Pennsylvania was a leading state in developing heavy industries in the late 19th century such as coal, iron and steel, railroads, and cement and glass. These industries hired huge numbers of new immigrants, especially Italians and Poles, who filled the need for large numbers of men who were eager to accept unskilled low paying jobs. Immigrants also composed a large percentage of the work force of other smaller industries in Pennsylvania.
So many Italians headed to Pennsylvania that by 1890 their population was the second highest in the United States. Between 1880 and World War I more than four million Italians immigrated to the United States. Eighty percent of them were southern Italians. In Pennsylvania, over 70% of Italians who came moved to the mid-size and smaller industrial towns scattered throughout the state. Italians settled in the soft coal fields of southwestern Pennsylvania, as well as in the eastern Anthracite towns of Pittston, Shamokin, Hazleton, and Nanticoke, to name only a few and in the industrial towns of Reading, Scranton, and Allentown.
The ancient tradition of eating fish on Christmas Eve dates from the Roman Catholic custom of abstinence from meat and dairy products on the eve of certain holidays, including Christmas. As many Italians are Catholic, Christmas is one of the most important holidays to them and one of their traditions involves eating 7 different seafood dishes on Christmas Eve. The number seven is rooted back in ancient times and it can be connected to multiple Catholic symbols. Flash forward to the early 1900s, when the official “Feast of the Seven Fishes” first emerged.
Italian-American families rekindled the Old Country’s Christmas Eve tradition by preparing a seven-course seafood meal that both made them feel close to their homes, while celebrating the sea, a major connection in Italy. Today, it’s considered one of the oldest Italian traditions. Many of the dishes will differ from family to family, however, one dish is usually included – Baccala.
Baccala for Christmas Eve
- Marinara Sauce
2 – 28 ounce cans whole tomatoes, lightly drained then crushed with a fork
1 large onion, chopped
4 leaves basil, torn
1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped
4 or 5 large potatoes, quartered, boiled, and hot
2 pound or so fresh baccala, rinsed thoroughly OR dried (If you use the dried variety of baccala that has been preserved in salt, you will need to soak it before using, changing water frequently. Note this is the better of the two for flavor and preferred.)
1 can un-pitted black olives
- For marinara, In bottom of large sauce pan, saute onion in small amount of oil. Add remainder of ingredients and simmer about 30 minutes.
- When sauce is ready, cut your fish in large pieces. Carefully drop them in the sauce (they should be covered by the sauce). Sprinkle with black pepper.
- Poach until fish almost flakes; surround fish with hot potatoes.
- Top all with black olives and continue cooking until fish flakes.
- Serve immediately.
- Add additional salt at the table if needed; baccala usually has a lot of of its own. For those with a spicy appetite, a little red pepper can be offered at the table.
- This recipe is adapted for today’s cooks from “Treasured Italian Recipes“, 1989