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Italian-American Tradition: The Seven Fish Dinner

Origins of the Seven Fish Dinner in Italy:

We all have the mental image…mostly true…of the Italian love of cuisine.  At Christmas time there is an old Catholic tradition throughout Italy of not eating dairy or meat on the eve of some holidays, and naturally this includes Christmas Eve.

In Italy, the celebration on the 24th often includes placing the baby Jesus in a nativity scene at home and then off to church for midnight Mass. Traditionally, the Feast of the Seven Fishes is served in the early hours of the morning, after midnight Mass. Then it’s time for dessert, which may include biscotti, panforte, pandoro and panettone. Different parts of Italy tend to favor different dishes, so you won’t find the same menu items in Rome that you find in Naples.

The Seven Fish Dinner comes to the United States:

During the peak years of Italian immigration into the United States, most immigrants came from Southern Italy, where seafood is abundant and an important part of the diet. And, of course, most of these immigrants were Catholic.  No one seems to know exactly why the number seven became associated with this meal (it is apparently something added after their arrival in the U.S.) but the number seven  is a symbol that’s repeated many times throughout the Bible; and, of course, there are seven sacraments and seven deadly sins.

This holiday dinner varies by region. What you find on the plate in one city may not be the same in the next. Typical “fishes” include baccalà (salt cod), frutti di mare (shellfish), capitone (eel), calamari (squid), scungilli (conch meat) and vongole (clams). Fried vegetables are also a popular accompaniment to the fish; expect fried artichokes, pickled vegetables, fried squash blossoms, and other treats.

For many Italian-Americans the feast would include dishes such as baccalà (fried salted codfish) with a spicy caper-flecked sauce and grilled or fried eel (capitone). Other items might include calamari, linguine with anchovies, seafood salad, and shrimp.

If you’re not up to all this cooking, many major U.S. Cities have restaurants offering the seven fish dinner….and not just on the East Coast cities where many Italian immigrants landed, but just about all over….we even found some pretty good ones in Dallas, Texas!  Here is one that sounds like something we would like to try.

So check around…or just try to make up your own assortment of dishes……we don’t think there are any strict rules to the seven fish dinner……and be sure to get to some good Italian vino to add to the occasion.

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