Christmas memory: Dickens, Della and baccala salad in Vermont

By Rafael Alvarez
©2020 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Charles Dickens arrived for his second reading tour of America just before Thanksgiving 1867. The crush of reporters and fans in New England — with some trying to tear a handful of fur from his coat — was not unlike the Beatles landing in New York in 1964.

Fish in a dollhouse, in a lesser known work by Dickens

Known as “the inimitable,” Dickens first came to the States in 1842 and briefly visited Burlington, pronouncing the town on the shores of Lake Champlain “a perfectly exquisite achievement of neatness, elegance, and order.”

A quarter-century later in Boston, Dickens read “A Christmas Carol,” still a smash hit some four years after its initial publication in London. The well-worn story has been adapted so many times (don’t you love Scrooge McDuck?) that some folks think Bill Murray invented the honcho of humbug.

But the message is evergreen, exclusive to none and applicable to all: That which is not given away is lost …

It is said that one of the Boston readings was attended by a well-to-do couple from Vermont. And, after listening to Dickens perform the redemption story, returned to the Green Mountain State with a gift for their factory workers: the day off for Christmas. 

As the ghost of Marley cried, wringing his hands: “Mankind was my business!”

Della Compitello, the late grandmother of Madeleine Bodin of Andover, kept the holiday tradition of baccala salad, made with salt cod

“A Christmas Carol” is far and away the best known of the many stories Dickens wrote about the season of Christ’s birth. Though sincere in his beliefs, having borne the lash of poverty as a child, Dickens was no saint. In wake of the Scrooge phenomenon, his Yuletide schtick had become a money maker.

In a tale from 1850 titled “A Christmas Tree,” the author’s gift for detail falls upon a doll house. In the tiny kitchen, “a plentiful assortment of diminutive utensils—oh, the warming–pan! And a tin man–cook in profile, who was always going to fry two fish.”

If the story had been set in Naples instead of London, the little man would have been Madeline Bodin’s great-grandmother. And in the pan — salted cod, known throughout the Mediterranean as baccala.

For nothing prompts memory more powerfully than the scent of something we have known all our lives.

And Bodin would have been able to smell it across the miles and down through the years.

Baccala always on Christmas Eve,” says Bodin, 57, a Vermonter-by-way-of New York, an American with Italian heritage going back to Naples and all eight of her great-grandparents.

Della’s classic recipe. For more about Mangia Bene Pasta click the name.

Bodin made the classic, passed-down-through-the-generations dish on Christmas Eve last year. But this year, there will be no in-gathering of far-flung relatives at her house and no baccala.

When she does journey through meals past, Bodin consults “The Foods that Make Us Family,” a collection of recipes from her maternal grandmother, the late Delphina Necco Compitello, known as Della.

“Everything goes back to Delphina and [her husband] Alfred’s table,” says Bodin, a feast that in this country began in Flatbush, Brooklyn before heading out to Long Island and the extended Compitello family’s eventual dispersal across the continent.

There are two recipes for cod in Della’s book, dictated to Bodin’s sister, Jean. One is with a red sauce and the other, considered more of a Compitello classic, a cold baccala salad. The salad recipe is simple, the beauty of it in a phrase that rings with Della’s voice: “Buy fish in a reliable store.”

Easily done? Think again. You never drove Della around New York the week before Christmas for just the right piece of dried, salted cod. You can’t wait until the last minute for a recipe in which the key ingredient soaks in a tub for three days and the water needs to be changed twice a day.

“My sister and I took turns driving my grandmother from fish store to fish store,” says Bodin. Only when Della was satisfied could the cooking begin, which she did at least once in Vermont with baccala salad on visits to Madeline.

“I thought to myself, ‘Where am I going to find baccala in Vermont?’ ” says Bodin, who moved to the state with her husband in 1993. “I went to the fish counter at Shaw’s [in Springfield] and said, ‘Please sir, I need dried cod. It’s very important.’ ”

To which the man pointed to a shelf and said, “It’s right there.”

[The sweet vinegar peppers, however, were not to be found nearby. Bodin orders them from Pastene Foods in Canton, Mass.]

The salt cod was once delivered to stores in wooden boxes and now, according to Shaw’s store director Mike MacLenna, comes in bags, on sale through the New Year at $5.99 a pound.

The demand for salt cod, said MacLenna — who will be making crab cakes on Christmas Eve — “has waned over the years.” Still it remains celebrated in music, including in this famous song by Louis Prima performed by Jack Freezone & the Swingin’ Ciccioli. (click video to listen).

The cod carried by Shaw’s comes from Sea Star Seafoods of Clark’s Harbour, Nova Scotia.

With each succeeding generation, it seems, ethnic families in America move a dish or two further away from the traditions their ancestors brought with them for a better life beyond the horizon.

“I’m making scampi with shrimp and sea scallops this Christmas Eve,” says Bodin, who will be joined by her husband and two grown children. “My son will probably eat a frozen pizza.”

Frozen pizza on Christmas Eve?

As Scrooge might say, well, you know what Scrooge would say.

It’s better to let Delphina have the last word: “Buon Natale!”

Rafael Alvarez spent more than 20 years on the City Desk of the Baltimore Sun before leaving the paper in 2001 to work as a laborer on merchant ships.  

A former staff writer for the HBO drama “The Wire,” Alvarez is the author of many books, including the short story collection “Basilio Boullosa Stars in the Fountain of Highlandtown.”

He is the father of Sofia Alvarez, a 2007 graduate of Bennington College. He can be reached via He writes from Baltimore, where, on Christmas Eve, his Italian grandmother baked red snapper covered with lemon slices.

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  1. R. Hoffman says:

    For us its oysters either as oyster stew or scalloped oysters is the tradition — German- Scotch-Irish background. When we are able to share the holiday with my wife’s sister, it’s a full seven fishes meal. Yes, Italian heritage there. Happy Holidays all!!