Feast of the Seven Fishes
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The Feast of the Seven Fishes is an Italian-American Christmas celebration. Today, it is a feast that typically consists of seven different seafood dishes. However, some Italian-American families have been known to celebrate with nine, eleven or thirteen different seafood dishes. This celebration commemorates the wait, the Vigilia di Natale, for the midnight birth of the baby Jesus. It is unclear when the term "Feast of the Seven Fishes" was popularized.
The long tradition of eating seafood on Christmas Eve dates from the Roman Catholic tradition of abstinence – in this case, refraining from the consumption of meat or milk products – on Wednesdays, Fridays and (in the Latin Church) Saturdays, as well as during Lent and on the eve of specific holy days. As no meat or butter could be used on such days, observant Catholics would instead eat fish, typically fried in oil.
The meal may include seven, eight, or even nine specific fishes that are considered traditional. The most famous dish Southern Italians are known for is baccalà (salted cod fish). The custom of celebrating with a simple fish such as baccalà is attributed to the greatly impoverished regions of Southern Italy. Fried smelts, calamari and other types of seafood have been incorporated into the Christmas Eve dinner over the years.
There are many hypotheses for what the number "7" represents. Seven is the most repeated number in the Bible and appears over 700 times.
One popular theory is the number represents completion, as shown in Genesis 2:2: "By the seventh day God completed the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work." During the feast of the seven fishes, participants celebrate the completion of God's promise of the Messiah through baby Jesus.
Other theories include: that the number represents the seven Sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church; or it represents the Seven hills of Rome that surround the city; or it represents perfection (the traditional Biblical number for divinity is three, and for Earth is four, and the combination of these numbers, seven, represents God on Earth, or Jesus Christ).
A typical Christmas Eve meal
The meal's components may include some combination of anchovies, whiting, lobster, sardines, dried salt cod, smelts, eels, squid, octopus, shrimp, mussels and clams. The menu may also include pastas, vegetables, baked or fried kale patties, baked goods and homemade wine. This tradition remains very popular to this day.
- Baccalà (salt cod) with pasta, as a salad or fried
- Baked cod
- Cod fish balls in tomato sauce
- Deep fried cod
- Deep fried fish/shrimp
- Deep fried scallops
- Dolphinfish (Baked or Fried)
- Fried smelts
- Insalata di mare (seafood salad)
- Linguine with anchovy, clam, lobster, tuna, or crab sauce
- Marinated or fried eel
- Octopus salad
- Oyster shooters
- Scungilli salad
- Stuffed calamari in tomato sauce
- Stuffed-baked lobsters
- Stuffed-baked quahogs
In popular culture
- In the episode "...To Save Us All from Satan's Power" (2001) of the television series The Sopranos (1999–2007), Carmela Soprano discusses Janice Soprano's insistence upon cooking Christmas dinner, and indicates Carmela will make the Christmas Eve dinner, as she "can't turn Janice loose on shellfish".
- The novel Angelina's Bachelors – A Novel with Food (2011; ISBN 978-1-4516-2056-6) by Brian O'Reilly contains a description of a gourmet Feast of the Seven Fishes, including recipes for eel over arborio rice and Caesar salad with batter-dipped smelts.
- Marchetti, Domenica (25 December 2012). "Feast of the Seven Fishes: only in America". American Food Roots. Retrieved 27 August 2013.
- Claiborne, Craig (16 December 1987). "A Seven-Course Feast of Fish". The New York Times. Retrieved 4 January 2012.
- Amanda P. Sidman, Amanda P. (22 December 2011). "Seven NYC Chefs Gives Recipes for Feast of the Seven Fishes". Daily News. Retrieved 4 January 2012.