Using their keen eyesight, octopi stare at the world from two beady eyes. They maneuver through the sea with four pairs of bilaterally symmetrical arms that bear suction cups. They possess a hard beak — similar to that of a parrot, the only hard part about them — and as cephalopods, they squeeze into and out of tight places, helpful when fleeing moray eels and other predatory fish. Three hearts pump and heat blood that circulates through an octopus' system, and they have demonstrated both short- and long-term memory and problem-solving skills in mazes and in other experiments administered by biologists.
None of these amazing facts about octopi and their squid cousins holds any meaning to an Italian family, however. Especially on Christmas Eve.
Octopi are simply one of the seven, nine, 11 or 13 fishes that constitute the traditional Christmas Eve "feast of the fishes" dinner. If one is not Italian or hasn't grown up with the tradition — such as my uncle Harry Stein from Highlandtown, when he married my Aunt Eleanor (nee Cucco) from Little Italy 55 years ago — the sight of sections of octopus arms and squid tentacles entwined around shrimp and scallops, mussels and clams, chunks of cod and lumps of crab and nestled in between olives and capers in the traditional fruit of the sea salad can look like an unfolding horror movie.
Despite Uncle Harry's love of zombies, werewolves, vampires, boogeymen and all kinds of characters that go bump in the night, a nightmare of weird food must have been what Uncle Harry, a Polish-German World War II veteran, faced during his first traditional feast of the fishes dinner on the Christmas Eve that came a mere eight months after marrying into the family. The appetite for the ghoulish diminishes when presented with expectations to consume such odd foods within the context of being the new in-law. When my sister married her non-Italian man, he announced during one of the holidays early in their marriage that the potato pasta lumps we know and love as gnocchi looked like "baby aliens." For Uncle Harry, however, pasta — or gnocchi — appeared to be a benign introduction to cultural differences. Octopus, another matter.
"He didn't like fish to begin with," Aunt Eleanor says. "He looked at the octopus and simply said, 'I'm not eating that!'" He refused to touch the delicacy. But he couldn't avoid the smell of it.
Pungent octopus odor permeated the entire house. My grandmother soaked the octopus in the sink in the basement kitchen before boiling it. The powerful, fishy fragrance rose from the basement like one of the suctioned-cupped arms and smothered everyone with the inescapable knowledge that octopi were in the house.
They were married in May, and by December, the subtle push and pull between cultural differences had already begun, with Italian cuisine becoming the stronger contender. "When we first got married, Uncle Harry wanted Polish foods like pirogi — which are like raviolis but filled with potato or sauerkraut and sauteed in butter and onions. And he wanted gwumpkies: cabbage rolls stuffed with ground meat and rice," Aunt El says.
She learned to make both dishes, and she learned how to make sour beef and dumplings because she noticed that whenever they went to dinner at Hausner's Restaurant, he always ordered it. "The pirogis were easy to make because they were like raviolis," she says. "And Mrs. Bladderman gave me her recipe for the sour beef and dumplings." But over time, pirogis, gwumpkies and sour beef and dumplings became specialty dishes that my aunt cooked and served on occasions, but not regular fare.
Aunt Eleanor accepted Uncle Harry's refusal to eat the octopus and squid, and simply went about her pre-Christmas preparations. This included going to confession at St. Leo's Church before the Christmas Eve Mass. "I have no idea what happened while I was in church, but when I returned home, there was Harry with a plate of octopus in front of him, and he ate all of it. He cleaned the plate. After that, he looked forward to the seafood salad every Christmas."
Octopi or not, Uncle Harry loved Christmas. He took great care decorating the tree each year, often acquiring new decorations. One year, the perfection of the Christmas tree met with a challenge. Jeannie, their middle daughter then a 2-year-old toddler, climbed out of her crib early Christmas morning and headed straight for the tree while everyone else slept. The tree toppled, its trunk barely missing her.
"We heard the tree crash. The noise woke us up. We went running, and there was Jeannie under the fallen tree, it's branches covering her while she played quietly with whatever object grabbed her attention, unfazed by the fact that the tree fell down around her," Aunt Eleanor says. She and my uncle both knew then how lucky they were that the only things broken were a few Christmas balls and lights.
Their most exciting addition to the holiday decorations proved to be a Cold War-esque train. "We always got a real tree and everything had to be perfect," Aunt Eleanor says. With the acquisition of the train, Uncle Harry built a train garden beneath the tree so that his growing brood of daughters could enjoy the site of the Lionel-sized train chugging around the miniature town he'd erected beneath the evergreen. "On one of the trains sat a miniature rocket. At set intervals as the train went around the track, the rocket would lift to a point, emit a small pop and the entire train would derail," she says. "And then we'd put it back together and back on the track so it could run again."
From Christmas to Christmas, their tree grew more ornate as their daughters increased in number and age, and then less so with the substitution of an artificial tree after the girls grew older, moved out and began their own families. Uncle Harry's career path evolved over the years too, from the shipping industry where he started out to an array of private companies in the city and finally the Baltimore City Department of General Services.
Italian traditions prevail: Octopi hold their place in the customary fruit of the sea salad. This year, the first in more than half a century, Uncle Harry did not participate in the feast of the fishes dinner on Christmas Eve, having lost his battle to cancer Nov. 1. He leaves behind a sense of adventure in his decision to eat odd, seemingly nightmarish foods — a reminder to keep an open mind about how the possibilities around us might hold great surprise and delight. He also leaves behind the notion that the balls and lights on the Christmas tree and the wrapped presents beneath it are not the real gifts of Christmas. Instead, the real gifts lie in what we do, how we stretch ourselves to show our love for others by doing those things that we know will bring them happiness.
And, like Uncle Harry's train purposefully derailing at intervals as it chugged around the track under the Christmas tree, he leaves us with the lesson that the best any of us can do is simply to decide that loving each other means doing new and different things, to keep putting ourselves back together again, continuing our journey around the tracks of our lives, and repeating the process each time we become derailed.
Rosalia Scalia, a Baltimore writer, is an assistant editor for Narrative Magazine whose writing has won several awards and prizes and has appeared in numerous literary magazines. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org and her website is http://www.rosaliascalia.com.