If I close my eyes, I can vividly recall the emotions, aromas, and flavors of the various holidays from my childhood both in Italy and Philadelphia, to which I immigrated as a child. For Italians, holidays make up an important part of the family fabric and traditions that define us. Although I am enamored with all the holidays, my favorite has always been the Feast of the Seven Fishes. To me, it is the most ceremonial, flavorful, and festive of all our family holidays. I must also admit that as a child it was my favorite because we opened the presents at midnight to celebrate the birth of baby Jesus, as was custom in our Cilento sub-region of Italy. While the other holidays were more relaxed, there was an intentional and stirring rhythm to the Seven Fishes Dinner. After all, Dec. 24 is “la vigilia,” the vigil until midnight commemorating waiting for the birth of baby Jesus.
The preparation began with my mother taking special bread for the dinner to our church to have it blessed by our priest. My father and mother worked on the dishes diligently for the days leading up to the feast. For other holidays we set up a large table in our living room for a more relaxed holiday style, but on Christmas Eve we celebrated in the formal dining room. The house was sparkling clean and embellished with beau- tiful decorations. My mother meticulously adorned the table with our finest tablecloth, china, chargers, heirloom silverware, special glassware, fine linen, candles, and napkins delicately rolled in sterling silver rings. While we dressed more casually for other holidays, everyone put on their finest outfits for Christmas Eve dinner. Pavarotti or Bocelli Christmas music filled the room and the lighting was dimmed just right. The experience started with an Aperol Spritz aperitivo, progressing through seven fishes over multiple courses, and continued with extravagant desserts. This lavish preparation was all done to honor the arrival of a king at midnight. The climax in our home, as our dinner ended at the stroke of midnight, was my father going out and illuminating baby Jesus in our outdoor manger.
Due to my fascination with this holiday in Philadelphia, I would ask family members in Italy what seven fishes they selected to feature at the table for “la cena della vigilia,” the Italian name of the meal served on Dec. 24. Although some enumerated their seven, others gave me odd looks at the question. The fact that the holiday had a different name in Italy should have been my first clue. Then when I traveled to other Italian regions and asked the same question, locals looked at me with an empty gaze, wondering what I was talking about. Eventually, I deduced that the Feast of the Seven Fishes was not traditionally Italian, but rather an Italian- American evolution. What I pieced together was that the only Italians celebrating it were the ones who had family in America who had brought the seven fishes tradition back with them.
As I journeyed in Italy over the years, experiencing the great diversity of culinary traditions in each region and town of Italy, I realized this same diversity existed with la cena della vigilia. In northern regions it is not uncommon to limit seafood to one dish, or skip it entirely. In Bergamo it is common for families and friends to meet for something simple like a pizza or risotto and head to midnight mass together, skipping a formal dinner altogether. In Piemonte on Christmas Eve it is typical to enjoy the local stuffed pasta known as Agnolotti; in Sardegna it is typical to eat malloreddus, the local gnocchi, sometimes with seafood, sometimes not. In Tuscany, a chestnut and chickpea soup followed by cacciucco is common. Although there’s often seafood in central and northern Italian cena della vigilia, it is in the southern regions of Campania, Calabria, Sicilia, and Puglia where we see many parallels with our Feast of the Seven Fishes.
Centuries ago, Christmas Eve was a Catholic traditional fasting day when meat and dairy were prohibited. Leave it to south- ern Italians to transform a fasting day into a glorious culinary feast! After all, no one said they couldn’t eat fish. Thus, a multitude of seafood specialties were born: crespelle Scacciate c’anciova or baccalà fritto of Catania, capitone in umido or baccalà dorato of Bari, orate farcita or baccalà a ciauredda of Basi-licata, Spaghetti alle vongole or baccalà alla napoletana of Napoli, fritto di paranza or Baccalà in umido con capperi e pomodoro of Cosenza, and hundreds more. Baccalà is the one constant in virtually every southern Italian seafood feast. Although many of the other dishes vary from family to family, baccalà and insalata di mare are the standards on the dinner table of southern Italian vigilias, as well as many of our seven fish menus in America. Baccalà is a salt-preserved cod that is sometimes confused with stoccafisso, the air-cured version or merluzzo (fresh cod in Italian). It’s interesting that this cold water fish, which was actually brought to Italy by Vikings, is probably the most historically utilized fish on the peninsula. In my travels from the Alto-Adige to Sicily, I have seen hundreds of different baccalà or stoccafisso delicious recipes which nonne would prepare. The versatility of having it salted or air-dried for later use without the need for refrigera-tion was the key to its popularity. In Cilento, our family prepared it with San Marzano tomatoes, garlic, onions, and boiled potatoes. The savory saltiness of the baccalà contrast-ing with the pungent sweetness of the garlic and San Marzano tomatoes is pure gastronomic poetry which speaks to me of Christmas eve emotion.
On a recent trip through Calabria I met some locals in Cosenza and we got on the subject of holiday dinners. They began telling me the story of the ancient tradition of the Cenone della Vigilia di Natale. Cenone means very large dinner. There were different versions including one with thirteen courses based on Jesus and his twelve apostles as well as, yes, seven courses based on the seven virtues. The one thing that wasn’t clear was if there was seafood in each course. In any case, it does seem that roots of the feast of the seven fishes do lie in Italy, most likely Calabria. As with many things in Italy, it’s a complicated history. What is clear though, is that a selection of Italians who immigrated to America in the early 1900s somewhere between Philadelphia and New York crystal- ized la Cena della Vigilia of southern Italy into the beautiful, rich, and delicious tradition of the Feast of the Seven Fishes that we all enjoy today. It turns out there are some Italian-American innovations that are arguably better than the original. Buon appetito e buon natale!