In keeping with my Italian and Catholic heritage tradition, I attempt the “Seven Fish Feast” on Christmas Eve every year. A feast beyond feasts, this meal is made up of … you guessed it—seven fishes. I have to make numerous trips to the grocery store prior to Christmas Eve, and I slave for days preparing this infamous feast. Like most Italian cooks will tell you, cooking Italian food is a labor of love, and the Seven Fish Feast is no exception.
Over the years, I’ve had many people ask me, “What in the heck are the seven fishes? And why are there seven?” After careful thought, I would defiantly blurt out, “Italians don’t eat meat the day before Christmas.” But that didn’t satiate half the people who asked, and it made me wonder—was there really any national or religious meaning associated with this tradition? Or was it just a tradition my family made up? So I started to ask other Italian friends. It turns out, they had also celebrated Christmas Eve with the Seven Fish Feast. But they too, had just grown up and accepted it as a family holiday tradition, with recipes passed down from generation to generation.
After a little online consulting and numerous interviews with Italian compadres, there seemed to be a method to the madness of “Why seven?” and “Why fish?”. As it turns out, the number of fish can be any odd number (three, five, seven, nine, thirteen, etc.), but it’s always an odd number. The number traditionally settled on is seven. Through all of my investigative research, I found and heard many different stories, but all seemed to come back to the number of seven, and it was usually related to the seven sacraments.
However, some Italian Catholics said you could do three fishes, and it symbolized the Holy Trinity. Or, you could do as many as thirteen fishes, which symbolized the twelve apostles plus Jesus. For all we know, seven could’ve seemed like a good number in the middle that someone compromised on. As for the fish part, it seemed that since Roman Catholics observe Christmas Eve waiting for the birth of Jesus, it is believed that they do not eat meat on Christmas Eve—just as how they observe Good Friday, etc.
But for me, the more important and obvious question is why fish and not pasta? Yet somehow, the answer to that question continues to elude us all. Growing up, we’d always had some sort of pasta for the kids (probably because most kids scowl at the taste of fish, unless it is breaded and dipped in ketchup). Yet one thing was consistent—the types of fish. The seven fishes always included: clams, shrimp, bacalao, smelts, sardines, crab, and squid or octopus. My favorite was always the shrimp cocktail or the crab cakes. Two recipes I have slightly modified over the years, which I can now fondly call my own. Enjoy!
- 16 ounces canned crab meat (or fresh if you want to pick through the shells)
- 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
- 1/4 cup mayonnaise
- 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
- 3 tablespoons chopped chives (fresh)
- 1/4 teaspoon Old Bay Seasoning (or your favorite hot sauce)
- 3/4 cup Panko bread crumbs
- olive oil for frying
Line a baking sheet with wax paper. Mix the first six ingredients and 1/4 cup of Panko bread crumbs. Add in egg. Using a couple tablespoons of the mixture formulate 1 1/2 inch cakes. Coat the crab cakes in the remainder of the Panko bread crumbs. Transfer to a baking sheet and refrigerate at least one hour to allow the cakes to congeal. Then, fry ‘em up! Take about two minutes per side to cook.