The Feast of the Seven Fishes
By Quelcy Kogel
One fateful Sunday, my close friend whisked me away from all the stress that was our Carnegie Mellon existence. She brought me to her mother’s table for a home-cooked, holiday meal. Escaping college food, gathering with friends and family, and sharing a meal would have been sweet respite unto itself, but this was my Italian-American friend, so this meal was so much more.
My memory of this meal is somewhat like Belle finding the Beast’s enchanted castle, where candlesticks, teapots and little chipped cups sang the wonders of the food I was about to consume. (Time may have morphed the memory just a tad, or maybe it was the homemade wine?) My friend’s very Italian mother fed me until I curled into a fetal position on the couch, thinking death would be the only escape from such gluttony. Miraculously, the pain subsided, and somehow, I left wanting more glimpses and tastes of Italian traditions. One holiday feast has long piqued my curiosity and my appetite: The Feast of the Seven Fishes.
Light, mouthwatering research tells me the origin of the Feast of the Seven Fishes is somewhat murky, and the rules are fluid. What most sources agree upon is this: the Festa dei sette pesci is a grand meal to usher in the midnight birth of the baby Jesus. Translated from Italian that means if you’re going to stay up late waiting, you might as well be eating and drinking.
Depending on which Nonna you ask, the seven courses represent the seven sacraments, the seventh day of creation or more generally, a symbolic number found frequently in the Bible. Some ambitious families expand the menu to include nine or 13 courses. Some more practical families throw a bunch of fish into a stew and round up. As long as an Italian is cooking though, it’s game on, and you better arrive with an appetite.
At the heart of the meal is the idea of gathering family and friends to enjoy comforting dishes. This is why I have been so eager to invite myself to the table. I also invited seven of Pittsburgh’s leading Italian chefs and seafood connoisseurs to make this traditional meal for me (a bit indulgent, I know). They offered tips, traditions and most importantly, tastes!
Collectively, they cooked up a feast to make their grandparents proud, all while sipping wine, so I knew they were leading me on the right path. If you’re looking to spend a lot of time in the kitchen this holiday season, let these chefs be your guides. If you’re merely looking to feast this holiday season, try inviting them all to your kitchen. It just might work!
Featured in TABLE Magazine, Winter, Issue No. 45
Story and Styling by Quelcy.
Photography by Adam Milliron.