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Keeping the feast

The Baltimore Sun

"Do you know what tradition is? A whole lot of work. ..."

- Manuel Alvarez, my father

I never thought that our family's Christmas Eve dinner - a sit-down feast of homemade delicacies for two dozen guests - would wind up at my brother Danny's house.

The guests are related by blood and marriage, and the menu is a rich mix of East Baltimore kitchens.

We eat empanadas handed down from Galicia, the region of Spain where my paternal grandfather grew up before he arrived at the foot of Broadway on a merchant ship in the 1920s; deep-fried anchovy cakes - salty "ah-leesh" in golden dough - from his wife's Italian heritage; pierogi made with homemade kielbasa, a nod to Mom's Polish childhood in the St. Casimir parish of old Canton; and a baked ham because this is Christmas and, after all, this is the United States.

But Danny's house?

I am the first-born, named for the aforementioned grandfather, who hosted Christmas Eve in Highlandtown with his wife, Frances Prato, from 1935 until Grandmom's death in 1976. Ever since my children were born, I'd anticipated a near-perfect symmetry for the holiday: 30 years of fish, sweets, family and song on Dec. 24 on South Macon Street, followed by 30 years at my parents' home in Linthicum before returning to the narrow rowhouse with white marble steps - now mine - where it began when my father was a boy. I confess to being rattled last year when the tradition sidestepped me as I walked a picket line with the Writers Guild of America, 3,000 miles away in Los Angeles.

As the sages noted long before the birth of the child whose arrival is anticipated on Christmas Eve: "Man plans, God laughs."

And so the feast remained in Linthicum, migrating about a mile from my parents' house near St. Philip Neri church to Danny's house near the public library, a move necessitated by simple math: Add 25 guests, a dozen entrees, half as many side dishes and twice as many cakes and cookies, and you have one overwhelmed 74-year-old. We call her Mom, or - as her friends do - "Glo."

No longer having to host the event, however, seems to have rejuvenated her, though she and Dad still do most of the cooking.

They are helped greatly by my youngest brother, Victor, a newspaper editor in Rhode Island and the best cook among the Alvarez boys. Vic will make the dough for the empanada this year as Mom supervises.

This morning, Mom will have awakened well before dawn, as is her custom whether it's a holiday or not, to begin making thin dough for fluffy anchovy cakes deep-fried in canola oil.

"Ah-leesh" are best right out of the fryer and begin to harden by the time the guests arrive. In a day's time, one risks a capped tooth to bite into one, but it's worth the gamble.

Strict adherence to the Roman Catholic, European custom known in Italy as La Vigilia - "the vigil" - dictates a no-meat fast on the night before Christ's birth.

(For a few Christmas Eves in the 1980s, I brought fresh smelts to fry in the morning. Dad and I ate more of the small, crispy fish - chomped whole in two or three bites - as they came out of the pan than the guests did at dinner.)

Some American Catholics continue to observe the meat prohibition, as my grandparents did once upon a time.

But not many.

And not us. Thus the ham and homemade meatballs and sausage to go with the homemade gnocchi.

In addition to hosting the banquet with his wife, Renee, and their two grown daughters, Danny contributes homemade Spanish sausage - chorizo - which he makes with an Oster meat grinder my father gave him for a long-ago birthday.

Victor will use Danny's specialty to spice a large clay pot of paella, making the fabled Spanish classic about an hour before the guests arrive about 6 p.m.

When we were kids, the only chorizo available were smoked links shipped to Baltimore from New York in tins of lard.

Danny's is fresh and fragrant, and each of us gets a large bag of it each year as a present, the kind best appreciated by those on the far side of making lists for Santa.

I got the recipe from a local Spaniard I wrote about for this newspaper years ago. Danny took it to our grandfather, and they drank wine and argued about the ingredients until the result was close to what Grandpop remembered his mother making from pigs slaughtered on the farm back in Galicia.

