Smelts, Christmas Eve, Zoom, and a Way too Long Story

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I am not going to lie.

This is a tough time of year for me right now because of COVID-19.

No, I am, thankfully, not sick and neither are any of my close loved ones, so I know it could be a lot worse.

But Christmas is a big time of year for my family.

I come from a decent-sized Italian family that has, for all my life, celebrated Christmas together.

At first, it was Christmas Eve at Grandma and Grandpa Rossetti’s – and for the last three years, after my grandmother passed away just shy of her 101st birthday, it has been at my Aunt Phil and Aunt Maria’s – Maria – we don’t really use the whole aunt and uncle thing in our family for whatever reason (it’s always been like that) – moved in with Phil not too long after Grandma died.

On Christmas Eve, we do our own modified version of the “seven fishes” dinner. With mostly fish – baccala, shrimp, tuna fish (in the spaghetti, trust me it is much better than it might sound) to name a few and, of course, smelts. As my cousins and I have grown older, smelts has kind of become our thing.

We gather in the back kitchen – yes it is a true Italian household with a back kitchen – and fry up the smelts while enjoying adult beverages – whisky and ginger ale seems to be quite popular – and eating probably more smelts than make it to the table for the other, mostly older adults to enjoy.

My cousin Vince, the oldest, and his wife April – she may have married into the family but she is just as much of the family as anyone else, that’s the way it works in Italian households – and probably many others – are in charge along with Ron, my cousin Carleen’s husband who is the most Italian looking of all of us – no for real, he could play in “Goodfellas”. They are the ones cooking the smelts.

The rest of us, including my cousin Laura and her husband, John, my brother, Todd, Carleen, to name a few – others of all ages come and go – congregate in the back kitchen, which is really the laundry room and not very big, and stand there and talk, share stories, catch up on the last year and, of course, eat the smelts.

We can’t do that this year. Well, we can’t do it like we are used to doing it. Todd is stuck in Houston, Vince and April in Boston and me in Clarion County all thanks to COVID-19.

But some of us are going to try. And in some ways, the way we are going to try is going to be so 2020.

We are going to do smelts via Zoom.

And while it obviously can’t be the same as being there, it has created its own set of interesting stories, at least for me.

First, you have to buy smelts.

Now, that may be easy in places like Boston for Vince and April or Pittsburgh – where the rest of the family lives. But have you ever gone looking for smelts in rural Pennsylvania? You may as well be looking for Rolls Royces, Chick-Fil-As, or a Steelers win in December. They are non-existent.

I wonder how many even know what I am talking about? Smelts sounds like something the road crew does after paving.

I know many of you right now are rushing to Google – ok none of you are rushing to Google – to find out what smelts are. Basically, it is a small fish. Think the size of an overgrown minnow perhaps. But, man, are they tasty. My mouth is watering just writing about it.

But back to the story.

Buying smelts.

For me to buy smelts, it meant serious planning. It meant making a trip to Pittsburgh to the Strip District and Wholey’s Market – sidenote if you have never been to Wholey’s Market what are you waiting for?

I made this trip near the beginning of December. But going that early meant I needed to get frozen smelts.

Easy enough, right? Well, here is the thing, I had never actually bought smelts to cook before.

Yeah, I love to eat them. But buying them, to cook? Nope. All I ever did was show up and someone else had already done the buying (and the cooking). I just had to do the eating. And that is something I am really good at.

That said, I didn’t think buying them would be much trouble. I mean, it’s just a small fish that comes in a big package.

Haha, the joke is on me.

Did you know you can buy smelts with the heads on and the heads off? Yeah, me neither. Did you know there are freshwater smelts and seawater smelts? Yep, I didn’t either.

I must have looked like an idiot standing in front of the cooler that held the smelts with my mask on for 10 minutes trying to figure out what to buy – I went with the headless smelts by the way but I still can’t tell you if I ended up with the freshwater or seawater (looking on the package as I write this I can’t tell).

So, ok, the smelts were now bought. Now how in the heck do you cook these things?

I mean, I know the general idea. You can put them in oil and then you take them out of the oil and eat them.

But I was also wondering, could I do them in my new Ninja Airfryer. I tried. Don’t. Just don’t. I am going to leave it at that. They weren’t inedible, but they weren’t all that great either.

That’s ok, now I knew that they shouldn’t be done in the air fryer. I knew I was going to have to do them in the oil, on the stove, the old fashioned way.

But what kind of oil? For how long? Do I bread them?

Again, all things I should know but don’t. So, a quick text to Vince was in order. And the good older cousin he is, he quickly sent me back how to cook them. It’s pretty easy actually. Thaw the fish. Mix pepper into the flour. Dredge the fish through the flour mixture, fry in peanut oil until brown. Remove. Salt the fish. Serve.

I haven’t actually done this yet. I am waiting until Christmas Eve and our Zoom party to do so. But it at least sounds easy enough – as long as I remember that when you fry in oil you have to account for displacement. Side story, when I was in college my roommate Doug and I didn’t account for displacement when we went to make fried chicken and flames (ok a small fire) ensued. Thankfully we had a fire extinguisher nearby, but I digress.

I guess what I am trying to say is that I get it. Things aren’t the way we are used to them being. And that’s sad. But we can do things to try to continue to have some semblance of normal even if we would rather be doing something else. Life isn’t always rosy. But sometimes you have to make lemonade out of lemons.

When I wrote the first draft of this column, it was much more depressing than this. But I shared it with Vince. And Vince, the great older cousin he is, said not to make it so depressing but instead to make it about something uplifting.

And just writing about what I am going to do and doing it – and I also made fresh, homemade spaghetti for Christmas Eve as well, something I did in the past – is definitely therapeutic, although my wife tells me if I want therapy to write a journal – you are my journal, lol!

Anyhow, I hope that by me sharing my story, you too will know that you aren’t alone in having things be different this year. And that’s ok. Merry Christmas!