The Grammarphobia Blog

Eating with the fishes

Q: Just read your blog about “fishes.” Are you aware of an Italian Christmas Eve tradition known as the Feast of the Seven Fishes? My husband and I attended one at a huge restaurant in South Jersey. It was served banquet style, minimum of seven fish courses. I lost track of the number of species—something like eleven. I remember fried smelt, fish stew, clams casino, shrimp, baked cod with tomatoes, stuffed flounder, on and on. It lasted for hours, and ended with limoncello and biscotti.

A: We might have known there would be a South Jersey angle (not to mention an Italian one) in that blog item. As we noted, both “fish” and “fishes” are proper plurals, with “fishes” usually referring to more than one species of fish.

No, we hadn’t heard about the Feast of the Seven Fishes. But we found out more about it in a 1987 article about the feast by the New York Times writer Craig Claiborne.

The seven dishes, according to Claiborne, are for the seven Roman Catholic sacraments. (A little googling offers a few other explanations.) Each dish uses a different main ingredient or is cooked in a different way: broiled, fried, baked, and so on.

In his Times article, Claiborne offers recipes for a Feast of Seven Fishes served by a friend of his whose parents came to the US from a small fishing village in Italy.

The tradition you enjoyed in South Jersey apparently originated in southern Italy and isn’t known in some other Italian regions.

In fact, Claiborne’s friend said his parents only began serving the seven dishes after moving to the US. They picked it up from neighbors in Waterbury, CT, who were immigrants from southern Italy.

By the way, you might be interested in our posting on “sleeping with the fishes.” And something tells us that we may find ourselves eating with the fishes in South Jersey next Christmas Eve!

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