Ask an Italian what’s on the menu for the holidays and odds are good there will be fish. A lot of fish. For many Italian families Christmas Eve dinner is synonymous with La Festa dei Sette Pesci, the Feast of Seven Fishes. The feast is thought to be an ancient one originating in Sicily and rooted in the Roman Catholic tradition of abstaining from meat during holy days; another name for the feast, in fact, is La Vigilia, representing the vigil of the birth of Jesus. Speculation as to why it’s a feast of seven fishes runs to numerous biblical interpretations, although there are often as many as nine or even eleven courses included.
It’s interesting to note that many of the fishes traditionally included in the feast—like mussels, clams, calamari, anchovies, smelts and sardines—are ones we’d consider “sustainable” today. Which makes sense. The feast originated in fishing communities where “sustainable” wasn’t an ethical debate; it was simply how one lived. Healthy fish stocks meant abundance for your community, food for your family, and continued survival for all.
Local catch was always present on the Vigilia menu, which might mean anchovies or squid in coastal towns or trout in inland communities. Other traditional dishes include baccala or salt cod, eel and octopus (more sustainable choices today might be smoked fish brandade in lieu of baccala and wild Alaskan sablefish instead of eel). But the menu expanded as the Feast migrated, first throughout Italy and eventually overseas; today it’s a thoroughly hyphenated-Italian holiday adapted by each family to fit their own traditions.
One Sicilian friend of mine told of zuppa di pesce (a fish soup similar to Cioppino, a seafood stew familiar to West Coasters) followed by a Christmas turkey ringed with kielbasa (a nod to the Eastern Europeans who married into the family) next to a tray of baked rigatoni and meatballs. Another recalled catching eel (one of the traditional courses) with her grandmother the day before Christmas Eve. Stuffed pastas from Northern Italian grandmothers appear on other tables along with small fish fried in olive oil, and as families became more affluent, more expensive items like oysters or lobsters or langoustines often found their way onto menus.
Whatever the variation of dishes, one aspect of the Feast that seems constant is the boisterous fun that the large family meal entails. From music, to wine, to who’s cooking what, it’s often a meal with many cooks in the kitchen. Wine, sometimes homemade, will generally (and generously) lubricate the day’s activities. A meal that once symbolized abstinence has today come to represent abundance in many ways.
The Feast of Seven Fishes really underscores how many wonderful dishes can be enjoyed while eating with an eco-clean conscience. New insights bring us back, once again, to the wisdom of traditional ways.
Jacqueline Church is an independent writer whose work has appeared in Culture: the Word on Cheese, Edible Santa Barbara, and John Mariani’s Virtual Gourmet. She often writes about gourmet food, sustainability issues and the intersection of the two on her blog Leather District Gourmet. Currently, she’s at work on Pig Tales: a Love Story about heritage breed pigs and the farmers and chefs bringing them from farm to table.