People always ask me about the Italian Feast of the Seven Fishes served on Christmas Eve. In fact, the idea of the seven fishes has now become sort of legendary.
And so strong is this tradition, that I can honestly say that in my lifetime (and we're talking many decades) I've never spent a Christmas Eve without a variety of fish dishes spread before me. This is a hallowed custom that is passed from one generation to another. Where and how did it start? I've heard all kinds of stories trying to explain it but I'm not sure anyone really knows definitively. But I do think it's rooted in the Italian-American immigrant experience. It's something that Italian-Americans kept and expanded upon over the years And, as they prospered, it came to be more elaborate.
To begin with you must have at least seven fish selections on the table.
Well, seven is a very important number. It stands for the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church and the seven days of creation. In Biblical numerology, seven is a number of perfection.
And fish is the featured dish because Italians have customarily abstained from eating meat on Christmas Eve. In fact, I do believe that for a long time the Catholic church prohibited the eating of meat the day before Christmas, This is the Christmas vigil. For my part, I still observe the "no meat on Christmas Eve" rule. I now do it in memory ops my father who strictly followed this rule.
There is no set menu for this feast.
But here are some of the fishes that are traditionally used: calamari (squid); scungilli [skuhn-GEE-lee] (conch); baccala [bah-kah-LAH] (dry, salt cod); shrimp; clams (usually served with pasta); mussels, snapper, trout, tuna or salmon.
We have adapted this menu over the years and updated it somewhat.
So, our annual feast usually includes calamari, baccala, shrimp, crab cakes, tuna, smelts and salmon. The cod and shrimp are served in both cold and fried or sauteed varieties. Shrimp is served as a shrimp cocktail and as shrimp scampi. Crab is served as both breaded and fried crab balls and fresh, cold crab claws. The baccala is served fried and in a salad. The calamari is served baked and stuffed. The tuna is served with spaghetti in a red sauce. The smelts are fried and the salmon is broiled. In addition to all of this it is customary to serve fried cauliflower and Italian bitter greens.
Our feast is usually preceded by cocktails (that's where the cold shrimp and crab come in) with much chatter and anticipation.
The Feast of the Seven Fishes takes up the entire evening -- usually beginning with the preliminaries at around 5 or 6 PM and often continuing into the wee hours of the morning. The bountiful array of food remains on the table for everyone to enjoy. Any guests who happen to arrive are also welcome to partake.
When he was alive, my father always prepared the bulk of the meal. He was an outstanding cook and accomplished "foodie" before there was such a term. His recipes were all in his head and the dishes were passed down from his mother and her family. My mother, however, always insisted on preparing the crab balls. That was her special forté.
After my father passed on, my sister and brother-in-law took over the tradition and kept much of it intact while adding a few updates including shrimp scampi, cold crab claws, salmon and shrimp cocktail. Now that they are gone, the meal has largely become the domain of my niece and nephew. Thank goodness, they are insistent on continuing this grand tradition -- something that goes all the way back to my grandparents and probably even beyond that.
Of course, the latest generation has added its own touches. But part of enjoying the feast is being adaptable.
Desserts are not a mainstay of the feast. In fact, they are more of an afterthought. But, as more American elements have been introduced over the years, they have taken on their own prominence.
So, desserts now include an assortment of rich cakes, pies and cookies as well as cannoli and espresso.
Our feast is more casual than it was in years past but fine china, linens and glassware are still used on the table and when I say "casual" I mean business casual. So, this is definitely not a night for jeans or sweat suits or any kind of athletic gear.
And since it's Italian, it's an evening of high drama. All emotions (and generations) are at play. So, it's grand opera one minute, a Broadway musical the next and then lots of rap, in no particular order. At any given moment several family members are competing for attention. The whole thing can become raucous but there are also quiet and reflective moments as these dishes and this event evoke powerful memories that bring emotions to the surface. While it helps to have your wits about you as conversation ebbs and flows, there are also moments of pathos.
To survive the evening, you need to pace yourself.
It's fine (and expected) to eat more than you usually would -- even much more. But you must take your time. That's the Italian Way -- to savor every moment and engage all your senses.
It's best to taste a bit of everything, moving through the huge menu in a careful, measured manner. My favorites are the crab cakes, shrimp and tuna pasta. So, I have to be careful not to eat so much of those dishes lest I not have room for anything else. If you do not partake of a bit of everything you're liable to offend your host.
Like I said, for Italian families this ritual feast is sacrosanct and intense feeling abounds. Why? Because the meaning of the evening is all wrapped up with loved ones (including those who have passed on) and our most cherished values. Consequently, one must drink in moderation. In fact, if you feel an urge to lift your glass frequently make sure you're lifting a glass of water.
With all the fish on the table, you will need it.
BTW: For Italians, Christmas Day is not as much of a Big Deal as Christmas Eve. On Christmas Day lasagna and chicken cutlets are more than enough. That's what we call decompressing.