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Christmas Eve Fish Dinner is, without question, the most important, the most festive, the most familial, the warmest and most memorable family gathering. For me, Christmas Eve Dinner surpasses every other holiday, As important and delightful as Thanksgiving of Easter or even Fourth of July might be, nothing approaches the ineffable depth and richness of Christmas Eve Fish Dinner offered a table unlike that of any other holiday.
But before I go further, let’s consider the name of this dinner. Among some Italians that I have questioned it is called “Feast of the Seven Fishes,” for other families, including my own, it was simply Christmas Eve Fish Dinner. There was no specific number of fish involved. Carol Field’ Celebrating Italy, a most thorough study of Italian holidays, notes that Christmas Eve dinner calls for fish but makes no mention of the number of fish dishes. Moving my investigation of the Christmas Eve dinner to Google Italy, I found that it is generally called “Il Cenone della Vigilia” (The great dinner of the Eve.) No Italian site I found made mention of the number of fish. I have the sense that the notion of seven fish may be Italian American and even here only among certain families.
The next question I considered was the type of fish. Almost every reference I found and all the people I interviewed had numerous variations. Among most Italians sites two fish appeared most often, baccalà and eel. Among traditional Italian Americans the two most common dishes were baccalà (usually in a cold salad recipe) and fried smelts. In many younger and less traditionally bound Italian Americans all the old time fish were gone. The new fish platters now included shrimp and fried fish and even fish sticks. Italian Americans are not alone in modernization. It seems that even in Italy the younger generations recoil at the notion of such fish as eel.
While what this dinner is rightly called and which fish are those to be presented seems to vary from region to region and family to family a few things about Christmas Eve fish dinner, go unquestioned. Christmas Eve fish dinner was the one dinner no one missed. Christmas Eve fish dinner was at the home of the patriarch or matriarch. Every child and grandchild was present. The power of the Italian American Christmas Eve dinner overwhelmed all other cultural influences. While the fish dinner may have been rooted in Italy it spread its branches to include and embrace not only those non-Italians who had married into the family but all those of other ethnic backgrounds who were friends beyond the family. Everyone with any association to the family was invited to the Christmas Eve fish dinner.
While all other holiday dinners gathered the family while there was still light in the sky, Christmas Eve Fish Dinner began sometime after sunset. It was and is, the only festive dinner in the Italian American tradition that is shared in darkness. All other holidays in the Italian American tradition are celebrated at the table sometime shortly after noon. Christmas Eve Fish Dinner always began sometime after six in the evening.
Christmas Eve Fish Dinner differs from all other dinners by its lack of structure. Other dinners, whether Sunday Gravy or Easter Sunday follow a certain formality. For other dinners there is always a soup course, an antipasto, the pasta, the main course and then the dessert. The Christmas Eve Fish Dinner was quite different. The Christmas Eve Fish Dinner had courses, but the courses were not single dishes. For the Christmas Eve fish dinner each course was composed of several offerings. And the whole dinner was preceded by a cold table of finger foods that allowed mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews to chatter for an hour or so before dinner began. The finger foods were set on small tables in the living room. The platters included olives, slices of celery and broccoli, and a dish of crackers. There were also plates of cooked shrimp with sides of shrimp cocktail sauce. The olives were from cans and the children liked to slide the pit wholes over their fingers as they chomped on the olives. I would guess that the shrimp and the horseradish based cocktail sauce was an influence from the fashionable restaurants of the time.
After at least an hour of nibbling on the side platters the dinner bell called us to the tables. Yes, tables. In our family there were three. In our center hall style house, the dining room table was turned towards the center hall. A second and third table were butted up to the main table. The three tables continued through the center hall into the living room. Seating was determined by age. The oldest sat in the dining room section; the younger the child the closer to the living room.
There was no soup on Christmas Eve. When we sat at the table we first saw a small bowl of whiting salad with lemon and a serving of “scungilli,” conch. When I was small there was a cold baccalà salad with tomato. These cold fish salads were followed by the pasta. Of course, we never heard or used the word “pasta.” For us the “pasta” dish was one of three possibilities. It changed from year to year. It could be either “Clams and Spaghetti,” “Mussels and Spaghetti,” or “Squid and Spaghetti.” The spaghetti were always the very thin “angel hair” (“capellini.”)
The next course is always a serving of several varieties of fried fish. My Irish background mother prepared several fish offerings in different ways. There are three central dishes. First, she made a tray of plain American fish sticks for the children and for those at the table of a less than Italian heritage. Then, as a middle ground, my mother makes the most exquisite crab cakes that would appeal to Italian traditionalists as much as to the non- Italian in-laws. For the old timers there is always the most wonderful finger food, fried smelts with lemon. There are also fried scallops, fried shrimp, fried calamari and fried oysters.
Following the fried dishes, the table is covered with several trays of broiled scallop, shrimp and clams. Then comes the main fish platter. This platter has no Italian precedent that I know of. My mother introduced this dish about thirty years ago: stuffed orange roughy papillote. The orange roughy papillote is made by splitting the fish into two pieces and filling with a layer of spinach with tomato, garlic and olive oil. The fish is wrapped in parchment and baked.
After a rest and an interlude of conversation the Christmas Eve Fish dinner is crowned by the dish everyone waits for, my mother’s tray of Christmas cookies. We began at five in the evening. After the cookies it is after 11. The culmination of the Christmas Eve Fish Dinner is Midnight Mass. Following Christmas Midnight Mass the family came home to a wonderful breakfast of eggs and bacon and, in Philadelphia, of scrapple. The special delight of the breakfast was the Christmas Bread, a wonderful brioche-like pastry shaped in a ring and decorated with multi-colored sprinkles. But Christmas bread is another page.