By Terry Thompson-Anderson and Russ Kane
Art by Bambi Edlund
The Feast of the Seven Fishes is an Italian-American tradition based on the Christmas Eve celebration of the Vigilia di Natale (the wait, or vigil, for the midnight birth of Jesus) in Italy. The feast is observed as a festive, though reverent gathering distinguished by the abstinence from meat and spotlighted by a meal of seven or more servings of fish and other seafood offerings. Of course, being a celebratory Italian meal, wine is often involved.
How, or why, the celebration became known as the Feast of the Seven Fishes is subject to speculation. Some believe the number seven is relevant for its biblical significance: seven is the most repeated number in the Bible (appearing over 700 times), there are seven sacraments of the Catholic Church and there are seven virtues. Also, God rested on the seventh day after creation and revealed to Noah the seven colors of the rainbow as a sign of the new covenant. Other theories for the name point to the seven hills surrounding Rome and even the sum of the biblical number for divinity (three) combined with the number representing Earth (four). Whatever the origin of the feast’s name, though, the meal—with its abundance of seafood delicacies cooked or fried in olive oil accompanied by rich sauces and fine aromatic spices—provides a uniquely diverse culinary opportunity.
“When I talked to my pop, he said that on Christmas Eve the family’s festivities always included baccalà [salted cod cooked in a sauce of tomato, basil and garlic] and smelt with other fishes, served with lots of ravioli,” says Greg Bruni, vice president and executive winemaker at Llano Estacado Winery. “I remember that Mama would always set an extra plate of food out for the Gesù Bambino (Baby Jesus). It was always a joyous occasion.”
As Italians immigrated to different coastal locales in the U.S., the feast took on new dimensions to incorporate whatever the nearby waters provided. For example, the turn of the 20th century saw a flood of Sicilians settling in Galveston and the lower Brazos Valley and northern Italians moving farther inland. The bountiful Gulf Coast waters, with their delicious grouper, calamari, blue crabs, shrimp, briny oysters and more, would become the new palette for their feasts.
In honor of the season, we’ve created a Texas-Style Feast of the Seven Fishes menu and paired each course with a Texas wine. Texas wine growers and winemakers have now embraced our hot sunny clime (and perhaps their inner Italian), and the wine country is now a mecca of Mediterranean wine production representing grapes grown locally, but originating from Italy, Spain, Sardinia, Portugal and southern France. Our menu follows the concept known the world over wherever locavores and locapours meet: what grows together, goes together, especially on the splendid table of a holiday celebration.
FEAST OF THE SEVEN FISHES MENU
All recipes serve six.