On the night before Christmas, some people are preparing and decorating Christmas cookies, while others are readying a “roast beast” for the oven. But for Italian-Americans, cooking up the right supper can be a bit fishy. While the precise origins of the tradition are not clear, the Feast of the Seven Fishes, also referred to as La Vigilia, honors Italian-Catholic traditions of eating lean, or magro, in preparation for Christmas holiday feasting. Still, it’s difficult to say that this hours-long meal is anything but indulgent.
Though connected with various Christmas Eve celebrations across Italy, the Feast of the Seven Fishes is decidedly an Italian-American invention that stems from the early 20th century. During these peak years of Italian immigration into the United States, most people came from Southern Italy, where seafood is an important part of the diet. Many Italian-Americans wouldn’t recognize the feast without dishes such as baccalà (fried salted codfish) with a spicy caper-flecked sauce and grilled or fried eel (capitone). Other typical preparations include calamari, linguine with anchovies, seafood salad, and shrimp. To make the meal into a real sumptuous affair, oysters and lobster might join a baked whole fish.
The number seven holds a variety of possible, mostly religious, associations, including the number of days it took god to create the Earth in the Bible, the seven cardinal sins, and the number of holy sacraments. While most families will have at least seven types of seafood on the table, many cooks play by their own rules, featuring additional dishes that include everything from meat to pasta. According to food scholars, despite being a relatively new (and somewhat lawless) tradition, the feast is a way for Italian-Americans to remember, revitalize, or introduce their culture to others (especially in cases of in-laws). And while dinners tend to be hosted at home, Italian restaurants across the country have been known to offer the celebration throughout December. Seven or 17, land or marine, turning down an invite to this fine feast would be seriously sinful.
Where to Try It
Vetro by Russo's on the Bay164-49 Cross Bay Blvd, Howard Beach, New York, 11414, United States
This Italian restaurant overlooking Jamaica Bay offers the Feast of the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve.