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The seven-fishes feast
(article, Zanne Miller)
Growing up in Philadelphia and going to Catholic school, I had many Italian friends who celebrated Christmas Eve with a meal known as the Feast of the Seven Fishes, or what they simply called "The Seven Fishes."
While my mom sometimes made fish or scallops at Christmastime, we were German/Irish/English (and Episcopalian), and had no such multi-course, fish-heavy feasting tradition. I admired my friends with their mysterious and ritualized seven-fish dinners, their stuffed clams and fried flounder and their mothers' spaghetti sauces and cheesecakes. While the specific menus varied among my friends’ families, "seven fishes" was consistently a mixture of cooking methods and fish and shellfish.
Known formally as la Vigilia di Natale or, more simply, la Vigilia (the vigil), the Feast of the Seven Fishes is a southern-Italian tradition with murky origins. The numerology and fishology are usually explained something like this: seven for the seven sacraments of the Catholic church, and fish because Christmas Eve is a vigilia di magro, or sacred feast day, on which eating meat is traditionally prohibited. Or the seven is a reminder of the seven deadly sins or the last seven of the Ten Commandments. Whatever the real reason, seven is a number both highly symbolic and big enough to guarantee a serious feast.
[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="Crab meat atop marinara sauce atop spaghetti is Zanne Miller's culminating dish in her feast of seven fishes."]
Fast-forward about 20 years. I am living in Eugene, Oregon, with my then-fiancé, who grew up half-Italian near New Haven, Connecticut. What he remembers as his family's Christmas Eve tradition is spaghetti and lobster tails, cooked by his Neapolitan grandmother and later his mother, using the small lobster tails called langostini or "slipper tails."
So one autumn night, we make his family’s traditional lobster pasta for dinner. It is wonderful; the lobster tails simmering in his mother's spaghetti sauce give the dish a sweet, rich flavor, while the sauce itself makes the lobster meat so tender it really does melt in your mouth. And we are amazed that these tiny lobster tails are plentiful and available for the low price of three dollars a pound.
That same year, we are planning to cook our first Christmas Eve feast together. His sister and her husband are coming, as are assorted friends. We decide to make lobster, but we soon learn that our menu is in jeopardy: those lobster tails, such a bargain a few months earlier, are closer to $35 a pound. We can only stare wistfully into the shellfish case at the fish market; we have eight other people to feed and we're just out of graduate school. I even consider buying a case of lobster tails from a wholesaler, but at almost $200, it’s way out of our range, even if I could find someone to split the order with me.
I had shared my sad tale of woe at every seafood outlet in Eugene (and probably called every one in Oregon) before a clerk at Eugene's Fisherman's Market offered a suggestion: Replace the lobster with Dungeness crab, which was local, in season, and therefore affordable.
That was 12 years ago, but Dungeness is still relatively affordable during the Christmas holidays, retailing in the Pacific Northwest for about $3 to $4 a pound. The Dungeness season begins December 1 and continues through mid-August, with the peak harvest taking place during the first eight weeks. And it is yummy, rich and meaty like lobster, although slightly lighter.
On the night of our Christmas Eve party we feasted, all right; in fact, some of us had some pretty wild dreams after eating so much rich food. Since then, the annual dinner has evolved to include not just crab but clams, shrimp, and salmon.
Shopping, prepping, and cooking the feast takes several hours. It sounds daunting, but I enjoy spending all that time in the kitchen; it's a chance to unwind, to visit with my family, and to create something more than just a meal. Besides, even with all those courses, the goal isn't to rush through it all but to take it slow.
Here's the menu, plus a few preparation tips.
# Antipasto. On a large platter, I arrange olives, artichoke hearts, roasted red peppers, marinated mushrooms, marinated eggplant, and tiny corn cobs (really, anything you like will work here), along with rolled prosciutto and some really good provolone. This can be served as an appetizer or at the table.
# Crab claws and legs. This is a finger-food course, so you'll need at least one set of nutcrackers and lobster picks for every two people, not to mention a few large empty bowls for the shells. Once I serve this course, I start cooking the next one.
# Steamed clams, a recipe I learned while waiting tables in college. I usually serve it family-style in a big bowl, so guests can ladle their own servings into soup bowls.
# Shrimp scampi, served on salad plates with lemon wedges. This is a dish I sometimes make in advance and keep warm in a covered dish until serving time.
# Broiled salmon (this is the Northwest, after all). I start this dish when I serve the shrimp, and once it's ready, I just keep it warm until serving time. When you serve it, start boiling the water for the pasta in the next course.
# Crabs in marinara sauce. The pièce de résistance of the entire meal. The shellfish-tomato sauce (the crab meat comes from the crab bodies not used in the claws/legs course) is served over pasta. Sprinkling cheese over seafood is anathema to traditional Italians, but feel free to add some freshly grated Parmesan if you like.
# Salad. This is just a big green salad, served last to help everybody digest everything.
All of this is served with bread and lots and lots of red wine (or sparkling cider for the children). And after so much feasting, dessert can just be a cookie, a piece of chocolate, or some sorbet.
More than 20 years ago, the New York Times food writer Craig Claiborne wrote about the tradition of the feast of the seven fishes. And just last year, Sunset magazine ran an article about a Bay Area version of the southern-Italian tradition.
If you've been counting, you've probably noticed that my menu quits after five seafood dishes instead of the requisite seven. It's a lot of food, especially when you're used to making a complete meal out of half a crab or a plate of spaghetti.
But this year, I think, I will go for seven and make some tilapia and maybe fried clams for the last two, as my daughter Clio loves fried clams and I love tilapia. Or maybe stuffed baked clams and scallops.
My ex-husband and I have been divorced for almost five years, but we have two daughters together, so we'll always be family. (I’ve also made a commitment to protect both his children and his grandmother's spaghetti-sauce recipe forever.) At this point, we could probably afford at least one or two lobster tails — they only weigh a few ounces, after all — but we like our crab version better.
So the tradition continues: Either he or I make our Northwest version of the Seven Fishes every year on Christmas Eve. Our daughters and our family of friends count on it.
p(bio). Zanne Miller is a writer and mother of two in Eugene who has already begun planning this year's Christmas feast.