The Feast of the Fishes: My Italian-American Christmas Eve
I will never forget the day after Thanksgiving break in high school health class, when we went around the room and shared what we had been enjoying for the big dinner. When it came time for me to unveil my food-feast, I said, “Well we start with the cheese and crackers kind of stuff, go on to the antipasto with olives, pepperoni, prosciutto, mozzarella balls and bruschetta, and then Grandma brings out the manicotti…”
After a minute straight of rattling off food items, my classmates were staring at me, probably wondering where I fit all that food in my relatively petite body.
You see, us Italian-Americans have at least one thing in common (besides mothers with a penchant for chasing us with a wooden spoon): we love food, and a lot of it. Even though Thanksgiving is an American holiday, we can’t help piling on the meat and cheese platters, as well as the manicotti (or whatever your cheese-filled macaroni of choice happens to be).
Probably my favorite Italian custom is the Seven Fishes dinner on Christmas Eve, or Festa dei sette pesci. The feast stems from the Christian tradition of abstinence of meat on Fridays and during Lent. Why seven? The number seven appears multiple times in The Bible, and for Italians, odd numbers are considered lucky!
The meal is considered a celebration that culminates in the midnight birth of Christ. When my mother was little, they actually started with the fish dishes, went to midnight mass, and then came home to a spread of deli meats to celebrate the end of the meat fast. I’m a fourth-generation Italian, so at midnight we usually just break out more bottles of Prosecco.
Some of the more traditional fish dishes include bakala (dried, salted codfish), smelts (small fish, often fried and eaten whole), as well as sardines. These fish dishes weren’t exactly popular with the kids of the family. Today, we use the term “seven fishes” pretty loosely to mean seafood of all varieties. I’ve luckily never had a smelt in my life, though I wouldn’t mind some sardines! Every year the menu is a bit different, but we always fry thick slices of flounder, drizzled with fresh lemon. It’s not Christmas Eve without walking into my aunt’s house and hearing the sizzle and pop of the browning fish.
Another big favorite is aglio et olio, shrimp with garlic and olive oil, served with linguine. This might be a fairly simple dish, but also one of my Grandma’s favorites. She used to be the head honcho on Christmas Eve, directing the fish-frying and pasta straining. After she passed away in 2009, that duty went to my older cousin.
You name it, we’ve probably had it: calamari, shrimp scampi (shrimp tossed with garlic, olive oil and white wine), crab cakes, and one year, homemade New England clam chowder.
After multiple rounds of seafood, we break out the figs and nuts: an Italian pre-dessert tradition (yes, we love food so much, we have another round of appetizers before dessert), and everyone generally argues over what exactly a Brazil nut is, and how to use Aunt Mary’s 50-year-old, dull nutcrackers to crack open the walnuts. By the time the Italian tri-color cookies are broken out, people are drunkenly singing the “12 Days of Christmas” — inevitably forgetting all the words except “Five Golden Rings!” — while my male cousins are modeling ancient fur coats that we found in the basement.
Or maybe that’s just my crazy family’s traditions.
Buon Appetito e Buon Natale!