I once saw a class advertised for an Italian Feast of the SevenFishes at Chef Central in Paramus, NJ. I was curious, as an Italian American, just what was an Italian Feast of the Seven Fishes? I asked my dad, born and raised in Rome, Italy. He had no idea. You see, we eat fish on Christmas Eve, and we eat lots of it, so that may qualify it as a feast, but no one ever counted what number of fish we ate.
According to Wikipedia, it is an Italian-American tradition that originated in the south of Italy. My mother was an Italian-American whose parents came from the south of Italy and she never counted the number of fish we had.
The best explanation I’ve read so far is this one from 2011 in Edible Manhattan
The overall summation is, “It doesn’t matter.” This quote from Marco Canora of Hearth says it all:
“I think something is not authentic or real when people want to do it all perfect. If there’s anything food culture is not, it’s perfect. And Italians don’t give a shit about these rules — they’re the most anti-rule culture there is! Rules are for the French. The number seven doesn’t matter. The meal is a heartfelt, imbedded thing. You eat fish on Christmas Eve, and that’s it.”
When we moved to Baltimore, MD, the first year, I made the fish dinner for Mr. Obscure, The Boy and I. It was a little sad and hard to cook such a feast for only three people. So the next year, a kindly neighbor, took it upon herself to arrange a Christmas Eve potluck at my house. It was dubbed the “Feast of the Seven Fishes.” No matter how loud or numerous my protests, the guests didn’t seem to heed me. There was a counting of the fishes. I cringed. Emails went back and forth. Did we have seven? “No, no, it doesn’t matter. We don’t need to have seven,” I cried. No one heard me.
Then there was the year we had 21 people as I blogged about here. Last year we had about 13 which was less chaotic. This year, we have moved once again and the thought of being on our own was a bit woeful. I invited a couple of friends from Baltimore. I had a passing thought of having an open house and inviting our neighbors in the court yard, but then I realized I don’t have any chairs. We gave away our folding chairs when we moved. And I really haven’t warmed up to the idea of having a Christmas Eve buffet. For some reason, in my mind, that just seems wrong.
Now, don’t get me wrong I love my little family. We eat dinner together every night whether it be at home or at a restaurant. As an Italian, eating is not just about nourishment for the body, it is also nourishment for the soul. For me, eating is social. I have always been a loner and an independent person. I could do almost anything by myself: go to movies, to a party, a wedding, museums, live alone, sleep alone. I could do almost everything by myself – except eat alone. Eventually, I learned how to eat alone, because I was starving from not eating dinner by myself. It was, actually, my now husband who saved me in my early twenties by bringing me food from his mom or taking me out to eat. And they say a way to a MAN’s heart is through his stomach! This woman’s heart loves to be fed.
Growing up Christmas Eve was either a small affair or a larger one depending on the circumstances and which day it fell on. If it was a working day, my dad would come home and cook and I’d prepare the antipasto, and I’m sure my brother and sister had some part I don’t recall, and then we’d eat when my mom, who worked a late shift, would come home. Usually my Uncle Dom would stop by and in later years it was my Uncle Dom and his wife. One year we had friends from Italy and a distant cousin who was training in Texas come to visit us since he couldn’t make it back to home. And then my Aunt and Uncle dropped by as well. We were squeezed against the wall, but it was all good cheer.
In later years, my sister and her husband took over hosting Christmas Eve dinner and she did so up until a couple of years ago. It would be my family, my Uncle and his wife, a family friend and a few neighbors of my sister. This year she says she’s just doing sushi with her husband and kids. That works. Yet, I still want to recreate the abundance of food to feed and share with our friends and family. It’s those memories that warm my heart and feed my soul.
I’m planning on the following menu:
Linguine with Clam Sauce
Escarole or chard with white beans
Coffee and Tea
A friend is making the crab cakes, the fish will be whatever I find at market in the morning. The fried shrimp is what I remember my dad always making and it was consistently good. I looked forward to it every year, that and the smelts. But I’m giving up on the smelts because all I can find is these really big ones without heads and not the tiny ones with heads my dad would fry up and would just melt in your mouth bones and all. I used to think they were called ‘melts’ when I was little.
Sometimes, traditions connect us and make us feel grounded. They provide a familiarity in a confusing world. Traditions help to define who we are. We can shape traditions to better define us, but they are our springboard. It says a lot about me that the traditions I keep usually revolve around food: the Christmas Eve dinner, the birthday cake; as well as the Cypriot traditions I’ve added from my husband: Vasilopita (New Year’s cake), giving cookies out on one’s Name Day. I may be a chaotic cook (and a not very good one according to The Boy) but I sure am a foodie!
May you all have a warm and wonderful season according to your traditions