The Holiday Pasta Dish I Only Eat Once a Year

published Dec 19, 2019
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Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

There’s one dish that I love supremely, above all others, yet I only eat once a year. And that’s despite the fact that most of the time I have the stuff to make the dish in my pantry (because they’re some of my favorite ingredients). And despite the fact that said ingredients are cheap and easy to find. And despite the fact that the flavor combination is so good that I could write about it for, well, at least for the length of this essay.

I’m talking about a dish that my family makes every year for the Feast of the Seven Fishes, or that particularly Italian-American Christmas Eve tradition with an unclear history but a very delicious present. The “feast” might have origins in Southern Italy, but its name was adopted in America, and the general idea is that you eat anywhere from seven to a billion different types of fish as a way to celebrate the impending Christmas holiday. We’ve done it ever since I can remember, and the same goes for my parents, who both come from at least half Italian American households.

In my family, the star course has also always been its most peasantly: spaghetti with olive oil, garlic, red chile flakes, good ol’ canned black olives, and anchovies (a fish!). We serve it after we’ve already eaten shrimp, steamed clams, and lobster bisque, but before we have our “main course” of baked scallops and scrod, served with baccala (salt cod) on the side for good measure. So even though the pasta falls sort of in the middle-end of the meal, it’s the course I look forward to most for the sheer pleasure of eating it.

Eating this dish is truly a delight. Because of the briny anchovies and olives, and the slick of olive oil, the pasta smacks with umami. And like I said above, it’s not like making the dish is difficult and/or expensive. We don’t use anything remotely fancy in our version: any old tinned anchovy in olive oil will do, and we eschew gourmet olives for the canned sort you can find on any grocery store shelf. We don’t even know exactly where the dish came from — all we know is that my grandmother on my dad’s side made it every Christmas Eve, so we keep doing it.

So why don’t I make it for myself more often? Well, I think it’s because the entire meal is more about tradition than it is about the particular dishes themselves. My father and I have a ritual of going to the same seafood market on Christmas Eve morning, often shivering in line outside the storefront with the rest of the Italian Americans stocking up for their feast. And even though we’ll point at and talk about whatever fish is available, we always know that we’re getting the exact same order as the year before. And the year before that. And the year before that. You get the gist.

And look: I can think of plenty of ways to make the Christmas Eve spaghetti better, given its simplicity. Some toasted breadcrumbs sprinkled over the top would add a nice bit of texture. Better olives (like my actual favorites, nutty green Castelvetrano) would give it even more depth of flavor. And hey, while we’re at it, why not add a flurry of lemon zest to balance out the rich olive oil with a punch of brightness? Let’s get wild!

But adding to the dish would make it something other than my family tradition, something other than the pasta I start to dream about the day after Thanksgiving. It would make twirling the noodles a little less exciting. The garlicky, salty flavors would taste more muted. So even though I’m going to share the recipe with you, I suggest you only make it once a year too.

At Kitchn, our editors develop and debut brand-new recipes on the site every single week. But at home, we also have our own tried-and-true dishes that we make over and over again — because quite simply? We love them. Kitchn Love Letters is a series that shares our favorite, over-and-over recipes.