The first time Ian Cox’s family attempted the Christmas Eve Feast of the Seven Fishes, a beloved Italian tradition, they prepared seven full-sized entrees.
“We couldn’t eat them all, we got so full,” said Cox, a manager at the Wrecking Bar Brewpub in Atlanta. “So over the years we fine-tuned it. Now it’s more like seven tapas dishes spanning the globe. We always do raw oysters, and there’s usually a tuna tartare in there.”
Beth Hamilton, a stay-at-home mom in Atlanta, gets around the seafood surfeit by constructing her annual Feast of the Seven Fishes out of seven varieties of seafood.
“So if we have a seafood gumbo or soup with several different kinds of fish in it, then we count them all. Someone even suggested we do cupcakes decorated with Swedish Fish for dessert.”
Hamilton’s family began preparing the feast with good friends to create a tradition for their kids growing up.
“We love the symbolism of it,” she says. “The seven fishes represent the seven sacraments of the Church, and the number seven is revered in the Bible.”
The funny thing is that neither Hamilton nor Cox is Italian. The even funnier thing is that many Italians have no idea what you’re talking about when you bring it up.
“I don’t know any Italians who prepare it,” says Riccardo Ullio, the Atlanta restaurateur who owns Sotto Sotto and Fritti in Inman Park. He polled Italian friends in Atlanta and couldn’t find one who had made the meal.
However, the tradition, which originated in Southern Italy as a way of observing Lenten-style abstinence from meat, is widely observed among Italian-Americans in the Northeast and freely adopted by seafood lovers throughout the country.
It makes perfect sense, too.
A carefully prepared fish dinner on a winter night has a special kind of opulence. It is hearty without being overbearing – an indulgence that won’t try to outdo the eggnog. I like to make a seafood dinner on Christmas Eve because I know the next day will involve a full turkey dinner, a plum pudding and far too much wine.
Often I prepare this seafood stew, which borrows a little from cioppino and a little from bouillabaisse. It is incredibly easy to throw together and has a finished flavor that’s grand beyond its ingredients.
It only contains five fishes, however. You could start, as we like to, with some oysters on the half shell or smoked salmon with crackers. That gets you up to six fishes. Caesar salad, with its all-important anchovy, could pull you over the finish line.
Or you’ve always got those Swedish Fish cupcakes.