Feast of the Seven Fishes and Cape May Brews
There are some great things about being Italian. For example, if you wanted to spend a month researching your familial roots, you’d be able to do it in Italy, and Italy is warm and beautiful and inviting.
And then there’s the food. Oh, the food! There’s a reason there are Italian restaurants everywhere and not, say, Scottish restaurants. That’s because Scottish cuisine is based on a dare, and Italian food is delicious.
Seriously, where would you be without pizza?
There’s one killer Italian culinary tradition that makes whatever you usually do on Christmas Eve look like a scene from Christmas Vacation. We’re talking about the Feast of the Seven Fishes.
Now, if you’re not Italian, you may have heard of this tradition with a certain amount of jealousy. Italian-Americans gather together their entire families — and, when it comes to Italian-Americans, that’s sometimes a very large number of people — and they gorge themselves on all of the seafood within reach.
We caught up with some of the paisans on the Brew Crew to find out what their traditions are, and we tasked our Head Chef JP Thomas with pairing some of his best seafood creations with our favorite CMBC brews.
“It does have murky origins,” says Stacy Adimando, Executive Editor of Saveur magazine in a recent interview on NPR. “What we do know is that the feast is a Christmas Eve celebration. So Italian-Americans classically have celebrated this with an abundance of fish. The idea is that you abstain from eating meat, in the Roman Catholic tradition, on the days leading up to a holiday. So obviously, an abundance of fish was a great replacement for that.”
We’re not sure where the number seven comes from — nor was Stacy — but, just about everything in the Bible has seven something. It’s the most repeated number in the Bible and appears over 700 times.
“Basically, people have gotten a little bit wishy-washy on how many fish are served,” she says. “If you get around seven, I think it’s generally exciting. And if you want to go up to twelve, some people do twelve.”
While many Italians like to believe that the Feast is some grand old-world tradition, if you find yourself somewhere in Calabria on December 24th, don’t ask the local townsfolk where to find a Feast of the Seven Fishes. They’d look at you blankly and tell you to go to church, you crazy medigan.
What they do have in the Old Country is the vigilia — the vigil night. And that meal also contains quite a bit of seafood.
“One chef actually told me that she had to look it up on Wikipedia to see what the Seven Fishes was,” Stacy says. “And I think what happened was it is an interpretation of the vigilia dinner, which also, again, is an abundance of seafood. But somehow, it got translated to seven. And people in America have celebrated and stuck with the seven.”
Some of us have memories of our mother standing in the middle of the dining room on Christmas Eve, staring at the table and tallying up the fishes. We’re not sure what she planned to do if she was one short. Pack up the tackle box and go fishing?
“The Tesauro Christmas crew has done Feast of the Seven Fishes for a long time,” says Events Team Member Jenna Tesauro. “Christmas Eve is definitely our biggest celebration of the year. My parents usually hosted: it’s not a huge crowd but it’s a decent one of close family and friends. We try to switch up the dishes year to year. It’s not always traditional, though we keep a couple classics. My favorite is the smelts. My dad tackles those, and even he’d admit it took him a few years to really get consistent. Pan-fried, crispy, and lightly-floured is key. It was hilarious watching my 90-something year old great-grandmother, whom we called Little Nanny, with a huge of plate of them each year.”
Smelts — Apple Bomb
Smelts: you either love them or you hate them. They’re small fish about eight inches in length, somewhat resembling a sardine, with even more fish flavor and aroma, if you can believe that. Jenna’s description of how to prepare them is perfect — you simply dredge them in flour and pan-fry them.
However, she left out one qualifying aspect: they’re usually served whole. As in, with heads. With eyes judging you as you eat them. And you’re expected to eat the whole thing, bones, eyes… whatever else is in there… and all.
Regardless, tradition is tradition, and many, many Italians wouldn’t think of a Christmas Eve without them.
JP definitely surprised us with his pairing choice.
“I’m going with Apple Bomb,” JP says. “It’s got that natural sweetness to it, and the maltiness of Apple Bomb with the light batter on the smelts will go nicely. Sort of like a malt vinegar that you might do with fish and chips. The sweetness of the Apple Bomb will bring out the sweetness of the fish instead of its… funkiness.”
JP admits that he’s not a fan of the little buggers.
“Your best bet is to make a really heavy tartar sauce or something to mask that very, very fishy flavor.”
