The Feast of the Seven Fishes
We love the holidays for sharing our favorite meals with those closest to us. Whether you host large parties with friends, or intimate family meals, congregating around a table to enjoy food is one of the most special elements of the holiday season.
For a sacred holiday meal filled with seafood, consider the elaborate Feast of the Seven Fishes – a largely Southern Italian/Sicilian tradition rooted in Catholicism that advises against meat on Christmas Eve. This tradition coupled with modern health trends continues to boost the popularity of the Feast of the Seven Fishes on families’ holiday tables.
In fact, you’ll notice restaurants have heartier seafood dishes and even serve “Seven Fishes” inspired tasting menus on Christmas Eve as the popularity of “fish at Christmas” continues to grow.
What is the significance of Seven Fishes?
Interestingly, no single theory explains the number seven – which has allowed liberties on how many dishes people concoct. The most common belief says that the number seven stems to the Seven Sacraments of the Church – although others point to the Seven Sins, the Seven Days it took Mary and Joseph to travel to Bethlehem, the Seven Days it took God to create the Universe, the Seven Wonders of the World, the Seven Days of the Week, the Seven Virtues of the Church, the Seven Hills of Ancient Rome…and the theories continue.
Some prepare as many as thirteen dishes in the Feast (in recognition of the 12 disciples plus Christ). What ever the origin, or the number of dishes served, the feast itself holds a tradition that grows from a religious fasting to a luxuriant amount of fish and shellfish – all different and in multiple preparations, varying from family to family.
Despite the diversity in menus, some fish remain consistent. For instance, salt cod (bacalao) and eel (a staple in the tradition, often skinned then baked) tend to make their way into the feast for their historical roots. Moreover, anchovies, sardines, and smelts (usually deep fried) remain popular as small yet flavorful fish for appetizers and side dishes. Also, whole fish such as sea bass or snappers, and filleted swordfish continuously emerge as grilled or roasted entrees. Finally, shellfish commonly include lobster (broiled lobster tails in particular), squid, octopus, shrimp, mussels, oysters, and clams as popular menu dishes. Their Maine heritage makes them even more popular for those celebrating in the Northeast.
The Many Courses
The multitude of courses and dishes demonstrate a wide variety of recipes and styles, but some cooking methods transcend across cultural preparations. For example, cold antipasti containing chilled seafood like cooked octopus and squid serves as a common salad. In addition, we see popular warm dishes like fried smelts and baked eel. For cozy winter entrees, seafood stews and chowders using bacalao in a tomato sauce often graces holiday tables. Furthermore, a variety of pasta dishes such as linguine with clams or sardines, or spaghetti with mussels, add balance to the menu.
Upon viewing a large variety of cooking techniques, we conclude that the Feast of the Seven Fishes often delegates each course/fish using a unique preparation. The combinations of technique and fish offers limitless preparations for your own Feast of the Seven Fishes this holiday season.
Many families cherish and look forward to the Feast of the Seven Fishes for its bounty of seafood, healthy options, and diversity of flavors. Though ambitious, this exploratory menu serves as inspiration to create our own family menus and holiday rituals based around cooking – and enjoying wonderful seafood dishes at a very special time of year.
Wishing you and your family a happy and healthy holiday season!
– Nick Branchina 2013
Edited by Rachel Lapp 2022