There are three things you need to know about the Feast of the Seven Fishes. Number one: There are more than seven fishes. Way more. Anyone who tells you otherwise has probably never participated. Number two: Cheating is okay. Very few people actually want to deal with eel firsthand. And number three: Smelt is really much tastier than you think. So is the rest of the menu.
Twelve years ago, when I moved to Cleveland, my wife, who traces her heritage to Sicily and a few other parts of Italy (as well as a little bit of Ireland), informed me we’d be hosting Christmas Eve. I’m game for most anything, and so we began to plan the Feast, assured that most of the recipes are in the family cookbook. Ours is called Cottage Classics because so many of the recipes surface in the summer at the cottage.
We’d start with shrimp, the crab in the mold that Aunt Dot used to make, clams casino because people always like those, the little tomatoes stuffed with cream cheese (there’s no fish here, but when you put parsley on top, they’re red and green so that means they count for Christmas). We’ll do the smelt and calamari with Aunt Catherine’s batter recipe (Aunt Pat knows how to do it—the recipe in the book is a little light on details—literally just eggs, flour, water, parsley), and both of those go with the lemon-parsley-caper sauce (which really only has three other ingredients: olive oil, garlic, and a diced hard-cooked egg). And for dinner (because all the rest of that was appetizers), we’ll do fettuccine with the red sauce and tuna. Oh, and Dad should make his sardine-onion-avocado thing that everyone loves. And someone can make the salad with the anchovies. Oh—we also need to do the baccala (that’s salted cod). And the eel. What should we do with the eel? Can you buy an eel? You can? OK, figure that one out, too. And yeah, Dad will probably show up with some sushi . . . because Dad.
The menu planning is usually that breathless. And yeah. We’re at 10 fishes.
That’s how it is, every year, whether we host at our house or at my wife’s childhood home, and it’s more or less the same over at her cousin’s house. About the half the time, Chanukah overlaps, so our menorah makes an appearance. Over the last decade, we’ve made some small adjustments to some peripheral recipes. After trying fried baccala balls one year and a cold baccala salad the next, we finally found a potato-cod-olive thing from a Williams Sonoma cookbook that we like and think might be a keeper.
You see, if you ask around, you’ll find there’s no real agreement on where the Feast comes from. The Internet is full of hypotheses about Sicilian fishing villages, Catholics cutting back on meat before big holidays, the numerological significance of things that happen in sevens. The truth is that the most important origin story is the one you think about while you’re planning and cooking. So for us, it starts with my wife’s mother, Lisa Russo, née Ferrara, and a family memory from before she was born.
It is December 1941, and the whole Ferrara-Mastro family is still missing Grandma Ferrara who had died a year earlier. Lisa’s Aunt Catherine is a legendary culinary force. Reflecting on the death and wondering how the family will get through Christmas, she floats the idea of the traditional Seven Fishes dinner. They go all in.
My mother-in-law loves telling these stories. She says that as soon as she and her siblings could polish the silver, set the table, or clean the clams, they were put to work. The food—and there was plenty of it—was always made that day. And there was always a lot of work—removing the eyes from the octopus, nailing the eel to a board so you can remove its skin with pliers, taking the fins off the smelt.
The dining room table and many extenders were lined up through the hallway to accommodate 32. Younger family members could bring a guest only after an engagement had been announced. Dr. Ferrara sat at the head of the table and said the Grace. Dinner was a dress-up affair, often eaten by candlelight.
Over 76 years, the meal has evolved, and includes a few cheats. No one is bothered that we check the eel box with unagi from Shuhei. We buy frozen smelt and calamari, already finless and blinded. Canned clams have replaced cleaning and chopping fresh ones. We buy fresh fettuccine from Ohio City Pasta, and occasionally, clam chowder from the West Side Market has been known to make an appearance. The shortcuts diminish neither the taste nor the tradition.
But we still prep and enjoy each dish, and we probably spend more time in the kitchen than anywhere else. Sometimes we add new traditions. There were four or five years when the cousins and neighbor kids staged Christmas pageants. After dinner, there’re hundreds of cookies, gathered from a month of cookie swaps. Following the meal, the family still gathers in the living room to sing Christmas carols, each selected by a family member, from youngest to oldest. Decades ago, it was all religious songs, but now (with 11 grandchildren) anything goes—“Adeste Fideles,” “Up on the Housetop,” and “Santa Baby.”
Even with the cheats, it’s a lot of work. One year I started pushing the idea of doing some sort of bouillabaisse instead. It sounded like such a good idea (efficient! tasty!), until we were reminded why we do this—the family’s own Seven Fishes origin story. It’s the whole reason we do it. It’s the history, but more than that, it being a part of a big, wonderful family that’s always thinking about how to make time together just a little more special.
Visit EdibleCleveland.com for more family recipes including Sal Russo’s Sardine Appetizer and Aunt Dot’s Crab Mold.