“At this point, I have a choice of about five dinners that I could attend on Christmas Eve,” says Content Marketing Coordinator Scott Armato. “I have one with my immediate family, and, honestly, I don’t really need any food after that, but my cousin has one that I try to get to, and my buddy has one that if I’m not too fat and exhausted by that point, I’ll swing by. Growing up, we always had to stop by my grandfather’s, too, and my uncle had one that was always in the hundred-people range: family, friends, people he’d meet on the street who looked like they could use a good seafood dinner. Somehow, I had to fit that all in between singing at three church services. By midnight mass, ‘O Holy Night’ was always brought down a key. Or two.”
Ceviche is a light, fresh dish, almost like a chunky seafood salsa or a very hearty fish salad. Essentially, you toss together whatever seafood you want — shrimp, scallops, crab, even some red snapper and calamari — with some tomatoes, chili peppers, an avocado, olive oil, cilantro, and some lime juice, then let it chill in the fridge overnight.
“It’s a really nice appetizer,” JP says. “It’s a nice, clean, fresh dish. The lime juice does all of the work, with the citric acid cooking the fish. You definitely want to use lighter seafood like shrimp or scallops, even fish. I would never use something like mussels or clams in this dish, and even shrimp and scallops, you want to dice them up pretty well.”
For this ceviche, JP suggests a lighter beer like Fizz the Season.
“Fizz the Season would be great,” JP says. “It’s a nice, effervescent beer. It’ll be really lively, with bursts of citrus flavor. And with the grape juice and its white wine/champagne character, it’ll go really nicely with this dish.”
“My mom changed it probably when I was in high school,” says Distribution Manager Justin Vitti. “We went from the traditional seven fishes with the baccalà, the baked cod, the scungilli, the calamari, to more modern stuff. We would do crab cakes, she would still make calamari and linguini, she’d make a fra diavolo with shrimp. My wife is excited about taking over the Christmas Eve tradition at my house because we don’t have a holiday where the whole family gets together, so we’ll start doing it at my house all the time. She’s not sure if she wants to do all seven fishes and I told her that we could find a fusion: mix the seven fishes with the Polish dinner — set the extra seat with the straw under the tablecloth, perogies and ravioli are really similar!”
Baccalà Salad — Cape May IPA
“So you know you’re going to incorporate, for many families, it’s bacallà, which is the salt cod,” Stacy Adimando says in that interview with NPR. “We don’t do that in my family. And I think a lot of people — you know, it’s a very polarizing ingredient, so you either love it or hate it.”
JP suggests rehydrating the cod and using it in a salad.
“It’s super salty,” he says, “but once you rehydrate it, it becomes palatable again, but it’s still a very dry fish. But, chop it up and add some red onion, capers, and an oil and vinegar dressing.”
He paired that with our Cape May IPA.
“IPA goes with everything,” he says, “but the IPA does have that nice, tropical aspect that will freshen up the fish. You could even throw a little mango in the salad: now you’ve got mango and onion and tomato and you’ve livened up that fish a little. It’s a nice, tropical salad, and IPA has a nice, mild, tropical-ness to it.”
“Growing up was the best,” says Warehouse Manager Craig Tropp. (Don’t let that German/Scottish last name fool you — his mother’s maiden name is Mauriello.) “My great uncle lived on the same street, and, as kids — with my parents, obviously — we would walk down to my uncle’s house. He had a commercial kitchen in his basement, and, every Christmas Eve, he’d do the seven fishes. He’d cook all day, and it was a huge get-together — probably 30 or 40 people. And, as kids, you don’t really care about the food, you just eat and run around like idiots.”
A seafood minestrone doesn’t differ much from a typical minestrone.
“Basically, you make a regular minestrone,” JP says, “but you substitute seafood or fish stock for the chicken stock, then add the tomatoes and vegetables, and you can poach the seafood directly in the soup.”
JP suggests using clams and shrimp in the minestrone. You can simply toss a few cans of canned clams into the soup and some smaller, frozen shrimp.
“Dump them right in, and they cook in thirty seconds,” he says. “It’s a nice, simple dish. Add your favorite herbs — basil, oregano, some parsley — in at the end.”
JP is pairing this with Always Ready.
“Always Ready is citrusy, it’s tropical, it’s a burst of fresh flavor,” JP says. “It’s a lighter beer, so it won’t overpower the soup. It has enough hoppiness to balance nicely, and Always Ready is a nice, fruity beer. It’s juicy. It’ll complement nicely with all of the hearty vegetables in the minestrone. I think it’ll hold up well against Always Ready.”
“We cut back because we had too much food left over,” says Director of Sales Bill Zaninelli. “The first few years we did it, we never got to the main course. So, we decided to do little appetizers all night. We made calamari stew, mussels with fanook (fennel) and chorizo and a little cream — that’s hearty enough that you could eat it over pasta.”
