The Feast of the Seven Fishes is eaten on Christmas Eve in Italian-American households. Although it’s often an even bigger meal than Thanksgiving dinner, it is considered a fast because no meat is involved. (A brilliant loophole, if you ask me.) This dinner stemmed from the Catholic tradition of not eating meat on Fridays, especially during Lent. As someone who has always preferred fish to meat, this is a fast I could commit to at any time of year.
When cooking this meal, every element of family life seems to amplify. There are arguments over recipes and responsibilities, tears shed for loved ones who have passed, and of course, the joys of sharing a delicious meal. Cooking is another art form from the heart and hands, with traditions as intricate as those of lampworkers or potters. Elements of cooking become muscle memory over the years, as the family chefs became the artisans of this particular tradition. As a culture, we are finally starting to recognize the huge sociological value of skills such as cooking, which were previously diminutively considered “women’s work.” Growing up as a young woman in a very Italian, very Catholic family, I have always felt a particular reverence toward these traditions, because there is a day I will be the matriarch, and all these recipes will need to be at my fingertips.
Although exact menus will vary from family to family, there are some standard dishes for this meal. At our table, there is usually fried shrimp and fried calamari, which my mother would lightly bread with seasoned flour. There is also crabs and spaghetti, often made from crabs that my father had caught in the warmer months and froze. There is also baccala, or salted cod, still dried and preserved the old-fashioned way, then soaked in water for a few days to rehydrate, changing the water intermittently. Some people even soak this in the bathtub, which is quite a sight! During the holiday season, these old-world ways of doing things seem even more important.
Scungilli, or whelk, is probably one of the most exotic of the dishes served. Scungilli is an inky looking sea snail that is served boiled, thinly sliced, and seasoned with lemon, garlic, parsley, olive oil, salt, and red pepper flakes. Although it’s not my favorite dish, I still appreciate its value as a tradition.
Every December 24th, this meal marks the passing of another year. As a child, this dinner or any of these dishes would remind me of my mother and my grandmothers, and all the warm Christmases of prior years. This year, the abundant seafood dishes will likely conjure memories of Venice, where I ate similar dishes this March while travelling for Uno. (You can read my travel logs of this amazing journey here!) The older I get, the more these traditions mean to me. As I age and I am trusted to cook things myself, I am further woven into the threads of my heritage, and feel even closer to the women who came before me. If I ever become a mother myself, the emotions involved with this dinner will morph once again, as I pass these traditions down to my own children.
-Anna, Assistant Marketing Manager- Content