Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Feast of the Seven Fishes

Yes, we know it's a Christmas Eve tradition.  On December 24 many Italians and non-Italians alike serve an enormous feast featuring seven or more distinct seafood dishes.  More on that later.  But for those of you who are slightly less traditional, allergic, or simply eschew fish, we offer you a tongue-in-cheek version of the menu; a fishless seven fishes:
  • Macaroni and cheese made with crab-shaped pasta and topped with crushed goldfish crackers.  (that's two fish!)
  • Caesar Salad (dressing contains anchovies)
  • Flying Fish Beer
  • Fish House Punch--a cocktail recipe that was commonly consumed Colonial Philadelphia's fishing and hunting clubs; George Washington et al may well have consumed a version of this concoction when they weren't otherwise occupied--freezing at Valley Forge, fighting the British, and forming a new nation.  The recipe makes just under 1 gallon--mix all ingredients and let stand at least one hour to dissolve sugar.  Serve with plenty of ice.
    1 cup superfine sugar
    2 cups ReaLemon bottled lemon juice
    1 qt dark rum
    2 cups cognac
    1 cup peach brandy or Schnapps
    1 qt water
  • Swedish Fish--repulsive, I know, but also irresistable 
  • And for dessert, Ben and Jerry's Phish Food Ice Cream
But back to tradition.  As stated, the Feast of the Seven Fishes is an absolute at many Italian tables on Christmas Eve.    What I found really interesting, however, was the staunch devotion to this tradition, even among those who don't eat seafood!   I interviewed two Italian American hostesses who cannot abide even the smell of fish, but cook an extensive seven fishes feast on December 24 each and every year.  The other fascinating fact about this custom is that most people who adhere to it do not know  the origins of it beyond the fact that it is a Christmas Eve tradition.

Never one to shy away from a culinary mystery, we dug in and discovered, not surprisingly, that the origins of the seven fishes feast are Catholic.   There is unanimous agreement that the idea of eating only fish on December 24  honors the waiting for the birth of Jesus.   As on Good Friday and during Lent, Catholics abstain from meat as a way to pay respect to Jesus (though most seven fishes feasts are anything but abstemious.)  There is dispute among historians as to the precise basis for the number seven;  some claim it echoes the seven sacraments, others the seven days it took God to create the heavens and earth, still others ascribe it to the seven virtues and seven sins.  One devotee of the tradition claimed it was for luck, as in "Lucky 7." Her family always cooks eight fish dishes just in case one doesn't work out--talk about superstitious!

Whether you are Italian or not, here are some excellent resources if the seven fishes are on your agenda for the Christmas Eve:

Mario and 1/7 of his Christmas Eve Feast

And here's another take on fish consumption entirely.  For reasons unexplained, my husband and daughter love this ad.  I do not share their adoration, but you might, and it certainly was on topic for today.

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