The tradition of the Feast of Seven Fishes is simple – it is a grand meal that contains no land animals, so it is actually a pre-Christmas Day fasting from meats and game that relies instead on seafood as the main ingredient.
The reason for the number seven is still an unknown. It may have something to do with the number of oceans in the world, or it might represent the seven hills that the eternal city of Rome is built upon. There are also religious interpretations. I think the only thing everyone agrees on is that no one is quite sure, and that it really doesn’t matter as long as everyone enjoys this incredible festivity. So fish became the meal of the fasting eve, and it traveled to America with countless Italian immigrants. This included my grandparents, all of whom arrived separately through Ellis Island between 1903 and 1910.
My Maternal Grandparents were from the Naples region, and they became very successful restauranteurs in Jersey City, New Jersey. My Grandmother’s cooking skills were extraordinary, and this was passed down to my mother and my 3 aunts. Together, these 5 women produced a Feast of Seven Fishes that boggled the mind in both its quality and volume. The typical scene that played out every Christmas Eve was one of three full-sized dinner tables that extended from the dining room, into the living room, with the third table making a sharp left into the open area. 30 to 40 people was the norm, and the procession of food seemed endless. It was an evening celebrating family, and it was a steady reminder of our wonderful heritage. Everyone looked forward to Christmas Eve every year.
The Esposito Family’s Traditional Feast of Seven Fishes
The meal began with shrimp cocktail. Then, as these were being finished, large platters of fried calamari would appear on the tables. Along with this, each person received a dinner plate covered in carefully laid-out mussels on the half-shell with marinara. Probably 14 to 18 mussels each plate. While everyone was talking, laughing and eating, the moms would compile a list of who wanted their linguini with a marinara or with a red squid sauce.
It was after the linguini was finished, that most of everyone took a break to rest before the steady stream of fried seafood would appear. It was then that some of the most incredible dishes arrived, such as fried eel fritters, fried scungilli, and fried smelts. Baked baccala ws also served, as was grilled scungilli in a celery and parsley salad in a lemon & garlic aioli. It was all simply tremendous. As the years passed by, there were additions made to the menu, which included grilled octopus, stuffed squid mantles, and a white clam sauce option for the linguini.
Our family’s menu might reflect that of many Italian families, yet I am sure that there are other menus that have a significantly different roster of fish. A lot of that depends on where in Italy a family heralds from. There is no one definitive traditional menu. We will expand this article regularly as we explore the feast from other regional points of view. Merry Christmas everyone!