Ah, the traditional Christmas dinner – salt cod, squid, eel, clams with pasta.
What, you were expecting ham, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, and Jell-O salad? Not at a traditional Italian-American table where the Feast of the Seven Fishes crowns the holiday.
Why have fish for Christmas? Two reasons: religion and economics.
In accordance with medieval Roman Catholic tradition, meat was not to be consumed on Fridays and specific holy days, including during Advent, the four weeks leading up to Christmas. Generations of Italians grew up observing these restrictions, eating fish instead of meat.
Italians have never been huge meat eaters to begin with. Pork and chicken have always been around, with beef making some dietary inroads in the last century, but seafood has long been the staple of Italian cuisine. Something about being a peninsula surrounded by water, I suppose. This was especially true in the impoverished southern regions of Italy, which is where Festa dei Sette Pesci, also known as La Vigilia, is thought to have started.
Originally, it was a part of the Vigilia di Natale, the watch kept in anticipation of the midnight birth of the Christ child. Although not as widely observed in Italy as it once was, the tradition emigrated to the United States and is now commonly celebrated in Italian-American homes. Of course, what was once a simple meal for the poor in Italy can come at quite a price on contemporary American tables.
Because it is part of La Vigilia, and therefore still under the fasting restrictions imposed by Advent, the Feast of the Seven Fishes actually takes place on Christmas Eve rather than on Christmas Day. (Advent ends at midnight on Christmas Eve.) And there are numerous variations. As the name would imply, the feast usually consists of seven different fish and seafood dishes. Some traditions hold that the number “seven” is relative to the number of sacraments in the Catholic Church. Others believe that seven represents the perfect number: the Holy Trinity plus the four compass points of the Earth combine to represent God on Earth in the form of Jesus Christ. Still more theories abound: Creation took seven days; Mary and Joseph's trip to Bethlehem lasted seven days; the Seven Hills of Rome. Take your pick.
However, among some Italian-American families the feast more often than not expands to include anywhere between eight and thirteen dishes. Some families serve ten dishes in reference to the ten Stations of the Cross. Others prepare thirteen as representative of the twelve disciples, plus Jesus.
Regardless of the religious significance or the exact number of dishes, the menu items are usually similar, beginning with Baccalà. Baccalà is salt cod, usually sold by the slab, and it is a staple in Southern Italy. It can be prepared in a million different ways ranging from boiled, fried,or grilled, to being served in a creamy white sauce or a stew. It is probably the most consistent item among the various festa menus.
Calamari, or squid, is another essential holiday seafood item, and eels are indispensable in many Italian-American homes. Octopus, smelt, sardines, anchovies, shrimp, mussels, oysters, and clams are also popular. Some families incorporate snapper, sea trout, tuna, or salmon into their Seven Fishes celebration.
Also on most menus are a variety of pastas. Lobster ravioli is typical, as are pasta dishes that include clams, mussels, or shrimp. Spaghetti with sardines is another common dish.
An aperitif is traditional before the meal. Wine usually accompanies the various courses and limoncello or espresso are served to complete the feast.
There is no set menu for the Feast of the Seven fishes and no carved in stone order for the service of the meal. Traditionally, an antipasto or antipasti like breaded clams or seafood salad starts the ball rolling. Then comes the primi of simple pasta dishes such as seafood lasagne, lobster ravioli, or lemon pasta with shrimp, followed by the baccalà and a couple of other hearty fish dishes as secondi. Vegetables are served as contorne, and lots of delicious dolci like struffoli or panettone round out the meal.
Always an occasion for gathering family and friends, the Feast of the Seven Fishes is often a “potluck” affair, although more often it is an opportunity for everybody in the family to get involved in the cooking. The meal is usually prepared for late evening consumption, generally timed to conclude with ample time left to attend midnight Mass.
Here's a short list of some other Feast of the Seven Fishes favorites:
Calamari Ripieni in Salsa di Pomodori (Stuffed calamari in tomato sauce)
Stuffed-baked quahogs or lobsters
Fritto di Gamberi e Calamari (Fried Shrimp and Calamari)
Deep fried scallops or cod
Calamari in Padella con Piselli (Pan Fried Calamari with Peas)
Pagello alla Brace alle Erbe Fini (Grilled Sea Bream with Mixed Herbs)
Fritto misto di mare
Fettuccine con L'Astice al Pomodoro (Lobster Fettuccine with Tomato)
Linguine with clam, tuna, lobster, or anchovy sauce
Spaghetti con Cozze (Spaghetti with Mussels)
Spaghetti con le Vongole all'Aglio e Olio (Spaghetti with Clams in Garlic Oil)
Cod fish balls in tomato sauce
Seafood fra diavolo
Scungilli in Marinara
Crab stuffed mushrooms
Insalata de Mare (salad of the sea)
Now, on Christmas Day the fasting is over and it's all about the meat. Italians and Italian-Americans often enjoy roasted turkey, capon, or game birds for Christmas dinner. Baked ham or pork roast have become common as well, and a standing rib roast may also grace the holiday table. Risotto and a variety of eggplant and artichoke dishes are popular side items. And, of course, tantalizing desserts.
But for most, the Christmas Day dinner is a pale comparison to the culinary star that shines brightly on Christmas Eve, the Feast of the Seven Fishes.
Buon Natale e buon appetito!