In Coastal New England, the Feast of the Seven Fishes Thrives
Connection to the ocean is something so ingrained in daily life in coastal New England that sometimes we forget about it. Or, more accurately, we take it for granted: how quickly we can get to waterfront restaurants that serve excellent, affordable seafood; how easy it is to buy fresh-off-the-boat fish that goes from the water to our plates in less than a day. In my home state of Rhode Island, where it takes less than an hour to drive from corner to corner, we have 400 miles of coastline. (As I'm writing this from Providence, in the middle of the state, I can hear a seagull cawing just outside my window.)
It makes sense, then, that our traditions would grow up and grow around seafood. It's a rite of passage here to choose your own just-caught lobster from a tank at a restaurant in one of our biblically-named fishing villages like Galilee or Jerusalem, and learn to crack it open while wearing one of those silly plastic bibs over your clothes — unless you're coming straight from the beach, in which case, you can skip it because your bathing suit will do just fine.
That's how I ended up loving The Feast of the Seven Fishes, and adopting it as my own, even though I don't have any true connections to the dinner's origins. La Vigilia, an Italian-Catholic meal traditionally served as seven seafood courses on Christmas Eve, evolved through the church's mandate to abstain from meat before Christmas Day.
Depending on which history you read, the seven might be a connection to the seven Catholic sacraments: baptism, Holy Communion, reconciliation, confirmation, anointing of the sick, marriage, and holy orders. Or, it might have just been a way to use up small bits of remaining fish before markets would close for the holiday.
There is no definitive menu for the meal, and each family has its own traditions, which originally came from southern Italy but have changed through the generations.
For me, it's a connection to where I come from. There are restaurants all over Rhode Island that serve The Feast of the Seven Fishes (always "fishes," never "fish"), not just on Christmas Eve, but through the entire holiday season. Some of them condense the seven into three courses, serving a few different seafood appetizers at the same time, like salt-cod baccala, snail salad, fried smelts and calamari, followed by a seafood pasta course like linguini alle vongole and a fish entree, like cod acqua pazza or baked-stuffed shrimp, afterwards. It's a lot of food, and it's a challenge not to finish everything, else you get to the last few (and best) courses and can't enjoy them.
There is such a lovely sense of occasion about that dinner: of getting dressed up, of gathering at a favorite restaurant that feels new again at the holidays, of walking in with gifts to exchange and sharing good conversation and well-wishes as we clink our glasses of Italian wine and toast to the year ahead.
When we're eating the feast, we're celebrating the joy and festivity of the holidays, to be sure. But in New England, we're also celebrating a deep connection to the sea, and to a way of life that has evolved around seeing an endless expanse of ocean every time you turn your head to the east.
The lobsters and calamari we're eating comes from Point Judith, in the south of Rhode Island, where they come off the docks and are shipped to the rest of the country. The clams and oysters were harvested, probably 24 hours ago, from Narragansett Bay. The scallops came in off a day boat from Georges Bank, just above Cape Cod. The cod, the sea bass, the salmon — it's all the same. That's why the tradition of the Seven Fishes feels like it's mine, too, because it's all of ours. It's the flavor of New England, and the taste, to me, of home.