The feast of the seven Cape Cod fishes

Nov 29, 2023 | Over the Bar

Over the Bar

Christopher Seufert photo


By John Pappalardo

When I was a kid, an important part of our family’s Christmas Eve routine was to head to my great uncle’s house, where we knew he was celebrating a tradition much older than us:

The feast of seven fishes.

This celebration came into being in southern Italy centuries ago. It arose because the Catholic Church created prohibitions against eating meat in advance of a feast day, Christmas in this case; the big fishy meal was part of a devout, tasty vigil celebrating the anniversary of the birth of the baby Jesus come morning.

No one seems to know why it became exactly seven fishes, some guess it has to do with the seven hills of Rome, some think it relates back to the number of sacraments. As generations passed the tradition moved past a strictly religious celebration toward a broader, more secular mainstream culinary event.

To this day, in places like the amazing fish market in Venice, Campo de la Pescaria by the Rialto Market on the main canal, early in the morning of Christmas Eve women from all over the city arrive to buy fish. Some are dressed in their wealthy finest, fur stoles, silk dresses, high heels. Some arrive in tattered coats, wearing battered sneakers. They move through dozens of stalls, selecting their seven choices, and have plenty of options ranging from salt cod and Adriatic groundfish to tuna, smelts, calamari, octopus, eel, shrimp, mussels and clams, scallop.

A lot of what’s for sale looks small to our eyes, but then again that market has been around since 1097; the stone columns that hold up the building have fish carved into them so everyone knows where they are. As far back as the 1100s fishing regulations showed up on the Venetian books, so I guess you could call that “sustainability.”

The tradition transplants beautifully for Cape Codders; getting to seven fishes, shellfish included, isn’t hard around here. You could begin with a bluefish pate, slide to oysters and mussels for starters, maybe a little sea clam chowder, then move into main courses of haddock, cod, or monk, sea bass, hake or pollack, lobster, tuna or halibut. I’m not sure what a fishy dessert might be but I’ve heard of a lobster-based flan that is supposed to be delicious.

My suggestion is that we appropriate this great holiday tradition and turn it into a Cape Cod celebration right up there with First Night. True, it’s more home-based, but of course the idea is to invite friends and family, open the doors, harken back to our great history and connection to the sea, and support our small-boat, independent fishery with another creative expression.

The feast of the seven Cape Cod fishes: Just one more way to say, Happiest of holidays.

John Pappalardo is chief executive officer of the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance



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