The Feast of the Seven Fishes originated as a southern Italian way of celebrating Christmas Eve (awaiting the midnight birth of the baby Jesus) that was consistent with the Roman Catholic church’s dietary strictures of abstaining from meat and milk products on Wednesdays and Fridays. Southern Italians innovated within these guidelines with products of the sea; the most common dish was fish fried in oil.
Due to the evolution of the festival as a response to constraints (rather than a specific prescription from on high), the exact number of courses and their method of preparation is not prescribed. Consequently, one may find more or fewer courses than seven, and a huge variety of seafood dishes. In fact, in Italy, the festival isn’t actually called the Feast of the Seven Fishes, and is only celebrated in a few southern regions.
Italian-Americans took this permissiveness to cast the festival to serve their own situations. Thus, in most large cities you can find restaurants putting their own spin on a multi-course meal centered around fish. I was fortunate to be invited to one in Fort Worth recently at the city’s most refined restaurant, Grace. It threw a bright light on what this festival could become. From an Italian-Japanese treatment of Spanish mackerel as crudo, to a roasted sunchoke soup with smoked trout and trout roe, a grilled sablefish to a whole turbot served family style, the menu interpreted the Feast as a festival of seafood. Executive chef Blaine Staniford, just back from cooking at the James Beard House in New York, projected a verve and confidence in his preparations that would have scored victory in a culinary competition. An all-Italian suite of accompanying wine selections by sommelier Jenny Kornblum was the icing on the cake.
With its lack of stringent rules, public interest in eating a larger proportion of seafood in the diet, and faster shipping of seafood to cities in the interior, the Feast of the Seven Fishes would appear to have a promising future. Its celebration possibly spreading like a weed, much as Halloween did. Look for one in your area, or put together your own!