It’s a big deal in parts of Brooklyn, and in Italian enclaves around New Jersey and Philadelphia: celebrating Christmas Eve with a feast of fish.
Wonder where the tradition comes from?
Whether it represents the hills of Rome, the Catholic sacraments, or, as veteran home cook Rosella Vitale suggests, “lucky lottery numbers,” the Seven Fishes dinner is synonymous with Christmas Eve for countless Italian-Americans, especially those with roots in New Jersey and Philadelphia.
“Squid, smelts,” says Reggie Delphin, owner of Freeman’s Fish Market and purveyor of Eden Gourmet’s fish, “clams, mussels, sardines, maybe they serve a seafood salad.” He and fellow fishmonger Shawn McClure agree that, while every family’s order is a little different, the Seven Fishes dinner makes for the busiest time of the year. It also means that the gleaming fish heaped on mounds of ice at the fish counters aren’t the usual fare. “We get calls for fish that people don’t eat as much the rest of the year,” explains Delphin. “Octopus and eel, for example.”
The origins of the meal are largely lost to history, though Christmas Eve is a day when, traditionally, Catholics abstained from eating meat. Sicily and Naples are two regions of Italy often credited with “la vigilia,” and the tradition probably travelled with immigrants who arrived on these shores.
New Jersey chef and author Michael Colameco, host of food shows on WOR and PBS, looks to both heritage and geography to explain the Seven Fishes. “Italian cooking was never codified like the French,” he explains. “Italian cooking is at its heart a philosophy really, relying more on great local ingredients than on technique and manipulation of the ingredients.”
The first wave of Italians who came to Newark arrived in the 1870s from southern Italy and Sicily. So many immigrants made their way to Newark, the Oranges, and surrounding communities that Newark claimed the nation’s fifth-largest Italian population at the turn of the 20th century. That number continued to grow into the 1930s. The immigrants brought with them a fish dinner tradition and, says Colameco, a philosophy of eating locally. The Jersey shore did the rest, offering a bounty of local fish that continues to this day, and establishing the Feast of the Seven Fishes as a Garden State-Philly culinary tradition.