Feast of Seven Fishes

My grandmother’s grandfather got off the boat from Italy, settled in Pittsburgh, and pretty much never went anywhere else. Neither did most of his descendants. So even though “Baxendell” is about the least Italian name you’ll hear, and even though I look less Italian than almost anyone you know, it’s the Italian part of my family that I grew up around, and it’s their traditions I associate most with holidays.

So I was delighted to see in my Daily Candy email this morning that Dino in Cleveland Park will be offering a traditional, family-style Feast of Seven Fishes this weekend.

Christmas Eve used to be a day of fasting in the Catholic tradition, and no meat could be eaten. With Italy being a big ol’ peninsula with lots of coast, fish was easy to get, so families started making it the centerpiece of their celebratory meal, of course winding up in time for Midnight Mass. The menu varied from village to village and family to family, and of course the tradition carried over to Italian Americans as well. The fasting requirement has been lifted from Christmas Eve, but the feast tradition remains.

Some of my earliest memories of Christmas Eve involve my grandmother standing over a skillet, frying smelts for dinner (I was a few years older before anyone could convince me to actually EAT smelts). The house was small, so we’d eat sort of grazing-style, taking turns at the table, some of us taking our plates to the living room, before finally leaving for Christmas Eve church services.

Now that Grandma can’t stand for as long to cook a big meal, the Christmas Eve gathering has moved to my uncle’s house. My aunt’s family is Eastern European, so the meal is much different. We won’t be getting home in time for it this year, either. So if you’re feeling as nostalgic as I am for your Italian family Christmas, grab a bunch of friends and head out to Dino’s this weekend to celebrate a little early.

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