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December 24, 2014

Something’s fishy

By Dom Cioffi

My grandmother was the quintessential Italian: she was short, attentive, liked to wear sundresses, hid money underneath the mattress, and spent the better part of her days cooking and watching soap operas.

When I showed up and knocked on her door (which was always locked), she would yell, “Who is it?” I would then promptly reply, “It’s me!”

Without fail she would always open the door, even though any serial killer could have been the one responding to her question.

My grandmother’s house was a bastion of activity every Sunday, which was also known as “pasta day” to the legions of relatives and friends who would wander in.

She would start cooking several days before and then work herself into a flurry of activity by the time Sunday afternoon rolled around. The conversation, camaraderie and cuisine of those meals filled my young life with wonderful memories. That weekly tradition was around long before I was born and continued long after I left for college.

Another tradition that she had, and which Italians from all over the world also observe, is the annual Feast of the Seven Fishes on La Vigilia (Christmas Eve).

Originally a religious observance focused on a partial fast in which no meat was to be consumed, the Feast of the Seven Fishes eventually morphed into a full-fledged seafood smorgasbord.

All I can tell you about my family’s Seven Fishes tradition is that my grandmother’s home was, for one day a year, transformed into a seafood nightmare – at least for me. Nowhere was her delicious pasta or delectable salad present. Instead, it was replaced by a potpourri of the ocean’s slimiest creatures prepared in the most grotesque fashion.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I love seafood. In fact, my favorite places to dine out are usually sushi restaurants. But the concoctions that were created for this “feast” were some of the most inedible dishes I’ve ever encountered. And what made it worse was the insistence that we children join in with the preparation.

When I go to a sushi restaurant and order a dragon roll, I know that it includes eel. I read it on the menu, I see it on the plate, I even taste it in my mouth. However, at no point am I forced to look into the eyes of the eel. I’ve looked into a lot of fish eyes in my day, but eels are nasty creatures – and for whatever reason their eyes freak me out.

If I see a picture of an eel in its natural habitat or witness it slapped on the counter soon after it was purchased from the deli, the last thing I want to do is eat it.

And yet my grandmother – who I loved very deeply – insisted that I not only eat these eels, but also cut their heads off and gut them as well.

And the octopus! Good god, have you ever seen a completely intact octopus fried up on a grill? It’s like a horror movie with that one eye staring back at you as you move side to side in front the grill.

Try putting an octopus tentacle inside your mouth with its rubbery suckers gushing around your tongue. I don’t care how you prepare it, it’s nauseating.

Even the “normal” seafood items like mackerel had to be left fully intact so when the plate was passed around the table, the whole pile of fish were staring at you in unison. It was like they were looking at you and thinking, “Really? You seriously want to put me in your mouth right now?”

Thankfully other family members were more interested in the activity of preparation so I was able to slip away from the duties after a couple years. I also became very creative at filling my plate with digestible items like shrimp cocktail and linguini and a bevy of Christmas cookies so people wouldn’t coerce me into trying the calamari soup.

Understandably, the tradition died along with my grandmother. And while I missed that annual gathering those first few years after her death, I did not miss the seafood armageddon that accompanied it.

And then I met my wife – who was also from an Italian family – and whose mother just happened to revel in the Feast of the Seven Fishes. Before I knew it, I was staring down at those hideous eels and creepy octopuses all over again. And being Italian, I was just expected to revel in the celebration along with them (apparently, some traditions are just never meant to end).

This week’s film features Moses, the man who directly influenced Jesus of Nazareth (who just happens to be the guy who’s responsible for my least favorite meal).

Directed by Ridley Scott (who’s known for epic adventures), “Exodus: Gods and Kings” tries to bring one of the most famous biblical stories to life with the magic of digital effects. Unfortunately, all the eye candy in the world cannot salvage a truly uninspired storyline.

I expected a lot more from a film that Christian Bale was involved in – especially one where he is portraying someone as important as Moses. His level of artisty was completely lost in this truly unfocused motion picture.

The holiday season is upon us, which might lure many folks to see such a grandiose film. But my advice is to steer clear unless you’re only interested in taking a long nap.

An oppressive “D+” for Exodus: Gods and Kings.”

Got a question or comment for Dom? You can email him at moviediary@att.net.

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