Feast of the Seven Fishes

 In Food & Dining, Holidays, OBX Locals

The holiday season, for many, is steeped in tradition. In my family, some traditions have survived generations while others have only lasted a few years before petering out.

The traditions that have stood the test of time in my home are those that take place on Christmas Eve – like picking one gift under the tree to open. Another time honored tradition is having homemade clam chowder and oyster stew, served with cutout Christmas tree sandwiches, for Christmas Eve Dinner.

While these are traditions that are shared within a family, there are many that are shared by millions and have become engrained in a culture. One of the most popular of those is the Feast of the Seven Fishes.

The feast has roots in the Italian-American culture and usually includes seven different seafood dishes – or several fish prepared in a variety of ways. Its origins are in Southern Italy, where it is called The Vigil, and the tradition shares its roots among Roman Catholics who abstain from eating meat on Fridays during Lent and holy days.

Fish Roman Catholics typically ate included Baccala, Cod fish balls, fried smelts, fried calamari, marinated eel, fried cod and fried shrimp. Many of these have been incorporated into today’s Feast of the Seven Fishes tradition.

While there are a number of recipes and possibilities when it comes to preparing the Feast of the Seven Fishes, the most widely prepared recipe in Southern Italy during the Feast is salted cod fish, but the menu has largely expanded over the years and can include more than just seven seafood dishes. Popular items that have been added to the menu over the years include clams, scallops, swordfish and lobster to name a few.

No one knows exactly the meaning of the number seven, but one theory is that seven is “God’s number.” Another is that that is the number of days it took Jesus and Mary to travel to Bethlehem.  Another theory is that it refers to the seven sacraments and the seven deadly sins. Some people chose to serve ten fishes to correspond to the 10 Stations of the Cross. Other religious correlations include serving 12 fish to correspond to the number of Apostles.

There are no rules on how to prepare this popular Christmas feast, and over the years, some families have held on to the tradition while decreasing the number of fishes offered during the meal. Whatever you decide, consider serving a variety of different fish as part of your feast, incorporating them into appetizers, soups, stews entrees or pasta dishes.

With so much fresh seafood available in the Outer Banks, be creative with the menu and make this popular Italian-American tradition your own. ♦

Illustration by Allie Harju

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