Time to Celebrate! The Feast of the Seven Fishes
The Feast of the Seven Fishes is an Italian-American, Christmas Eve tradition that anyone can adopt!
What? The Feast of the Seven Fishes started as a nod to the old country by Italian-American families living in New York’s Little Italy during the late 1800s. It is said the tradition has roots in Southern Italy, where people traditionally dine on fish to celebrate La Vigilia, the wait on Christmas Eve. The Feast of the Seven Fishes can involve one or a variety of fish species. Its success lies in preparing and serving seven or more fish dishes.
Why fish? Fish is the go-to protein for days on the Roman Catholic calendar — such as Christmas Eve — where the devout avoid eating meat. Each of Italy’s 20 regions has culinary traditions for the cena della Vigilia, or Christmas Eve dinner. In Roma, people eat minestra di pesce, fish-based soup. In Sardegna, they dine on malloreddus, small semolina gnocchi served in a fish sauce with fresh cherry tomatoes. Many (maybe most) Italians don’t know about the New World custom of feasting on seven fish dishes.
Why seven? Nobody (that we know of) really can say why the seven fish concept came into play. Some speculate that, because the number seven shows up hundreds of times in the Bible, the fish courses symbolize religious ideology. Others credit the origin to the seven hills that made up ancient Rome. Many Italian-American families don’t care about the number. They celebrate with as many fish dishes and as many fish species as they see fit.
What should I serve? You can go all haute cuisine on this meal but, honestly, there are great reasons for keeping the menu simple. Celebrating the season with fish prepared with basic ingredients and minimal effort reflects deep human history. The families who presumably started the Feast of the Seven Fishes were people from the impoverished regions of Southern Italy that ate dishes such as baccalà (salted cod fish). Salting, drying, pickling and smoking fish harken back to a time before refrigeration.
Easy, peasy suggestions for the Feast of the Seven Fishes, Wisconsin style:
- Smoked whitefish on a cracker
- Fish chowder
- Fish cakes with wild rice (courtesy of Hank Shaw, Honest-Food.net)
- Whitefish with tomato-basil compote
- Mustard-maple roasted salmon (courtesy of Food Network Kitchen)
- Spicy tilapia and olive spaghetti (courtesy of Food Network Kitchen)
- Rosalia’s barbequed fish
Bonus dish: Parmesan perch
As you prepare your own Feast of the Seven Fishes check out more Eat Wisconsin Fish recipes! Ask for locally and sustainably sourced fish in your neighborhood grocery store. If you are lucky and live near a Wisconsin fish market, enjoy the range of Wisconsin-based options.