The Feast of the Seven Fishes
Fresh seafood is a delicious way to celebrate the holidays
Have you heard of the feast of the seven fishes? How about the feast of the twelve fishes? If you grew up in a southern Italian home—like me and Salem, New Hampshire–based Tuscan Kitchen owner Joe Faro—you know that this refers to la vigilia (the vigil), which is commemorated on Christmas Eve.
Strangely enough, in Italy, the feast of fishes is unknown. Italians will tell you “non esiste” (it does not exist) and that this is a southern Italian observance invented in America by large numbers of Sicilian immigrants, many of who were fishermen.
Years ago, Christmas Eve was declared a fast day by the Catholic Church and that meant that no meat could be consumed. Instead fish, and lots of it, was the centerpiece. That ban has long been lifted, but southern Italian Americans still carry on the fish tradition.
Why seven or twelve fish dishes? Some say that the number is symbolic. Seven represents the last full week of advent, the seven sacraments or the seven days of creation. The number twelve is said to represent the twelve apostles. And there’s also an argument that the number should be thirteen to include Jesus.
When I was a child, preparing for the feast was an all-consuming kitchen affair; different types of fish and seafood were prepared by my parents with the help of my two grandmothers (one from Naples and one from Sicily), each contributing favorite recipes. Joe has a rich Sicilian heritage too, and his knowledge of these traditional dishes is almost sacred.
Baccalá (salted cod) cooked in milk or tomato sauce was a must when I was a kid and is still one of the most popular dishes for the feast. This stiff-as-a-board dried and salted cod sat in the kitchen sink and was brought back to life after three days of rehydrating under a slow faucet drip to remove the excess salt.
Roasted eel was another favorite and touted as a delicacy. Served with wedges of lemon and scented with bay leaf, I remember it being scooped up by all the adults while the children watched in horror of grownups “eating snakes.”
The table was set with platters of spaghetti with squid, perfumed with garlic and wine. Fritto Misto di Pesce (fried fish) was my favorite because the flour coating was crunchy and masked the fishy taste. Marinated anchovies served with red peppers, tuna with capers and olive oil, and tiny clams in tomato sauce were also stars on the table.
Of course, you don’t have to be Italian to create these dishes, nor do you have to make all of them. But you might want to try one or two for your own holiday celebration.
Creating the feast of the seven (or twelve) fishes was and still is an intensive labor of love for those determined to keep traditions alive.
Try some of Mary Ann's 'Feast of the Seven Fishes' recipes at home:
Dining Out for the Feast of the Seven Fishes
If you want to enjoy the Feast of the Seven Fishes this holiday season but would rather someone else do the cooking, look no farther than Tuscan Kitchen & Market in Salem, New Hampshire, and Burlington, Massachusetts. The Christmas Eve tradition is offered every year. This year, on Saturday, December 24, from 3 to 8 p.m., you can enjoy a menu that includes Fritto Misto di Pesce, Wood-Grilled Point Judith Squid and Baked Sicilian Swordfish at both locations. The cost is $55 per person or $80 per person with wine pairings chosen by the restaurant’s wine director.
“Growing up in an immigrant Italian home, the Feast of the Seven Fishes was one of my favorite holiday celebrations,” Tuscan Kitchen & Market owner Joe Faro says. “I look forward to it every year, and am honored to share this incredible culinary tradition with our guests and their families.”
Faro, who refers to himself as “chief food taster,” has more than twenty-five years of culinary experience. His company, Joseph’s Gourmet Pasta and Sauces, began as a small hand-crafted pasta business in the attic of the Faro family bakery in Haverhill, Massachusetts. In 2010, he founded Tuscan Kitchen in Salem to showcase the artisanal regional specialties in Italy, and Tuscan Market followed in 2012. The store features fresh bread, handmade pasta, Italian pastries, gelato, hundreds of wines, prepared foods and other imported foods from Italy. “My goal is to share an authentic, artisanal culinary Italian experience through the ‘holy trinity’ of dining, shopping and cooking,” Faro says. “The restaurants and markets are a way for our guests to eat their way through Italy’s diverse regional cuisines.”
Tuscan Market in Salem, New Hampshire, is also home to La Scuola Culinaria, an onsite cooking school for learning authentic Italian cooking. See the website for more information. Also of note: Tuscan Kitchen & Market’s Portsmouth location is due to open in February.
Tuscan Kitchen & Market (603) 952-4875 in Salem, New Hampshire
(781) 365-2800 in Burlington, Massachusetts • www.tuscanbrands.com