December 10, 2008

There ain’t no ‘feast of the seven fishes’ in Italy


On my first Christmas in America, my neighbor told me that the feast of the seven fishes was being held in an Italian restaurant next to us. She was really excited about it, but I had no idea what on earth she was talking about. So, I was like ‘Uh?’ and I guess she totally perceived my un-excitement, because she repeated once again her sentence, and now with greater excitement and joy. Then she was really surprised when she had to explain to me that the ‘seven fishes’ was an Italian tradition. And yet it was the very first time in my entire life I had heard about it. After that experience, I found books about the feast of seven fishes with recipes from the Italian market in Philly, I saw signs inviting you to go to the ‘seven fishes’ in churches all around Italian-American neighborhoods in New Jersey, and I even read about it in Wikipedia (even though you should get suspicious when you notice there’s no link for an article in Italian)… So I discovered that for Americans the feast of the seven fishes is supposed to be THE ultimate Italian tradition for Christmas.

Is it really? Well, the true answer is no, it’s not. I tried to be nice and polite with my neighbor so I told her that maybe it was a regional tradition I didn’t know. But the true answer is still the same: there’s no such thing as ‘feast of the seven fishes’ in Italy. Hard to believe for Americans, I know. It’s even hard to believe for Italian-Americans.

So, where did the whole idea come from? I really don’t know. In Italy, every region has its own traditions for Christmas. However, it was pretty general once that on Christmas Eve Italians had a light dinner before going to Church for the Mass of the Vigil at midnight. Strictly speaking, Christmas Eve is supposed to be a fast day for Catholics, but every single Italian thought of ‘la cena di magro’ (the dinner without meat) as a way to prepare for the huge lunch on Christmas day. I know you’re thinking ‘Aha!… so Italians do have a dinner without meat for Christmas Eve after all’. You’re right, but a dinner without meat doesn’t necessarily imply a dinner with fish (and the seven-different-fish-dishes idea is completely strange to me and totally absent in Italy). On the one hand, it is true that fish is perfectly suitable for a dinner without meat: a starter made of smoked salmon or an eel entrée are two popular dishes for Italian cena di magro. But on the other hand, cheese and vegetables are perfectly suitable for a dinner without meat too. In fact, tortellini in brodo (a kind of soup made with tortellini pasta filled with cheese and vegetables) is pretty popular for Christmas Eve in northern Italy. Also this light dinner is a tradition that is disappearing in Italy. Nowadays nobody goes to church anymore (or at least not as it used to be), and the cenone di Natale (huge Christmas dinner) is becoming the new tradition. And for the cenone di Natale all the abundance of the traditional Christmas lunch is permitted: filled capon, pork, lamb, ham and even turkey!
Posted by Daziano at 5:50 PM |  
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