If you talk with an Italian American New Orleanian about the Feast of the Seven Fishes, you’re likely to get an earful of stories of their favorite dishes at the traditional Christmas Eve fête.
Pose the same question to an Italian or Sicilian, and the likely answer is that they’ve never heard of it. While the American tradition of Feast of the Seven Fishes is based on a similar meal still celebrated in Italy, immigrants took those customs and added their own spin.
The American version is an honest-to-goodness feast, while its Italian counterpart—a multicourse seafood dinner simply known as La Vigilia—has more traditional Roman Catholic roots. Until the 1960s, Catholics abstained from meat on Christmas Eve, and many have continued that tradition. During the period between 1880 and 1920, millions of people from southern Italy and Sicily immigrated to the United States, many of them settling in the Crescent City. The availability of local seafood made it easy (and delicious) to continue their Christmas tradition.
It’s unclear where the “seven” in the feast’s name came from, but since the number appears more than 700 times in the Bible, there’s room for many theories. Some people even point to the seven hills of Rome. Regardless of where the name originated, the feast offers Louisianans another opportunity to be grateful for the local seafood bounty.
In the Bayou State, it’s easy to knock out one dish with seven different bits of seafood in it, but typically, each course will feature only one or two. Grilled oysters, hot crab dips, and seafood gumbos are common sights, and they often appear alongside more Italian-focused dishes like marinated anchovies, fried smelt, and salt-cod fritters.
For other creative takes on the meal, New Orleanians can turn to local restaurants that celebrate it during the holiday season. At GW Fins in the French Quarter, Executive Sous Chef Tim Lane has run a 30-person wine dinner where they put a Louisiana spin on the classics with dishes like an Italian wedding soup where tuna is used in the meatballs and Peroni beer-battered smelt over fettuccini with truffles.
“One year I did a seafood braciole,” says Tim. “It was sheepshead or drum that I stuffed with soft boiled egg, seasoned breadcrumbs, raisins, and crabmeat. I rolled it up and seared it and it came out awesome. I’m a big fan of Italian food, so I wanted to bring some of those ideas to the surface at GW Fins.”
Over in the Warehouse District, the rustic Italian restaurant Gianna put its stamp on the festive meal. When Gianna Chef de Cuisine Jared Heider imagines the Feast of the Seven Fishes, “I envision serving big bowls of pasta,” he says. “All different types of shellfish: mussels, clams, shrimp, lobster. I’m a big fan of rustic whole-fish preparations where you leave the bones in and pick all the meat off. The sorts of things you’d imagine a feast to be.”
Whether Catholic or not, the Feast of the Seven Fishes gives Louisianans another reason to celebrate the incredible array of locally sourced seafood, from oysters to finfish and everything in between.
- 2 pounds large fresh Louisiana shrimp, peeled and deveined (reserve shells)
- 1 (2-pound) whole fish (such as redfish, flounder, drum, or sheepshead), filleted, skinned, and cut into 1-inch pieces (reserve skin and bones)
- 1 cup chopped yellow onion
- ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 cup chopped fennel bulb
- ½ cup chopped salt cod, rinsed under running water for 10 minutes
- 2 tablespoons thinly sliced garlic
- 1 tablespoon chopped shallot
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste
- 2 teaspoons Creole seasoning*
- 2 teaspoons Old Bay seasoning
- ½ teaspoon garlic powder
- ½ teaspoon onion powder
- ½ teaspoon dried oregano
- ¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper
- ⅛ teaspoon ground black pepper
- ⅓ cup white wine
- 4 cups crushed slightly drained canned plum tomatoes
- 16 fluid ounces clam juice
- ⅓ cup julienned fresh basil
- 1 pound fresh Louisiana crabmeat, picked free of shell
- Crusty French bread and grated fresh
- Parmesan cheese, to serve
- Garnish: fennel fronds
- In a large stockpot, place reserved shrimp shells, reserved fish skin and bones, and barely enough water to cover; bring to a boil over medium heat. Turn off heat, and reserve stock to finish soup.
- In another large stockpot, cook onion and oil over medium-low heat for 5 minutes. Add fennel, and cook until soft, about 15 minutes.
- Add salt cod, garlic, and shallot to onion mixture; cook over medium-low heat for 5 minutes. Stir in tomato paste, Creole seasoning, Old Bay seasoning, garlic powder, onion powder, oregano, red pepper, and black pepper; cook for 3 minutes. Stir in wine, and cook for 2 to 3 minutes, scraping browned bits from bottom of pot with a wooden spoon. Add tomatoes and clam juice; bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer for 30 minutes. (If desired, this part can be made ahead and refrigerated.)
- Strain seafood stock through a fine-mesh sieve into a large bowl.
- Stir basil into tomato mixture. Add 2 to 4 cups stock to thin soup to desired consistency. Add shrimp, fish, and crab; bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low, and gently simmer for 15 to 20 minutes. Serve with bread and cheese; garnish with fennel fronds, if desired.