Five Curious Culinary Christmas Customs


How about some eels for Christmas dinner? Get ’em on Metropolitan Avenue in Williamsburg.

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.

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.


3. Edam Cheese (Philippines) — In the Philippines — the only Roman Catholic country in Asia — Christmas is widely and tumultuously celebrated. Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve is a family affair, and on the day itself three surprising delicacies are served, all legacies of Spanish colonial rule. The first is Dutch edam cheese, which comes in a wax-covered bola, or ball. This was the only dairy product that could successfully weather a long ocean voyage in the early colonial era. The second is hot chocolate, first imported into the Philippines from Mexico by the Spanish. The third is jamon, which is similar to Serrano ham or prosciutto.

2. Caga Tio (Catalonia, Spain) – Beginning on December 8, the start of the Christmas season, a hollowed-out log called Caga Tio (“Pooping Log”) is painted with a face, propped up on stick “legs,” and covered with a blanket, so he doesn’t catch cold. Every day he is lectured and cajoled, until Christmas Eve. At this point, he is thrown in a hot fire and beaten with a stick, to make him poop out various seasonal food treats, including candy, nuts, and cottage cheese. The last thing he poops is a head of garlic, onion, or salted fish. Sound like an episode of Ren & Stimpy?

1. Christmas in colonial New York — Hard as it may be to believe, Christmas was not a particularly popular holiday in New York and New England. Though celebrated by Catholics and Episcopalians, Protestants — who were in the majority — eschewed it. According to Richard J. Hooker in Food & Drink in America, “not only were the schools kept open, but most Protestants ostentatiously went about their usual business on Christmas.” By the 19th century, Christmas was more universally observed, and the most opulent culinary displays occurred in hotel dining rooms. Hooker recounts how the Galt House in Louisville, Kentucky, offered a feast in 1856 that included saddle of venison, rib of bear “with fancy sause,” wild turkey, stuffed red-head duck, wood duck with hunter’s sauce, wild goose, bridge of buffalo tongue, arcade of pheasants, four soups, two fish, 15 vegetables, and Charlotte Russe for dessert, for a charge of 50 cents. And New York hotels offered feasts just as extravagant. Sadly, there’s nothing quite like it in New York today.