Food History: Feast of the Seven Fish

10 Dec

Written by Andrea Scalici

In the Italian culture, there are a lot of traditions. Some make sense, some don’t, some can be explained, some can’t. We are so rooted in custom, often based around the Catholic religion, that most of the time the reasoning doesn’t even matter. One such tradition is the Feast of the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve, or La Vigilia. This celebration is a commemoration of the wait, Vigilia di Natale, for the midnight birth of the baby Jesus. Despite the fact that fish dishes make excellent meals anyway, the symbolization comes from (most popularly believed) the seven sacraments: Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Penance, Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders, and Matrimony. Or, in the 13-dish version, it pays homage to Jesus and his 12 apostles. In Italy, what was served during the Feast also showed the wealth of the family with the well-to-do enjoying roast capitone (eel), and the less fortunate making do with baccalà.

In my family, the tradition was set long before I came along. My father’s grandparents brought it with them from Napoli and Sicily to Staten Island, like many of their neighbors around them. My dad and his siblings always recount the stories of the good ol’ days while cooking our own annual Feast. They talk about Grandpa Angelo, the baccalà guy, soaking the big cardboard looking dry cod in the bathtub 24 hours before Christmas Eve and how Grandma Rosie hated the smell. Angelo cooked the baccalà in a thin and spicy tomato broth with onion and celery (with pepper he called red cheese). This was my dad’s favorite, as was the oily eel that he baked with garlic and breadcrumbs. Naturally, my dad’s younger sisters don’t remember this because, as he points out, “Grandpa and I were the only ones who ate it!” Angelo also prepared clams oregenata (something we always try and recreate). Grandma Rosie did her thing with squid, stuffing the bodies with breadcrumbs, egg, parsley and garlic, and sewing them shut to cook in sauce. She always kept the skin of the eel to soak and put around sprains, which was supposed to take the pain and swelling away as it shrunk and tightened while drying. Another standby dish was the baked whiting, served hot or cold with lemon and parsley and crusty Italian bread. On the Sicilian side of the family, my dad’s Grandpa Antonino and Grandma Mary made “pulpo and scungilli”, cold with oil, celery, parsley and lemon. This also still makes it to our table every year. The one thing in common in all Catholic-Italian homes however was, no meat allowed before midnight on Christmas Eve, so, as my father says, “we all slept with the fishes.”

Today many of the same customs live on, especially in the Scalici household. The baccalà has always been my dad’s favorite, but I don’t think it has ever been the same since the bathtub days. While we always have some variety of the basics, a baked filet (sole, flounder), a seafood marinara medley (shrimp, lobster, scallops), pulpo and scungilli salad, and clams oregenata of course, we put our own twist on things, making new memories with each passing Christmas (a “Mob Hits” sing-along ensues in the kitchen every year). And while we always have another extravagant feast of antipasti with sopressata and parmigiano-reggiano, fist-size ravioli, and a big roast on Christmas Day, nothing tops the Feast of the Seven Fishes. Though my aunt’s annual batches of biscotti and Venetian cookies are a close second.

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