'Saveur' Magazine Examines How The Feast Of The 7 Fishes Started
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
We're coming up to Christmas Eve soon, and there's this tradition that I get to experience every single year. I married into an Italian-American family. And my Italian-American father-in-law makes the Feast of the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve. I have always wondered where this tradition comes from and what exactly are these Seven Fishes. And I've never really gotten a clear answer from my family, so I thought I would turn to an expert. She is Italian-American. She's also the executive editor of Saveur magazine. It is Stacy Adimando, and we spoke yesterday.
So Stacy, can you answer the question that the Italian-American family I married into can never answer? What is this tradition, the Feast of the Seven Fishes? Where does it come from?
STACY ADIMANDO: (Laughter) All right. Well, I'm going to say upfront that it does have murky origins. But...
ADIMANDO: ...What we do know is that the feast is a Christmas Eve celebration. So Italian-Americans classically have celebrated this with an abundance of fish. The idea is that you abstain from eating meat, in the Roman Catholic tradition, on the days leading up to holiday. So obviously, an abundance of fish was a great replacement for that. But we're not sure exactly where the number seven came from.
GREENE: So there's no official list somewhere that people keep that, you know...
ADIMANDO: No, I wish there was.
GREENE: ...That these are the seven fishes.
ADIMANDO: If there is out there, can someone let me know?
ADIMANDO: Basically, people have gotten a little bit wishy-washy on how many fish are served. If you get around seven, I think it's generally exciting. And if you want to go up to 12, some people do 12. But they think it might be the seven sacraments or the seven days of the week. I mean, there are a lot of theories out there, but I don't think anyone really knows for sure where the seven came from.
GREENE: OK. Well, I feel better. It's not some secret that I wasn't in on.
Is it hard to find seven - or even 12 - different types of fish to make on Christmas Eve?
ADIMANDO: Well, it depends. I mean, for some people, they've been celebrating this tradition for so many generations that they have their go-to. Right? So you know you're going to incorporate, for many families, it's bacalao, which is the salt cod. We don't do that in my family. And I think a lot of people - you know, it's a very polarizing ingredient, so you either love it or hate it.
ADIMANDO: But that's very popular in Italian-American families and Italian families on Christmas Eve. A lot of Italian families will also eat eel in some form. It's a little bit less common here in the States. And then it can be anything from small fish like anchovy or even tuna that you can sort of work into dishes. You can serve raw oysters or shrimp cocktail to kind of up your number. Or you can mix in a number of fish into one dish. So we do that in a chilled seafood salad. It's got scungilli - they call it - or conch. It's got some shrimp in it, some calamari sliced up. Or people might do the same with a pasta and mix multiple kinds of seafood into one dish. So there are ways to be sneaky and get the count up.
GREENE: You said about salt cod that not everyone likes it. I feel like you could say the same thing about anchovies. Like, is this a meal that some people in some families are just going to be like, I don't want any of this?
GREENE: Just count me out, and give me some pasta.
ADIMANDO: I guess. I'm so unfamiliar with that. But of course, there have to be families out there that don't love seafood. And you know, there's a tradition for everybody. But in Italy, you know, especially from, I'd say, around Rome to the south of Italy, every family is eating fish on Christmas Eve. This was a tradition where - that led back to fish, at a certain point, being so abundant that it was considered almost a meager food. So this was sort of a cuisine of the poor compared to meat. So on Christmas Eve, they were trying to be fasting in a way, and that would be a little bit more of a meager meal.
But of course, they go over the top. In Italy, the tradition is called vigilia, so it's the vigil night. Some describe it as a never-ending feast of seafood. And they, you know, also serve a number of fried vegetables. There's fried potatoes, fried artichokes. There might be fried squash blossoms, little pickled vegetables, all kinds of things. So it's a bit of an over-the-top feast that probably has something for everybody.
GREENE: So seafood is a big deal the night before Christmas in Italy. But is the Seven Fishes? Like, is that a tradition in Italy, or is that more of an American thing?
