless, phallic fish known as eels. Whether pulled from the Arno River in Florence, the Po in Bologna, or the Tiber in Rome, eels in some form are always on the Christmas menu. In the capital, the seafood market normally restricted to fishmongers is thrown open to the public beginning at 2 a.m., and the eels thereby acquired are doused with olive oil, garlic, bay leaves, and white wine, then spit-roasted in a wood oven until the skin is crisp and the fat renders into the roaring fire. The fat ones called capitoni are the most valued. A similar dish is popular in Naples, and that's likely the origin of the eel tradition among Italian-Americans, who celebrate the Feast of the Seven Fishes, which always includes at least one eel course. Prior to the holiday, you can find live eels for sale in Italian markets as far flung as Arthur Avenue in the Bronx, Metropolitan Avenue in Williamsburg, and 20th Avenue in Bensonhurst.
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4. Lutefisk (Norway) -- Cold, isolated, and storm-tossed, Norway has always been dependent upon seafood for its survival, and aggressive preservation methods through the ages have been necessary to ensure its supply. One such result in "lutefisk," in which cod or another whitefish is soaked several days in water, then several more days in lye -- which is traditionally made from birch ash. This treatment results in a jelly-like consistency in the dried fish, rotten flavor, and a highly caustic pH ranging from 11 to 12. In order to be edible, the preserved fish must be soaked for another long stretch in water, then cooked. Served with a potato-flour flatbread called lefsa, not only is lutefisk popular in Norway, but also in Minnesota, which has America's largest Scandinavian population.