The seventh fish

I enjoy holiday traditions, even a couple that weren't observed in the house I grew up in. When I was a teenager in New Jersey, my Italian-American friends used to eat a feast of seven fishes on Christmas Eve. Starting a few decades ago, I've tried to emulate their efforts, eating seven seafood items in one meal after the sun goes down, on the 24th of December or thereabouts. My earliest efforts, in the '90s, were laughably bad, but they've gradually gotten better, in proportion to the help I've been getting from those in attendance.

Most years we've had other plans on Christmas Eve, and so I've been taking my shot on the 23rd. This year, the 24th freed up on our calendar, and so it was within the traditional time frame that our latest attempt would go down.

Now, although the menu has improved as I've grown older, we've never managed to make it to seven fishes. We no longer even try. For one thing, it's too much food. And besides, the more you attempt to put out for the diners, the more stressful it gets in the kitchen. For me, Christmas is crazy enough without mixing more of that in. But I believe the degree of difficulty, and the agita of the chef, are part of the tradition. I think my first girlfriend's Sicilian uncle in Jersey City used to crank it up to nine fishes, which clearly is heading deep into some sort of danger zone.

The true Italian version of the feast contains items I wouldn't know where to get, much less how to prepare. I know that a dry salted fish called baccalĂ  is in there, and I wouldn't even. In our version, seafood of any kind counts; it has to.

Conscious of the enormity of the challenge, this year we set our sights on reaching five fishes: caviar; salmon toast points; shrimp cocktail; crab ravioli; and my friend Jack's fail-proof scallop and snap pea sautée. I got a lot of help in the chopping department from my two in-house sous chefs. And the next generation added two crucial elements: One child of the 21st Century brought to the table a lemon anchovy dressing and made a splendid butter lettuce salad, and the other pointed out that some of the Christmas cookies sitting nearby were in the shape of a fish. We snagged one out of the undecorated salmon pile and set it out among the desserts.

Che bello! You math majors are way ahead of me. We were up to seven. Good for us.


  1. Love this. Miss you all so much. The fish cookie def counts.


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