I must prepare for the time honored tradition of the Feast of the Seven Fishes, a day I enjoy more than Thanksgiving, Halloween and the Stanley Cup Finals rolled up in one.
What, pray, is the Feast of the Seven Fishes? Why, it's only the greatest Italian Christmas tradition...EVAH! Unfortunately, it's not actually, authentically Italian, more like an Italian-American thing (because we don't have purple feet!), but it's roots certainly do go back to the old country. My own family hails from Sicily (my father's side) and Naples (my mother's side), which are, traditionally, some of the poorest places in Italy. When the peasantry escaped their poverty in Italy to come to America, they brought the beginnings of this tradition with them, suitably modified for a new life (and new realities) in America.
See, for Italians, Christmas Eve is the really more important night. That's when The Vigil (La Vigillia) occurred; the actual waiting for Baby Jesus to arrive. For Italians, anticipation is usually better than the event, I guess? Anyways, it's almost a backhanded homage to the whole concept of childbirth. A commemoration of the greatest weapon in the arsenal of the Italian Mother; they torment their children their entire lives with "I spent hours, and hours, and hours in painful, awful, terrible, bloody, excruciating labor to give birth to you, you ungrateful wretch!" (You think Jewish mothers have a corner on the market on guilt trips?). Therefore, the emphasis placed on the labor rather than the actual birth...by women, anyways. So, I guess it's a (strangely masochistic) celebration of motherhood, and Christmas, and an excuse to get stupid fat, all rolled up into one. So, for some strange reason they never really made to clear to us during 10 years of a Catholic School education, Italians 'fast' for Christmas...by stuffing themselves with vast quantities of seafood.
It would break the heart of the most ardent tree-hugger to think of how badly we denude the oceans for a Christmas Feast! I actually snicker at that thought.
Anyways, there's the Feast. Now, depending upon which part of Italy your forebears supposedly came from, the tradition becomes slightly different, but the same motif about the number seven (a lucky number!) continues, each of the seven fishes represents one of the Seven Deadly Sins, or the Seven Hills that Surround Rome, the Seven Sacraments of the Church, The Seven Days of Creation in Genesis. Perhaps it's because Italians are inveterate gamblers, or maybe that was the number of broads Frank Sinatra once bagged simultaneously. Who knows why it's seven; somehow, seven is supposed to be the greatest number of all, and every red-blooded Goombah always has a reverence for the number seven.
The Feast itself usually begins at 3:00 in the afternoon; that's when the boiled shrimp gets served, cocktail style, a seafood salad (usually Scungilli Salad, conch), antipasti -- a variety of sliced meats, cheeses, and pickled vegetables --olives and olive-inspired canapes, fresh-roasted red peppers, hot Tusacn peppers in vinegar, and a host of hors d'oeuvres. We skip lunch so that we can partake of this pre-meal extravaganza. Wine gets passed around, too. Think of it as warm-up for the main event, which begins at 7:00. During this time, we sit around, stuff ourselves and reminisce about this, that and the other, and at some point it devolves into a round of good-natured ribbing that would appear vicious to the uninitiated, but if you're Italian you know what I mean. We laugh, we remember those who aren't here anymore, we talk about everything and anything, we tell the kids about 'the old days' before they get bored and go watch TV. It's Family Time.
Then the actual dinner starts, promptly at 7 P.M. (There's that number again!)
There's the fried shrimp, fried scrod, baked clams and mussels in tomato or Fra Diavlo sauce (a hot tomato sauce), Calamari (squid), lobster tails, scallops in the shell or in wine sauce -- all of which follows the traditional pasta course (usually lasagna, stuffed shells, manicotti or ravioli. Often more than one.). When my grandparents and great-aunts/uncles were still here, there was Baccala (salted cod, usually served in an olive oil and garlic sauce), but no one eats that anymore. It''s considered 'Old Timer' food. We weren't raised on it. And there is, as always, the freshest bread you've ever had in your life..
If that isn't enough for you, there's ham, and maybe even turkey. And these get served with your broccoli rabe (bitter broccoli, served with red pepper flakes...almost like Passover!), stuffed artichokes (blech!) and some sort of potatoes (never mashed!). By this time, you've been at the table for at least 3 hours, and have had two or three entire dinners.
There's a short rest for more wine and family chop-busting and camaraderie, the kids get to open (some) of their Christmas gifts, we take some photos...and then the desert trays come out.
There's cakes, pastries (connoli, Napoleon, pettit-fours), a selection of Italian cookies which always includes biscotti, pinioli (pine) nut cookies and anisette cookies (amongst others). Coffee time! There's fruits, nuts, candies, ice cream (always spumoni for the kids!), and any other desert you could possibly think of. Think of it as the Venetian Hour at your friend's wedding brought to your dining room table. Desert itself will last another laugh-filled 2 hours...at least.
By which time, you're ready for Midnight Mass. I don't go anymore, being an agnostic, and nowadays fewer in my family partake, but some still do. Those who don't, stay home and drink yet more wine and make sandwiches out of the leftovers.
Never was there a more disgusting, and yet thoroughly enjoyable, display of human gluttony! Nine hours at the table, broken up by endless ours of family conversation, celebration and fun. I'm not a big believer in the whole Christmas thing as celebration of the world's salvation, but I do believe that this one meal does more to cement families together than just about any other activity, save births, weddings and funerals.
This is, without a doubt, my favorite day of the year.
If you're not Italian, and you think you might like to try this wondrous tradition out next year (assuming we all have jobs and money, and that the Obama Administration hasn't begun that carefully-planned program of Street Executions against it's enemies, i.e. all of us) here's some background information to help you get started;
Seven Fishes Blog
Italians R Us
Dream of Italy
Merry Christmas to all!