I am a super-fan of the Real Housewives of New Jersey. I love their over- the-top personalities, their botched plastic surgeries, and their poor handle on the English language. And, I really connect with their closeness to family and their ethnic Italian heritage. They get my brownie points by teaching and speaking Italian to their children.
Christmas is as big a deal to New Jersey Italian- Americans as it is to Cincinnati German-Americans, so I also identify with that. We German-Americans have as many holiday foods as the Italians do. Today is the Feast of the Epiphany, or 12th Day, when most German-Americans sadly take down their decorations. But to Italian-Americans it’s also the day that La Befana, an old woman who, according to legend, steered the Magi to the Baby Jesus, arrives. She brings gifts and candy to children to put in their shoes, sweeping the house on her way out, or batting bad ones with her dense broom.
Although my family is German, we always had Italian food on Christmas Eve. It was usually a nice lasagna, or meatballs and spaghetti, and usually a green Jell-O salad. Italians on Christmas Eve celebrate the Feast of the Seven Fishes, a tradition of seven fish courses for dinner.
I recently learned of one traditional dishe no Italian-American passes Christmas Eve without having, called scungilli salad. It’s apparently an integral part of the Feast of the Seven Fishes. It’s one of those immigrant dishes like goetta that you can’t find in its exact form back in the Old Country, but has a unique flair of the homeland. It’s a result of immigrant frugality with what’s inexpensive and available in the New World. Take the word, for example. Scungilli is a New Jersey Italian corruption of the Neopolitan dialect word, sconciglio. The characters of the Real Housewives truncate it to ‘scungeel’, like they do ‘mazorell’.
Scungilli is a gastropod or sea snail commonly known as Atlantic conch, murex, or welk. Scungilli are the larger version of the welk, sometimes called channeled or knobbed welk, and typically caught off of Long Island Sound, Cape Cod, and Peconic Bay. Like squid and monkfish once were, they are a by-catch – something that comes in the fishing net while targeting other fish. They’re not in great demand, except in New Jersey and other East Coast Italian communities at Christmas time. And, no one seems to know what they are outside of the New York/New Jersey metro areas.
There’s a company in New Jersey, La Monica Foods, that for four generations since 1923, has cleaned, cooked and canned the sliced scungili specifically for these salads. Some parts of the large welks are tough, so they benefit from being sliced thin. If you get fresh welks/conch/murex you have to purge it of its waste, a two day process, then cook, shuck, and slice them. At first glance of the sliced product, you might think they’re clams or calamari, but the taste is somewhat different. The meat of the larger welks used for scungili are pinkish and chewier than the smaller welks, typically seen at Italian fish markets, which are less chewy and brinier in taste.
For the Feast of Seven Fishes, scungilli can either be served in a peppery tomato sauce with spaghetti or marinated in olive oil and herbs, garlic, celery, olives, beans, and grated cheese. Some chefs in the East Coast have started to integrate the smaller versions into chowders, as fritters or serving them like oversized escargot, with garlic butter and parsley for dipping, but the most popular version is the scungilli salad.
As far as I’m concerned, as long as they keep flipping tables and pulling out each other’s weaves, the Real Housewives of New Jersey can keep eating their weird cheap mollusks for Christmas.