Feast of 7 Fishes is a Christmas ritual > Italian families relish the tradition
The first time Italian transplant Stefano Frigerio prepared the Feast of the Seven Fishes for his wife’s family, his American father-in-law opted for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
“I found out at dinnertime, with my seven fishes laid down on the table, that no one eats fish,” said Frigerio, who married into a Front Royal, Va., family two years ago. My father-in-law looked at me and said, ‘The only thing I eat that swims is catfish, deep fried.” Frigerio, on the other hand, grew up eating pretty much anything that swims.
At least on Christmas Eve, when Italy’s Roman Catholics, and now many Italians and Italian-Americans in general, celebrate with a feast of fish that probably dates to the 5th or 6th Century. The celebration is rooted in the Catholic tradition of eschewing meat on various days of the year. What’s less clear is when or why the number of courses was set at seven.
Some scholars and cooks say it is for the seven sacraments. Or for the seven sins. Or virtues. Perhaps for the seven days of the creation story. Or for Mary and Joseph’s seven-day journey to Bethlehem. “All of these types of holidays tend to have a lot of bad folklore around them,” said dining historian Carolin Young. “Five different towns will claim they created it.”
Eel is a mainstay of the meal for Romans, and the traditional salted cod known as baccala is widely eaten as part of the meal. But that’s where predictability ends. Anything from humble smelts and sardines to lobster and caviar might make an appearance.
Adding to the confusion, seven is sometimes just a starting point. Many families cook nine fish (the Holy Trinity times three), 11 (the 12 Apostles minus Judas) or 13 (the Apostles plus Jesus). Others simply stop counting once they hit seven. “They just use it as an excuse to have more fish or less fish,” said Frigerio, who makes at least seven (but never 13).
The Di Pascale family of Delran, N.J., opts for more, blanketing the table with everything from fried smelts to langostinos and crab legs, additions made as the family’s successful gourmet deli business grew. The year they tried to cut back to just six fish, Steve Di Pascale said his enraged father-in-law stormed out and scoured supermarkets for a seventh seafaring creature.
“Portion-wise, we had more food than we could ever imagine. But we only had six fish,” he said. His wife “never lived it down.” Whatever the number, the Di Pascales end the banquet with a mussel-eating contest. “The champ is my brother-in-law, Joe,” Di Pascale said. “He has 62 mussels at one eating.” Families with smaller appetites often try to include several fish in a single dish.
“You can cover anywhere from two to three fish with the soup,” said Valentino Ciullo of Grand Rapids. Ciullo is rigid about having exactly seven fish. For him, they represent the sacraments. But his feast is smaller and more elegant than those of his childhood, where the table groaned from kitchen to parlor with eel, baccala and calamari.
The repast for his wife and in-laws changes each year, and might include lobster bisque or roasted grouper, all chronicled on printed menus that describe each dish and the wines paired with them. “We save the menus,” he said. “They go back to … ‘Remember when we had this, when we had that?’ It makes it a little more exciting.”
Some cooks mix up the menu because they must. In Honolulu, Gianpiero Morosi has no trouble finding the tuna and octopus served at feasts when he was a child in Rome. But the reef fish called weke must stand in for his beloved smelts. Bluefish (which some believe are the fish in the loaves and fishes parable) are represented by local opelu, a type of mackerel.
Busy schedules and long distances have forced many families to streamline the tradition. Vera Girolami, from Oakdale, Calif., prepares mostly shellfish at her family’s Lake Tahoe condominium, but has stopped counting courses. “I’m lucky that I can gather my entire family with me to get up there for Christmas Eve,” she said. “Everybody’s just too busy. Now kids are going to soccer practice and ballet and Little League. But we try to maintain the traditions and keep our heritage alive.”
Mary Louise Gerlach, whose father came from Sicily, offers perhaps the most express version of the tradition, getting all seven fish into one steaming pot of cioppino, a fragrant tomato-based stew. “Everyone likes that soupy stew,” said the Annapolis, Md.-area grandmother, who serves it with crusty bread and a big salad. “And you know you’re going to do all that work on Christmas Day so you don’t want to do all that other stuff.”
Regardless of how it’s prepared, families say the feast’s main job is to offer an annual reunion, and to keep the culture alive. For some families, each year creates new traditions and inside jokes.
Frigerio said his father-in-law bravely picked around the seafood salad that first year, but has become more adventurous. “But he’ll show up with peanut butter and jelly,” Frigerio said. “So I’m going to make it for him this year. I’m going to put it on his plate.”