I recently found out that I am, in fact, sort of Italian. Don’t ask me why it took me this long to find out. The story is long and embarrassing. But now, I’m tasked with learning all I can about my newfound heritage—including arguably the most important Italian-American meal of the calendar year: the Feast of the Seven Fishes. Conveniently, the feast’s origins are explained in this two-year-old blog post from—where else—a pasta sauce brand. Thanks, Paesana!
This annual feast typically occurs on Christmas Eve, serving as the centerpiece of the holiday season for many tradition-oriented Italian-Americans. And while Paesana suggests that the origin of the Feast can be traced back to the coastal region of southern Italy, its origins might not be that simple. As explained by the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, the tradition likely stems from homesick 20th-century Italian-American immigrants. They may have celebrated the holiday season by combining classic Italian dishes and seafood, with the sea signifying, as the museum puts it, a “representation of the connection between their home country and new one.”
How’d they land on the number seven? No one is sure. The Paesana article mentions the Roman Catholic Church’s seven sacraments, seven virtues or the “seventh day of rest” from the Bible. Could’ve also been completely random. Regardless, a traditional Feast now involves exactly seven seafood dishes.
There are countless ways to celebrate the Feast. Hell, throw it on a pizza and call it a day. But if you want to go traditional, your Feast should involve these seafood dishes:
- Baked Clams, which are tasty enough to enjoy alone. The Feast of the One Fish, if you will.
- Fried Smelt
- Baccalá, or salted white fish similar to cod
- Scungilli, a giant sea snail that works great in a chilled seafood salad
- Mussels, best enjoyed either steamed or in a cioppino-style seafood stew
- Lobster, probably not of the cotton candy variety
There you have it. For more information on the Feast of the Seven Fishes, hop over to that oddly informative Paesana blog post. If you need me, I’ll be trying to convince my family to serve smelt on Christmas Eve.