ADIMANDO: So the fascinating part - and I think so many Italian-Americans can relate to this - we all have been celebrating this for years and assuming that it must have come from our relatives in Italy at some point.
ADIMANDO: But my research, talking to a number of Italians - be they food writers, chefs, food experts from all parts of the country - they all had never heard of the Seven Fishes before.
GREENE: In Italy?
ADIMANDO: Nope, never heard of it. One chef actually told me that she had to look it up on Wikipedia to see what the Seven Fishes was.
GREENE: What are these Italian-Americans doing? We don't do this here in Italy.
ADIMANDO: Yeah. And I think...
ADIMANDO: ...What happened was it is an interpretation of the vigilia dinner, which also, again, is an abundance of seafood. But somehow, it got translated to seven. And people in America have celebrated and stuck with the seven. So...
GREENE: Does that tell us something about - I don't know - Italian-American culture versus Italian culture in some sort of larger sense?
ADIMANDO: Ooh, I don't know there, David. You're getting pretty deep. I will say that the thing that is carried over is the abstinence from meat and the celebration of the vigil night. We all hold that in common, whether you're actually Italian or Italian-American. But you know, one food expert I interviewed said the seven fishes is about as Italian as veal parmigiana, which is not at all.
GREENE: Which is not really Italian.
GREENE: ...But you can get at almost any Italian-American restaurant.
ADIMANDO: Exactly. And she actually said that in Italy, if you had told somebody on Christmas Eve that there were only going to be seven fish dishes, they'd say - well, where's all the food?
GREENE: Not enough. Well - so do you do this in your family? You do the...
ADIMANDO: Oh, yes.
GREENE: ...Feast of the Seven Fishes every Christmas Eve?
ADIMANDO: We do. We do. And it takes a number of days to prepare, so it's sort of a love-hate relationship with all the cooks in the family. You know, just cleaning the seafood alone takes a few days. And it can cost you. It can be a little bit of expensive seafood. But also, there are ways to sort of stretch it. We stretch it by having a pasta course. That obviously fills everybody up. We do a lot of the shellfish stuffed, so we'll stuff it with breadcrumbs and garlic and olive oil. And that kind of helps it go a little bit longer and fill people up as well. So part of the fun is the tradition of standing around and doing it all together.
GREENE: All right. I'm going to finish with two questions, like a lightning round - weirdest, most unique seafood dish you've ever served at this?
ADIMANDO: Ooh. Well, I think that a lot of people find the scungilli salad to be kind of odd. I mean, we buy canned conch. (Laughter) You know, it's sort of a rubbery, chewy, gray-colored fish. But it's delicious and actually really tender and carries the flavor of the marinade well. And then that also has blanched calamari - so it's got the legs and the bodies of the squid - and some shrimp and a bunch of chopped celery, lemon, parsley. I mean, I love it. It's one of my favorite dishes. It's got a little bit of a pickle-y (ph) note to the marinade.
GREENE: Yeah, my father-in-law has made that. And I love it, too. OK. And then what's your favorite dish to make?
ADIMANDO: Oh, my favorite dish to make not only on this day but any day of any time of the year is linguini and clams. So in my family, we shuck the clams by hand and actually harvest all the fresh juices from them, and that becomes the sauce for the pasta. So we probably make five or six pounds of pasta to feed not that many of us (laughter). I think everybody ends up eating three-quarters of a pound of pasta. But...
GREENE: Sounds perfect.
ADIMANDO: ...It's so good and succulent and saucy. Yeah, it's perfect.
GREENE: All right. Well, thank you for - I guess you didn't exactly answer the question about this feast, what it is. But you did better than anyone in the world could, so we really appreciate it, Stacy.
ADIMANDO: We got as close as we're going to. Thanks so much.
GREENE: We sure did. Have a great holiday.
ADIMANDO: You, too.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BUON NATALE A TUTTO IL MONDO")
DOMENICO MODUGNO: (Singing) Buon Natale...
GREENE: We were talking to Stacy Adimando. She's executive editor of Saveur magazine. And you can read her piece about the Feast of the Seven Fishes in the latest issue.
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