146. The Feast of the Two Fishes

When I moved to Philadelphia, I started hearing Italian-Americans talking about their Christmas Eve Feast of the Seven Fishes, a tradition with which I was not familiar. Of course, I do remember Christmas Eve, like Fridays, as a Catholic sacrificial fasting day, on which one was required to forgo meat. But my father never spoke about the Seven Fishes from his childhood, nor did we ever have it with my Italian-American relatives in Chicago, where we spent Christmas every year. So it must have been that the folks who came to Philadelphia came from a particular area of Italy where they celebrated it, and they brought this wonderful tradition with them. It figures that Italians would find a way to turn a day of sacrifice and fasting into a multi-course extravaganza, featuring platters of shrimp, smelts, and, always, baccala, which is dried and rehydrated cod.

When I had a family of my own, I thought it would be a fun tradition to try. We invited our dear friends the Vallellys — more like family to us, really — and proceeded to construct a multi-course feast, always topped off with a rousing game of tombola, a semi-obscene, semi-offensive Neapolitan bingo game.

The antepasti, 2019
The main courses
Maria always calls the numbers.
We play for quarters, so the stakes are high.
In tombola, the numbers are associated with certain images, given here in both proper Italian and Neapolitan dialect.

One of the main challenges in America is to find a store that even carries the dried cod; it’s a bit of a hassle because it must be soaked in water for several days before using, and I think most people avoid the trouble. When I was in Altamura in Puglia one November, I came upon a supermarket clerk stocking multiple varieties; he seemed to think I was nuts to be exclaiming over it, just like we would if a foreigner was enraptured by our choices on the cereal aisle. But if I could have gotten away with stuffing my suitcase full of it, I would have.

COVID has been a sad time for our Seven Fishes tradition. Last year, we cancelled it altogether. This year, in that little moment of early-December freedom before the Omicron surge, Ben and I went to a fancy version at Gran Caffe L’Aquila in Center City, Philadelphia, sponsored by the America-Italy Society. But we were mostly excited to be re-starting our own tradition again.

Fritto misto with calamari and baccala at Gran Caffe L’Aquila
Seafood salad with shrimp, scallops and little octopi

But sadly, it was not to be. First, my daughter Lizy and her husband Nathan decided it would be too risky to fly in from Chicago. Then, we decided with the Valellys that it just didn’t make sense for eight people to gather in close quarters, so we cancelled, in an abundance of caution, as they say these days. So we were down to three.

Maria made her incredible spaghetti con vongole. I made a Sicilian baccala dish, which for the first time ever, actually came out good and not too tough and salty. So only two fishes, and there was no tombola. But we are grateful that we are all in good health. And next year, we will be back to normal. Right? Promise?

Sicilian-style baccala
My cousin Giacomo and his family at Christmas dinner in Rome, 2021. Normally, their holiday table is packed with three generations of extended family, probably thirty or so in all. But this year, due to the restrizioni per il COVID, they, like us, are celebrating da soli, alone.

4 thoughts on “146. The Feast of the Two Fishes

  1. I love this tradition and will be hoping too that you can celebrate fully with friends and family next year. Best wishes for a very happy new year!


  2. Great post, Gigi. I wrote a long reply but then WordPress demanded I log in, and I forgot my password, and by the time I went through that whole process the post had disappeared so now I’ll just say Happy New Year!


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