19 December, 2016
Feast Of The Seven Fishes – Italian Christmas Tradition
Christmas is this week! It occurs every year about this time, yet I still seem to be surprised when the week before Christmas actually arrives. (No one ever accused me of being too bright.) In my mind I think I am organized, cookies baked, presents made, or bought. Decorations up (few though they may be this year). Christmas letter written, cards addressed, and everything is mailed! Whew! But there’s always so much more to do. If you need a de-stressor you might enjoy this video. I can’t help but laugh out loud every time I watch it.
Traditions! Everyone has their favorites at holiday time. When my grandparents were alive (my Italian family is from Southern Italy: Adelfia, Bari and Palermo, Sicily), we always celebrated the Feast of the seven fishes on Christmas Eve. My grandmother would be cooking for a week to prepare all the dishes for the celebration. More on the Feast of the seven fishes from Wiki.
Some of the fish dishes we used to enjoy as part of this feast were calamari, baccala (cod), crab, scallops, shrimp, clams, oysters. My grandparents loved octopus but I wasn’t a fan until recently. So let me stop here and tell you about my experience with octopus about 12 years ago in Bari.
We had visited family in Bari and it was time to leave, so my uncle and cousins were seeing us off. Their cars are small, so it took several of them to drive us to the train station. When we got to the train station there were hugs, kisses, and goodbyes… well you know that took a long time. Italians don’t know how to say goodbye in less than an hour. We took our luggage and headed for the train platform only to be informed that the trains were on strike.
No one at the train station knew when the strike would end so we decided to fly (we were on our way to Venice). Suitcases back in the cars, relatives back in the cars, and off we went to the airport. My uncle who was leading the group got a little lost and had to stop and ask for directions. Picture this, we are on a back road where a car only comes along every once in a while. We had to let a few cars go by because women were driving – my uncle would only ask a man for directions.
So a man driver finally comes along and my uncle stops him and gets directions to the airport. After taking the “scenic” route we arrive at the airport. Suitcases out, hugs and kisses all around, and now to buy a ticket and get on the next plane. But wait! I’ve lost my passport. After some deliberation, I figured out I had left it at a hotel in Rome.
We called FedEx to see if we can get the passport sent to my uncle’s house. They could do that, but delivery date is not guaranteed the next day, or a few days after that. The window of delivery time was up to a week. It’s Italy you know, nothing happens fast there (except driving on the expressways).
By this time we’re all getting hungry. We’d missed lunch and while it was too early for dinner (by Italian standards) we all needed to eat and my poor aunt was getting car sick from all the driving around. So my uncle decides we will go out to a little restaurant by the sea and get a bite to eat before we go back to the train station. (It would have been futile to try to call the train station, after all, they were on strike and wouldn’t answer the phone.)
Are you still with me? Believe it or not, I’m getting to the octopus! We unload the suitcases again (can’t leave them in the car while we eat, they might get stolen), unload all the relatives and into the restaurant we go. My uncle goes back to the kitchen and talks to the chef and in a short time food just starts appearing. To my surprise a bowl of raw fish crowned by an upside down octopus is put before me. This was such a delicacy and I didn’t really appreciate it. My cousin ate his and he was thrilled when I pushed my dish over to him.
The chef saw me give my octopus away and was concerned that I didn’t like it so he made me another appetizer, put it in front of me and stood behind me while I ate it to make sure I liked it. I don’t remember what else we ate that day, just that a lot of food kept coming out of the kitchen and the chef was glad we were eating it.
After this meal, we loaded our suitcases back in the cars, all relatives fed and accounted for, and headed back to the train station to find out when the trains might be running again. Someone that looked like an authoritative figure told us the strike was going to end at midnight. The relatives dropped us off, gave us the shortest goodbye in Italian history this time, and headed home.
Update on the octopus: when we were in Bari last year, I finally found out that fixed a certain way (not raw), I liked octopus.
Back to the Feast of the Seven Fishes: Over the years I have tried to keep up this tradition, and most years I’ve had seven fishes on the menu. (Do goldfish crackers count?) However, in recent years, the menu has been reduced by a fish or two or three. Okay, so I’ll admit that last year we had shrimp cocktails, calamari, and clam chowder.