Bouillabaisse: Another ancestral clue

Sepia Saturday 400: First post of the New Year!

The winter holiday season brings to mind memories of time spent with family and the importance of paying attention to those small family history clues that emerge in the most unlikely ways this time of year.

Buouillabaisse. Not until this year did I realized that this French seafood stew might also be linked to my mom’s Italian heritage. Her recipe calls for oysters, but I often substitute mussels as shown here. By: Blue moon in her eyes

Whether sitting before a fireplace or gathered around a dinner table, many of us feel nostalgia for winter-season family traditions — and taking the time to examine them can enrich our family story.

An ethnic blend

Recipe for Peg (Laurence) Charboneau’s Bouillabaisse

Ingredients: 1 package frozen shrimp (shelled and cleaned), 1/2 cup salad oil, 1 large onion (thinly sliced), 1 clove garlic (finely cut), a large 1-pound can of peeled tomatoes, 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice, 3 strips lemon peel, 2 bay leaves, 1/4 teaspoon black pepper (coarsely ground), 8 whole cloves, 1.5 teaspoons salt, 3 cups fish broth, 2 pounds fish filets (fresh or frozen), 12 oysters, 1 can Maine lobster (6 oz.), 1/4 sherry, 1 fresh lemon (thinly sliced).

Preparation: Cook shrimp according to directions on package. To make fish broth, save cooking water from shrimp, add liquid from oysters, add water to make 3 cups. Heat oil in saucepan, and sauté onion and garlic until tender. Stir in tomatoes, lemon juice, lemon peel, bay leaves, pepper, cloves, salt, fish broth and simmer about 30 minutes. Cut fish filets in 2-inch pieces and add to soup mixture. Simmer 8 minutes. Drop in oysters and simmer 3 min, or until edges curl. Add and blend in lobster, shrimp and sherry.

Serve: Garnish with sliced lemon and serve hot with crusty French bread and green salad.

In my case, the tradition was my mother serving bouillabaisse on Christmas Eve.

I’m not sure when she began to annually prepare the lucious seafood stew — but I think it was during the 1960s when we lived in the suburbs near Binghamton, N.Y.

My mom Peg (Laurence) Charboneau was a basic meat-and-potatoes cook.

Despite her German-Italian heritage, her closest brush with ethnic dinner cuisine was making spaghetti and meatballs — though pretty much everyone on our block ate that too, regardless of cultural background.

As Catholics, we did not eat meat on Friday — which often meant an easy-to-prepare fish sticks dinner that we children loved!

Christmas Eve was also a meatless day — and one year my mom decided to make bouillabaisse and serve our family dinner on the good china.

The meal was a hit —  but consuming the fascinating fish stew with it’s surprise ingredients seemed more connected to my dad Norm Charboneau’s French heritage than my mom’s.

Or so I thought until recently.

An Italian tradition

While holiday food shopping this year, I stopped at an in-store popup where the staff was serving little samples of fish stew.

“Pretty good,” I thought and took the recipe card. Imagine my surprise when I read that eating fish stew on meatless days was an Italian tradition!

I immediately recalled my mom’s bouillabaisse dinners and realized she may have been reprising a tradition passed on by her Italian-American extended family when she was growing up.

Where my mom got the recipe I don’t know, but one year I asked her for a copy — which I hand wrote on a blank staff pad that Mom, a school music educator, used to compose music.

I have prepared my mom’s recipe many times since — never imagining an Italian heritage connection until now. Her recipe is reproduced here for you to enjoy with family and loved ones.

May the heady seafood aromas remind you of those subtle but precious ancestral clues that may come wafting up during the holiday season and in the New Year.

Stop back for another new post next week. Meanwhile, please visit the blogs of this week’s other Sepia Saturday participants here.

© 2018 Molly Charboneau. All rights reserved.

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12 thoughts on “Bouillabaisse: Another ancestral clue”

  1. Molly,
    “Beautifully written as usual” (quoting Jane) indeed! How wonderful to find family clues in memories of holiday traditions.

  2. Thanks, everyone, for your supportive and insightful comments. So sorry some of you don’t or can’t eat seafood — but a nice, tomatoey marinara sauce over a steaming bowl of pasta might also work for eliciting family memories on a cold, winter night. For those of you who try this recipe, bon appétit from my mom and me.

  3. Molly, I just loved this story…and it’s beautifully written–as usual! First–those fish sticks!! Decades of fish sticks…Friday Night Specials in our Catholic household too.

    I also have one of those treasured hand-written recipes–from my paternal grandmother, Agnes Tupper Latour…for her biscuits that she used to make for strawberry shortcake–so delicious!

    And then that Italian discovery! I learned way into my middle years that our what I had thought was a totally French heritage also had an Italian connection–a great-great grandmother on my maternal side…lovely! Keep the stories coming…

  4. I love your post with a delicious sounding recipe and the family stories connecting it to your traditions.
    I’ve never tried this, but as I love fish (except for the oysters part), I think I need to at least sample it and possibly try a pot myself.
    Thanks for sharing with us!

    1. Thanks, Trisha. I usually replaced the oysters with mussels, which look just great in their dark shells when they pop open. Tasty, too!

  5. The dish looks appetizing in print, but would not appeal to me unfortunately as I don’t like fish. Well, that’s not entirely true. I like crab & shrimp with dipping sauce, lobster with melted butter, & scallops, abalone, and fish sticks breaded and deep fried. But I’ve never liked fish in a stew – well except for clams in Boston chowder. Hmmm? I seem to have a lot of “excepts”. Oh well. Our family has a Christmas breakfast tradition: strawberries and whipped cream atop a Dutch Baby Pancake (milk, flour, & eggs.)

  6. How delightful…says one who has never eaten this dish. So it’s maybe something to have in the new year. I love how the French dish became Italian in the roots of your family.

  7. Food is maybe the link to more generations than memory. I know my wife’s cooking stretches back to her English/Jewish heritage . And my mother, though not a cook, has a long memory for the taste of country cooking traced back to her mother’s Maryland country roots.

    As for bouillabaisse , I got a taste for it in my first job out of high school, when I worked as an apprentice cook in a semi-sophisticated hotel restaurant. After a couple of months I thought I had mastered the recipe for bouillabaisse and tried to duplicate it at home for my folks. I failed miserably as i had learned nothing about recipe proportions, or seasoning taste, or cooking methods. Shortly afterwards I gave up that career for music, which generally doesn’t cause an upset stomach.

  8. My mother used to serve shrimp bisque on Christmas Eve. It used to be sold in the frozen food section of grocery stores, but I haven’t seen it since the 1960s. I have been missing it since then! Most recipes are too involved for a lazy cook like me. Your post inspired me to find a “Simple Shrimp Bisque Recipe” online that I am eager to try.

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