What's the Deal with... The Feast of Seven Fishes

Julia Bainbridge
·Food Editor

You know that thing? That thing popping up on menus everywhere, but you don’t quite know what it is? And it sounds like something you should already know about, so you don’t really want to ask? Well, we know about it, and we’ll give you the intel. Welcome to What’s the Deal with.

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Photo credit: Getty Images

The Feast of Seven Fishes: It’s a feast, it happens on Christmas Eve, it involves fish, and it’s an Italian thing. Right? Kinda. 

Well, “kinda” doesn’t cut it. We turned to Katie Parla, a food historian and writer who’s been living in Rome for 11 years. “In Catholic countries, fish acts as a replacement for meat on the ascribed religious days when they traditionally eschew meat,” says Parla. Okay, that’s a good starting place. Onward!

Where It Comes From: The Feast of Seven Fishes is largely an Italian-American tradition. “I grew up Italian-American, in the Northeast, and everyone celebrates Christmas Eve this way,” says Parla. “In Italy, very few families do.”

The second, very large wave of Italians who emigrated to America came from southern Italy. There—in Sicily, Naples, and surrounding areas—the feast was composed of seven courses, representing the seven sacraments of the Roman-Catholic church. Other families might celebrate with nine courses, or 12 for Jesus’s 12 students, called disciples, or 13 for the disciples plus Jesus, “so there is so little continuity and things are hyper-regional, as they are in so many Italian foods.” But it’s the seven that’s taken hold in Italian-American culture.

Today, in Italy, “people simply celebrate Christmas Eve with fish with no particular symbolic number in mind.” So the Feast of the Seven Fishes has become “completely synonymous with Italian-American culture. It’s just like spaghetti and meatballs: it’s a dish that’s ubiquitous in Italian-American restaurants, but not really in Italy.”

Defining Characteristic: Fish. That’s the only real remaining similarity between the Old World and the States. The number of courses differs and so do the dishes themselves, depending on both region and the family. That said, in Italy “the one thing you do see that cuts through is salt cod, because it’s cheap and easy. Until recently, Italy was poor, agriculturally. People would eat what they could afford to make.”

Why It’s Catching On: A number of reasons. As foodie-ism sweeps the nation, there’s more interest in the cultural heritage of what we eat. “Italian-Americans have had a kind of blind pride in their food without understanding,” says Parla. “But now, with more information, there is more of a tangible link to where people come from.”

That information is coming from the media, too, as food publications delve deeper into why we eat what we eat. Bon Appétit restaurant and drinks editor Andrew Knowlton told us: “Like I said in my December Foodist column, I’m neither Catholic nor Italian, but I’ve adopted this Feast of the Seven Fishes. It’s great because one, I like to cook, two, it’s a way to start my own tradition, and three, it’s a way to lighten up the holiday meals.”

Which brings us to the health reason: As people become more conscious of their red meat intake, the Feast of the Seven Fishes allows them to be decadent without eating meat. 

And finally: “You may even see more people going back to old traditions due to the popularity of Pope Francis,” says Parla. “Some people gave up before, but now they’re back to it.”

How to Make the Feast: Poke around online; we like the inspiration we found on Saveur and from that guy Mario Batali, who we hear knows a thing or two about Italian food. 

As for Knowlton, he told us this year’s menu might involve “stone crabs with mayonnaise, a smoked fish plate, salmon roe pancakes, fritto misto, peel-and-eat shrimp, mackerel on toast, clam risotto, langoustines a la plancha, and whole turbot stuffed with bay leaves.” That sounds so tasty, we might just adopt the tradition ourselves.