The Feast of the Seven Fishes

Eating with family and friends is a huge component of our Holiday festivities. Whether it be inspired by religious tradition, large parties with friends, or intimate family meals, congregating around a table to enjoy food is one of the most special elements of the Holiday season.

One of the most elaborate seafood meals of the calendar year is the Feast of the Seven Fishes – a largely Southern Italian/Sicilian tradition based upon the Catholic observance that upholds that no meat be eaten on Christmas Eve – to Italians the La Vigilia di Natale . Fish and shellfish meals were sought instead. This tradition followed immigrants to the United States, and now many Italian Americans – and Americans in general – enjoy seafood courses at Christmas time.

Many restaurants have added heartier seafood dishes – and even serve “Seven Fishes”-inspired Tasting Menus at Christmas Eve – as the popularity of “fish at Christmas” has increased. It seems that it has transcended religious and ethnic customs to slowly become a part of our American Holiday experience.

What is the significance of “Seven” Fishes?

Baked Fish in Salt
Baked Fish in Salt can serve as one of the centerpiece dishes.

Interestingly, there seems to be no specific answer – which has allowed many to take liberties on how many dishes they actually prepare. The most common belief is that the Number Seven stems to the Seven Sacraments of the Church – although some say the Seven Sins, the Seven Days it took Mary and Joseph to travel to Bethlehem, the Seven Days it took God to create the Universe, the Seven Wonders of the World, the Seven Days of the Week, the Seven Virtues of the Church, the Seven Hills of Ancient Rome…and the theories continue. Some prepare as many as thirteen dishes in the Feast (in recognition of the 12 disciples plus Christ). But whatever the origin, or the number of dishes served, the Feast itself is a tradition that grew from a religious fasting to a luxuriant amount of fish and shellfish – all different and in multiple preparations, varying from family to family.

Despite the diversity in menus, there are some fish that seem to be consistent as traditional courses – although every region, every town, and every family can be drastically different, and likely subject to the fresh seafood available to them. Many “liberties” are now taken with the number of courses and fish served. But the more common fish used are salt cod (bacalao), eel (a staple in the tradition, often skinned then baked) anchovies, sardines, and smelts (usually deep fried), whole roasted fish such as sea bass or snappers, and swordfish, generally grilled. Shellfish commonly include lobster (broiled lobster tails in particular), squid, octopus, shrimp, mussels, oysters, and clams.

The Many Courses

The courses and dishes prepared also are a wide variety of recipes and styles, but there appears to be some continuity for the more traditional menu. It is common to see cold antipasti – generally a cold seafood salad of cooked octopus, squid, etc. followed by a warm dish (fried smelts are a traditional favorite, as is baked eel). Seafood stews – even chowders – are also served, as is a bacalao dish, most commonly cooked in a tomato sauce. A variety of pasta dishes – such as linguine with clams or sardines, or spaghetti with mussels – balance out the menu. A whole roasted fish, sometimes baked in salt as pictured, can be the showcase or “main course”, rounded out with a fish off the grill, most commonly swordfish or stuffed broiled lobster. Again, there is a huge variety of techniques employed, but it is largely upheld that each course be unique from the other – and that seven different fish be used per dish. The combinations of technique and fish are almost limitless for the non-traditional – although the day’s catch, prowess in the kitchen, number of guests at the table, time and budget, etc. probably most influence the final menu.

The Feast of the Seven Fishes is for many Americans a family tradition to be cherished and longed for every year. It is recognizably an ambitious undertaking for those home kitchens that are crafting seven unique seafood dishes for one huge feast. But it can serve as inspiration for many of us to create our own family menus and Holiday rituals based around cooking – and enjoying wonderful seafood dishes at a very special time of year.

For those seeking inspiration, there are many recipes and stories available online with a simple term search – try “Feast of 7 Fishes” for more.

Wishing You Happy Holidays!

Nick Branchina, Director of Marketing

This Blog Originally Appeared as an Article in our Holiday 2013 Special Edition Newsletter.