There is no set menu for the southern Italian Christmas Eve tradition called the Feast of the Seven Fishes â and no one seems to know why there are seven. Stumped about what to make for your own feast? Here, a dish for stuffed squid submitted as part of this series on holiday food traditions.
There is no set menu for the southern Italian Christmas Eve tradition called the Feast of the Seven Fishes â and no one seems to know why there are seven. Stumped about what to make for your own feast? Here, a dish for stuffed squid submitted as part of this series on holiday food traditions. iStockphoto.com
Part of an ongoing series on unique holiday dishes
The Feast of the Seven Fishes is an ancient Southern Italian Christmas Eve tradition and can actually feature anywhere from seven to 13 fishes. The feast sprang up as a response to the Roman Catholic Church's decree against eating meat and meat products on certain holy days. The whole season of advent leading up to Christmas was this type of fasting time. So, resourceful Italians turned this fast into feast of fish and seafood — traditionally cooked in oil.
But why the Feast of the SEVEN Fishes? That's not exactly clear: for the seven sacraments, seven virtues — there are all kinds of theories. But whatever the reason, the feast endured, and when Southern Italians began to immigrate to the U.S., the feast came along and became an Italian-American tradition as well.
The southern Italian Christmas Eve tradition known as the Feast of the Seven Fishes has become a tradition for Italian-American families as well.
Cindy Coddington, who grew up with the traditional meal in her family, remembers the day as a whirlwind of family and fry pans.
"Ours was fried shrimp, fried scallops, pan-fried smelts, calamari cut up in rings and fried. And I'll tell you after the holidays, you really couldn't stand the sight of any more fried food...for a while," Coddington says.
Coddington says that while the food didn't look like her friends' Norman Rockwell spreads, everything else that went with the feast said classic Christmas. Except her family's idea of a Christmas carol was a little different.
"Do you know the song "Volare" with Domenico Modugno?" she says. "That song played in the background."
She remembers the day was exciting. "You know, all of your relatives were coming over, your mom was cooking all day. This went on for several hours. We'd stay up until midnight, and that's when presents were exchanged, at midnight," she says. "And that became Christmas."
But today, most people don't have the time to cook the feast or enough extended family to eat it. And that's where restaurants come in. At Island Creek Oyster Bar in Boston, Chef Jeremy Sewall is doing his own version of the feast, featuring items like Jonah crab beignets and tuna crudo. It is not your grandmother's feast, but Sewall says he's not trying to co-opt tradition. He's trying to keep it alive.
"I think it's fun to bring it into the restaurant sometimes, but I think preserving the home tradition is important as well," Sewall says.
And Coddington agrees. She likes to see a creative take on the feast, but she'd still like to see it come back home someday. Every year, she still gives a nod to it in her home by serving at least one fish on Christmas Eve.