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Few holiday meals are as elaborate as the Southern Italian Christmas Eve festa, the Feast of the Seven Fishes, or La Vigilia, meaning The Vigil. For more about the feast, a recipe and my tribute in verse--and you thought I only cooked prose!--you'll just have to click.
‘Twas the day before Christmas and all through the kitchen,
Seven dishes were cookin’, each with a fish in.
Crab, shrimp, clam, calamari and cod,
Just creatures of fin and shell got the nod.
When the revelers finish their lobster and smelts,
Each will have loosened a notch on their belts.
Yes, something about this culinary extravaganza does inspire one to creative heights. At stove or table, it requires true gastronomic fortitude, as each delicacy--lovingly prepared from recipes passed down from generation to generation--is savored during the joyous and satisfying hours spent around the family table.
As with many traditions that have been around longer than the printing press, its origins are shrouded in conjecture. For example, why the number seven?
It is commonly thought to refer to the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church and to the fact that seven is the most mentioned number in the Bible. But some households test the limits of dining endurance, serving as many as 10 courses for the Ten Stations of the Cross, or even 13, to represent Jesus and the Twelve Apostles.
Whatever the number, it is an Olympic feast.
For Linda Prospero, creator of the Ciao Chow Linda blog and member of the board of trustees of Dorothea’s House, an Italian cultural institution in Princeton, where she lives, nary a Christmas Eve in her 63 years has passed without her participating in this culinary tradition.
“That was the most sacrosanct holiday in terms of food," she says of her upbringing in suburban Philadelphia. "Nobody would ever dare to be anywhere else on Christmas Eve.”
Prospero's mother, Maria Bersani, came from the Emilia-Romagna region of Northern Italy, around Bologna, where the tradition is not upheld. At the end of World War Two, Maria found herself in a small town in Austria, a displaced person trying to get home.
Frank Maiello, an American soldier, was there too. His unit had just liberated the town. He and Maria fell in love. After they married and settled outside Philadelphia, Maria quickly adopted the recipes and practices of Frank’s Southern Italian family.
Baccala, salt-cured cod, “is a required fish on Christmas Eve,” Prospero says.
As a little girl, she accompanied her parents to the Italian fish market in Philadelphia to get the stiffly dried fish.
“We would soak it in water for four or five days before it would get rehydrated. Then it would be battered and deep-fried.
"The fish was fried because that was the tradition of Southern Italians where my dad's family was from. I got away from frying because I also love the other fish I make, like stuffed squid in tomato sauce, or seafood risotto. To keep a lot of frying pans going while trying to make the other dishes is tricky."
At one point her grandfather came to live with the family.
“My grandfather liked to cook particularly messy foods, like pig’s ears and noses and tails, so my mother always relegated him to the second kitchen in the basement," she says. "This particular Christmas Eve, there were eels, and they were bought live and squirming. He decided to kill them not in the basement sink, but in the kitchen sink.”
Long story short, her mother’s white eyelet curtains ended up splattered with eel blood.
“Needless to say, my mother was a little bit annoyed,” she says, chuckling.
Regardless of the labor and mess, the eating was always fun--a major social event. Dinner would start at six o’clock and often continue till 10. Then the neighbors would pile in for the leftovers, and the array of cookies would be presented
“My mother was a wonderful baker,” she says with a sentimental sigh. (Maria died in 1986.) “She would make the cookies ahead of time and put them in the attic ,where it was really cold. But my bedroom was on the third floor. So that tray became diminished because I would snitch them.”
Nowadays, "My father and his second wife, my brother and other relatives will join me and my two children in Princeton for the fish feast. My father usually brings fried baccala cakes, and I will still fry something, to keep part of the old tradition."
Whatever auspicious number you choose--7, 10, 13--the Italian fish festival of Christmas Eve is like no other, and well worth the effort.
Of course, if you'd rather leave the work to the professionals, be glad you live in New Jersey, a state blessed with many fine Italian restaurants that prepare the Feast of the Seven Fishes at this time of year.
Here are a few. Bring a buon apetito! And be sure to pace yourself...
Casa Dante – Jersey City - $65, casadante.com
Coltello’s – Crosswicks – a la carte, coltellorestaurant.com
DiPaolo’s – Penn’s Grove- $35, dipaolosrestaurant.com
Filomena’s Berlin – West Berlin - $45, filomenasberlin.com
Luke Palladino – Northfield - $55, lukepalladino.com
Scaturro’s – Marlton - $45, scaturros.com
Tre Piani – Princeton - $69, trepiani.com
Undici – Rumson – a la carte - undicirestaurant.com
But for those who like to cook, here is one of Prospero's favorite 7 Fishes Dishes (in photo, above):
Spaghetti Ai Frutti Di Mare
Adapted From Linda Prospero of ciaochowlinda.blogspot.com
Spaghetti with seafood for two people
8 medium shrimp, shelled and deveined
8 medium calamari (squid), cleaned and cut into rings
8 clams (I used New Zealand cockles)
1/2 pound scallops
1/4 cup olive oil
1 T. butter
1 medium shallot, minced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup dry white wine
Red pepper flakes
¼ cup lemon olive oil
SUZANNE ZIMMER LOWERY is a food writer, pastry chef and culinary instructor at a number of New Jersey cooking schools. Find out more about her at suzannelowery.com.