My assignment has been to bring fried calamari from Ikaros on Eastern Avenue. When my grandparents were alive, the squid was bought fresh at Broadway Market, cleaned at the stationary tubs in the back of the basement and fried by hand as gallego folk songs spun on a record player set up on my grandmother's washing machine.

Now remember for a moment that I am the guy who needed to get his head around the idea that Christmas Eve was headed to Danny's house, after daydreaming for years about steering this miraculous evening back to Macon Street.

And know that there isn't much in this world that would keep one of us from attending Christmas Eve. Even though I wouldn't have time to be the host, about a week before the holiday last year, I left my union brothers and sisters in Hollywood to organize a WGA rally at the Inner Harbor and be home for the feast.

Aside from a large tray of squid, the only thing Danny asked me to bring was crusty Greek bread from Eastern Avenue; bread sometimes baked in wheels, the kind from which you tear hunks instead of cutting slices. Bread not that easy to find in the suburbs.

I forgot.

So while folks sat down at a table every inch the measure of the one in Stanley Tucci's movie Big Night, I ran around Linthicum trying to find bread worthy of 72 years worth of Christmas memories.

It seemed to take forever, and when I finally arrived with three bags of individually wrapped dinner rolls sold to me for 35 cents each from G&M; Restaurant on Hammonds Ferry Road - I wanted to tell the kid behind the counter to forget the aluminum foil and just throw them in the sack - Danny answered the door with the best Christmas gift of all.

Compassion.

"That's all right, Ralphie," he said, welcoming me inside his warm, beautiful home. "You didn't have to be late just for the bread."

Today, I look forward to having grandchildren to sit with me around Danny's Christmas Eve table for at least another 30 years.

Rafael Alvarez is a former reporter for The Baltimore Sun.

Danny's Homemade Chorizo

(makes 5 dozen medium-to-large sized sausage links) 2 freshly boned pork shoulders or butts, each 5 to 7 pouinds, skinned and ground coarse

2 pounds cured ham, cubed

1 cup cold, filtered water, plus more if needed

1 cup red table win

1/2 cup virgin olive oil

1/2 cup minced garlic

6 tablespoons kosher salt

2 tablespoons crushed red pepper

12 tablespoons Spanish paprika, fresh if possible

1 tablespoon crushed bay leaf

1 tablespoon ground cumin

1 tablespoon ground corlander

pork casings

Place ground meat in a large bowl or tub and mix well with water, wine and olive oil. Add garlic, salt, red and black pepper, mix.

Add paprika, mix. Add remainder of ingredients (except casings) and mix thoroughly, adding more water if necessary. Cover and refrigerate for 2 to 3 days. Remove each day and mix again.

On the third day, stuff meat into pork casings using a grinder/stuffer with a coarse disc. Cubed meat must be ground throughly before entering stuffing tube. Tie sausage every 6 to 8 inches with cotton string.

PER SERVING: 174 calories, 20 grams protein, 9 grams fat, 3 grams saturated fat, 1 gram carbohydrate, 1 gram fiber, 57 milligrams cholesterol, 820 milligrams sodium.

MACON STREET ANCHOVY CAKES

(makes about 5 dozen small cakes)

2 cups warm water

3 tablespoons yeast

1 teaspoon sugar

3 cups flour

enough canola oil to fill a deep fryer two 6-ounce tins of anchovies in oil

In a large bowl, place the warm water and yeast. Mix well; sprinkle in sugar while mixing.

Gradually add flour mixing well until the dough is very soft. Dough should be loose, not much heavier than cake batter.

Place dough in a warm area for 1 hour to rise. Once it has risen, dribble a little canola oil on top to keep your fingers from sticking.

Heat oil in the deep fryer to 375 degrees. Pull a small amount of dough from the bowl and wrap it around an anchovy, folding to make sure fish is completely covered. Deep-fry until golden brown. Place on brown paper to cool.

PER CAKE: 50 calroies, 3 grams protein, 2 grams fat, 0 grams saturated fat, 5 grams carcohydrate, 0 grams fiber, 5 milligrams cholesterol, 208 milligrams sodium

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