An Italian - American Christmas Eve: Feast of the S̶e̶v̶e̶n̶ Four Fishes
As a kid, I had no idea that eating seafood on La Vigilia (Christmas Eve) was an Italian -American tradition known as “The Feast of the Seven Fishes”; I just thought people everywhere ate a seafood bonanza the night before Christmas. I lived (quite a sheltered life, apparently) in an Italian neighborhood, so I really had no reason to think otherwise. It wasn’t until I was a teenager and got to junior high school did I realize that there was a whole other world out there, full of people who ate fancy roast beef dinners, dined in restaurants or (gasp!) just ate a regular ol' meal for Christmas Eve. But not in our house, oh no: My nana would spend all day cooking and preparing a literal feast of fishes: shrimp, scallops, calamari (squid), bacala (salt cod) and clams oreganata, along with a pound of macaroni, usually vermicelli. Not quite seven fishes, but close enough.
So just what is the Feast of the Seven Fishes, you ask?
According to Chef Mario Batali, "It's what Italians do when they say they're fasting." (I’m sorry, did he just say “Italians” and “fasting” in the same sentence???). I guess it’s true to some extent: In the southern region of Italy (where my family is from), the day is spent not eating much in anticipation of the “feast”, and traditionally no meat is ever eaten that day. In keeping with tradition, we don't eat much but a tuna sandwich or grilled cheese for lunch.
"No one's quite sure of the significance of the number," says Batali. "Some families do seven for the sacraments. Some do ten for the stations of the cross. And some even do 13 for the 12 apostles, plus Jesus." I’ve also heard that some believe that The Feast of Seven Fishes represent the seven days of creation and others believe it represents Mary and Joseph’s seven day travel to Bethlehem. But honestly, do Italians ever really need a reason to mangia? We already eat like every meal is our last! C’mon now.
As time went on and I got married and had a family of my own, I kept up with the La Vigilia tradition but I've broadened my culinary horizons quite a bit. My grandmother fried those shrimp and scallops and put the squid in her g̶r̶a̶v̶y̶ sauce because that’s what everybody liked. Now I change things up here and there and love try new seafood and recipes.
Here’s what’s on my menu this Christmas eve. As you can tell from the title of this blog post, I'm not making seven fishes this year, especially with a vegetarian and a picky eater in the house. So Feast of the Four Fishes it is. I hope you’ll give these recipes a try. They are delish, full of flavor and couldn't be any simpler to prepare.
Oh and before I forget! Una cena senza vino e come un giorno senza sole! That means "a day without wine is a day without sunshine". I'd suggest pairing these dishes with a good white wine: Terre Valse Cococciola or Contadi Castaldi Franciacorta Brut (both under $20) would be perfecto!
This is my super simple red clam sauce. Ducking from all the nonnas: I use a jar marinara sauce as my base for the clam sauce. Specifically, I use Rao’s. Check out the full list of ingredients, and tell me why I shouldn’t:
Imported Italian tomatoes, imported olive oil, fresh onions, salt, fresh garlic, fresh basil, black pepper, oregano.
Mm hm..thought so.
What are some yummy noms you guys eat for Christmas Eve dinner? Do you have any specific traditions? I'd love to hear about them--let me know in the comments below!