The Feast of the Seven Fishes
The feast of the seven fishes is a tradition of often disputed, sometimes confusing origins. The “hot button” issue here seems to be, is the tradition Italian or Italian-American?Italian-Americans who believe seven fishes began in Italy are quite passionate in their beliefs. They believe the feast originated in southern Italy and Sicily where seafood is abundant. Others propose that it originated with Italian American immigrants, celebrating the prosperity and bounty of the new world. It is referred to as “Festa del sette pesci” (feast of the seven fishes) or “La Vigilia” (the vigil) referring to the old Roman Catholic tradition of fasting or refraining from eating meat before a holy day, in this case, Christmas.
I became aware of the seven fishes tradition several years ago at my local seafood purveyor, Hellers. The long lines of people waiting for the store to open in the days before Christmas piqued my curiosity. I also noticed some different items in their refrigerated cases for the occasion: fresh octopus, eel and a dried salt cod called baccala. It interested me enough to do my own research and add my own spin on it for our Christmas eve dinner.
Why seven fishes? Some say it is for the seven sacraments of the Catholic church, or the seven hills of Rome, and others, the seven virtues: faith, hope, charity, temperance, prudence, fortitude and justice.The exact number of fish to be eaten is another question. Numbers range from three, for the three wise men or the Trinity, to thirteen in reference to Jesus and his disciples. Whatever the number, it is a tradition in it’s third year for us, small courses with an interesting variety of not just fish but all kinds of seafood to usher in Christmas. This year, I counted eight types of seafood: calamari, clams, oysters, shrimp, crab, mussels (with shrimp and clams making a second appearance in the soup), scallops and sole.