La Vigilia, Feast of the 7 Fishes

Italian Americans prefer to see themselves as lovers of life, good food, and strong family ties. Studies show that Italian Americans are more likely than other Americans to live close to their relatives and to socialize with them regularly. Italian Americans treasure holiday customs which inevitably set them apart from a number of cultures. Because of this, Christmas Eve was a day that the family would always set aside to get together and uphold a long standing tradition. Italians traditionally eat fish on Christmas Eve. Growing up in a rather large Italian American family with Italian grandparents, aunts and uncles galore… we always adhered to the traditions… and we still do. Now let me preface all of this by stating, for the record, that I am in no way a religious person. Nor have I ever been known to associate myself with Roman Catholic values. But to be an Italian American (at least in my family) you are only really required to have a strong sense of family… or “la familia” and of course… home. Given the fact that my grandparents literally opened their home to everyone and anyone during the holidays… it was, at least for me, a symbol of compassion and celebration.

That feeling of home is never stronger than it is at Christmas, when the Italian obsession with food and tradition is at its absolute peak. There really is not one single Italian cuisine. Italy, the country, was unified in 1861, making it– in spite of its ancient past– a younger country than even the United States. Before then it was a motley collection of small city-states and principalities with distinctively different dialects and customs– not the least of which are culinary. Northern Italians are almost always known to cook with butter and lard, and some dishes have strong Germanic overtones. Farther South, it’s practically all olive oil. Some areas specialize in fresh pasta, others dried pasta, or polenta, or rice. Some use lots of garlic, some almost none. Because traditional Italian cuisine is home-based (as opposed to restaurant-based), the cuisine differs not just from region to region but also from family to family and even from cook to cook. For this reason, the “right” way to make something or whose version is best is often the source of endless discussion and argument. Of course, modern travel and communications have resulted in a lot of crossover, but most Italians still fiercely cling to their traditions, especially during the holidays.

One Italian Christmas tradition that seems to cross all regional boundaries is La Vigilia, the Italian Holiday Feast of the Seven Fishes. This Christmas Eve feast features seven different kinds of fish and seafood. Of course, even this tradition is subject to a myriad of interpretations. The fish and seafood are served in every form imaginable: baked, fried, in salads, tossed with or stuffed into pasta– and in some areas or families the tradition is to have 10 or even 13 fishes. The origin of La Vigilia is essentially unclear, although until just recently meat was usually not eaten on Christmas Eve in Roman Catholic Italy. Some think the reason for having seven fish dishes is because there are seven sacraments in the Catholic Church. Ten dishes may represent the 10 Stations of the Cross. Thirteen dishes may signify the number of apostles plus Jesus. Whatever its origins, La Vigilia makes for some truly delicious eating. Trust me when I tell you, Italian Americans have no set menu for their seafood feasts on Christmas Eve. We simply cook what we love to eat. That being said… this is one of my favorite seafood recipes… passed along to me by my grandmother and her grandmother and so on… enjoy! 

Zuppa de Mussels

1 bag well-rinsed mussels (or 3 pounds)
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 cloves minced or crushed garlic
¾ of a small can of tomato paste
¼ cup white wine
1 tsp dried basil
½ tsp of crushed red pepper (optional)
black pepper to taste
(Do not add salt to the recipe. Mussels have their own natural salts)

Heat olive oil and then garlic in a large pot. Just brown garlic. Stir in tomato paste and cook down. Add spices. De-glaze with the white wine. Add the mussels and cover. Stir the mussels after two minutes and then replace cover. Cook for another three minutes and stir again. Mussels are thoroughly cooked when all mussels are open. If any mussels do not open, discard these. You can serve this over your favorite pasta or with crusty Italian bread or garlic bread to soak up all of the wonderful juices.


~ by upbeatmag on November 18, 2008.

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