Frutti di Mare — White Caps
Literally “fruit of the sea”, you can pretty much take care of all seven of your fishes in this one dish. You can chop up some whitefish and throw it in, toss in a few big shrimp, some scallops, clams, mussels, even some calamari and scungilli — that’s seven.
“The more seafood you have in it, the better,” JP says. “You have to have squid in it, and you’ve got to have some sort of mussels or clams. It’s like bouillabaisse or cioppino — it’s basically a nice, fish stew. And you serve it over linguini.”
Frutti di Mare is a thin, light sauce — it’s not a heavy pasta sauce. You saute garlic in some olive oil, add some white wine and some tomatoes, and the seafood will add a bit of liquid on its own. Then add some herbs — basil, tomato, thyme, and a pinch red pepper flakes.
JP recommends White Caps with this dish.
“Because of the amount of seafood, it’s a very hearty, heavy dish,” JP explains. “The kick from the red pepper flakes will pair nicely with the pepperiness finish White Caps. And it’s super citrusy, which will go great with the seafood.”
“Every Christmas Eve, my wife’s family has a seven fishes dinner in New York,” says Sales Manager Tom LoBianco. “Prior to meeting her, I had only heard tales of this wonderful feast where you eat an endless amount of seafood. Her uncle and aunt used to host my wife’s immediate family, about 20 people including children. About 3 years ago they announced they were done with having the dinner, as it was a bit too much, but after missing one Christmas Eve, the family decided they missed doing it. So, my wife’s cousin took over for her parents and we now continue the tradition. I don’t know how many dishes are actually made; I think it’s more than seven now. Everyone finishes with their own lobster, but I’ve usually tapped out by then! To say I love seafood is an understatement, but knowing when to say when is tough. The goal is to leave for the evening and NOT have to move up a notch on my belt.”
This is a really simple dish, and if you’re looking for that one last fish to add to your feast, it’s definitely worth it.
“It’s just garlic, olive oil, anchovies, and pepper flakes,” JP explains. “That’s basically all that’s in there. It’s a very simple dish, but it’s delicious with those anchovies and garlic.”
You start by gently cooking a massive amount of garlic in olive oil until it’s lightly golden. Toss in a pinch of red pepper flakes and the anchovies, and cook it until the anchovies essentially disappear.
“Anchovies are great when they’re cooked because they disintegrate into the dish,” JP explains. “They basically turn into this salty, umami flavor that isn’t necessarily fishy. Then you can add some toasted bread crumbs on top and some parmesan cheese.”
JP pairs this with Biscuits & Honey.
“With the parmesan cheese and breadcrumbs, it’s a very nutty flavor,” JP explains, “which would go very well with the Biscuits and Honey. You’ve got that toasted garlic flavor, and Biscuits and Honey is very malty with the biscuit malts in there. I think that would play very nicely. Then you’ve got that slight sweetness from the honey malts that would bring out the umami in the anchovies. That would be a great pairing.”
“We don’t do the real seven fishes,” says Sales Manager Richie Rallo, “we just do a bunch of seafood a bunch of different ways. There’s anywhere between 15 to 20 people on a good year — this year is light for us, only eight. It’s a big pot of red gravy — I don’t know if that even needs to be said. No meat options. Locally-sourced, if at all possible. Big, fat scallops, for sure. I’ll make a big pasta: butter, white wine, basil, parsley, and throw some shellfish in there like mussels and clams. My dad makes a pretty bangin’ shrimp scampi. Then, it’s just food everywhere. Broccoli rabe, always. We import some of the good bread and cannol’ from Callandria’s — a North Jersey bakery; the North Jersey Rallos bring them down. We just graze for a large portion of the afternoon, then sit down and have a meal that includes a big bowl of pasta, and that’s usually enough.”
The most important thing to understand about the Feast of the Seven Fishes is this: you don’t have to be Italian to have one. It sounds like some mystical thing — as do many things coming from a Roman Catholic tradition — but it doesn’t really matter if you’re German, Swedish, Japanese, or Zulu — if you like seafood and want to celebrate Christmas Eve, go for it.
Seafood is awesome. Eat more of it.
JP really outdid himself on the number-of-fishes scale: this one is up to twelve! Let us know if you try any of these pairings, and let us know some of your favorite Feast of the Seven Fishes stories — particularly if you add some CMBC brews!
And, don’t forget, if you want to pick up some Cape May beer for Christmas Eve, we’ll be closing at 6pm that night — plenty of time to eat your fill of seafood!