By Murray Schulman
The Chef’s Pers-pective in December should be an easy column to write. The truth is that there are so many topics available in this last month of the year that it is not as easy as you might think. I considered topics ranging from what Christmas is like for a tourist visiting Italy to the artistry of the Nativity competitions that are widespread in nearly all regions of Italy.
While reading about the possible subjects that would resonate with me, I came across one article after another dealing with the Feast of the Seven Fishes. What caught my eye and intrigued me was that while some of the subject matter is consistent, the information related to traditions and history of this feast is sketchy. I decided to combine the information that I gathered and try to come up with an article with a consistent perspective on this topic.
The tradition of abstaining from meat and dairy during certain times of the year goes back to ancient Roman Catholic customs. These customs applied to many of the major holidays including Christmas. Fish was a readily available and inexpensive substitute.
During those times, society at all levels could partake in the church’s traditions.
But why seven? This is where the answer gets cloudy and for the most part unresolved. The number seven is considered an important number in Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism. It is said that the number seven appears 700 times in the Bible. There were seven days tied to the creation. The world was formed in six days and on the seventh day the creator rested. In Roman Catholic tradition there are seven deadly sins and seven sacraments. Seven is considered by many to be a lucky number and the odds of rolling a seven with two dice in the standard game of craps is six of 36 possible combinations.
What you may not expect is that in Italy, only small pockets of Italians follow this tradition or even know much if anything about it. Most Italians in Italy celebrate Cena della Vigilia, Christmas Eve dinner. Each of the 20 regions of Italy have different traditions as to what is served. Piedmont families, for example, would serve agnolotti, fresh pasta filled with meat. In Rome, the traditional dish is minestra di pesce, basically fish soup. In Sardegna, the main dish is malloreddus, small semolina gnocchi served with a fresh cherry tomatoes and tuna.
Now we return to the original question of why the Feast of the Seven Fishes is the quintessential Christmas Eve meal among Italian Americans. Most of the articles that I read agree that the tradition became established in the United States in the early 1900s – probably close to 1920. Other than that, we face conflicting information again. Some say that this tradition was established because Italian immigrants wanted to keep their traditions from the “old country” alive, However, we already stated that while fish was consumed in keeping with custom during holidays in Italy, there never was any tradition of being a feast of this kind.
Certainly, in areas with proximity to the sea celebratory meals would have incorporated a variety of seafood into the menu or dishes served. Plus, these types of meals in Italy would have consisted of multiple, possibly seven courses. But again, the term Feast of the Seven Fishes was not something that was established in Italy prior to it being established here around 1920. In Sicily, many families today have established the American tradition into their Christmas Eve feast. This makes sense as seafood is the heart of cuisine in that region.
When you look at all the facts and myths that surround this most popular feast among Italian Americans, the feast was clearly established right here in the United States.
The Italian-American immigrants brought their religious customs, their love of the sea, their traditions of multi-course meals and even their regional diversity with them to this land. It is from this that I believe the Feast of the Seven Fishes was born.
Even more sketchy is what goes into the menu for this feast on Christmas Eve. Other than the number of seafood items (seven), there is nothing that specifically must be included in this feast. There is no rule that there must be seven courses or that specific types of seafood must be included. This is a bit more evidence that this is an American-formed tradition. In some families, the feast may consist of several courses including shellfish, fin fish and a wide variety of fish or seafood related dishes. I have seen lobster, shrimp, scallops, and top-shelf seafood on the menu. In other cases, I have seen anchovies, smelts, tuna, baccala in the dishes served. Scungilli, calamari, pulpo roasted, fried, in salad or with pasta may make an appearance on the table. The almost unlimited variety of products available to us here allows a broad spectrum of choices to the Italian-American culinarian.
What I can tell you is that the Feast of the Seven Fishes is a beloved and well entrenched tradition that is part of Italian American culture. Whatever you believe to be the origins of this feast, what counts is that it is another reason to celebrate our families and our way of life. Be proud of what you share at your table. Be bold and creative in your personal interpretation of the feast. Most of all, enjoy the food, the wine, the holiday spirit and the friends and family that share your table.