Celebrating The Feast of The Seven Fishes, Pittsburgh-Style
A long-standing tradition for Italian-Americans on Christmas Eve, The Feast of the Seven Fishes originated from the Roman Catholic tradition of abstaining from eating meat or milk products on the eve of holidays, among other holy days and certain days of the week. Families serve seven fishes or more (baccalà, smelts, and calamari are a few popular choices!) in various preparations. Whether baked, fried, boiled, or sautéed, the meal’s components cover all bases and surely satisfy — especially for seafood lovers.
At the start of December, the voluminous fish requests start rolling in at Wholey’s Fish Market, Marty’s Market, and Girasole, whose owner, Patti Gerasole, preps for weeks in advance to feed up to 60 close family members and friends. Says Gerasole, “It’s my favorite day of the year. Part of my excitement comes from memories of shopping for fish at Wholey’s with my dad as a young girl — seeing everybody in a holiday mood, the music, the snow.”
On any given week, Wholey’s receives shipments of fish starting at 5 a.m. Some hail from Boston, and originate from places all over the world, including Alaska, the Caribbean, Scotland, and Iceland. And, particularly during the holiday months, Wholey’s staff uses projections from the previous year’s sales to target demand. As the granddaughter of a Greenfield couple who frequented Wholey’s once a week for 50-plus years, I feel as though I understand the value of fresh fish and the efforts behind sourcing, selling, buying, and preparing.
For The Feast of the Seven Fishes celebration, patrons pop in in search of the aforementioned varieties, as well as oysters, scallops, crab legs, lobster tails, octopus, and even eel. The fish market hosts demos for lessons on preparing types of fish, and post-shopping, you can dine on the freshly caught and cooked seafood in the upstairs restaurant or grocery shop. Says co-owner Sam Wholey, “We also do quite a bit of business preparing holiday trays and holiday platters.”
Seafood Manager John McNally says he always receives recipe requests from customers. “And, in return, I get fantastic recipes from them!” McNally says. For Wholey, the enjoyment surrounding the holidays is interacting with people. “Making them feel welcomed,” he says. “Be like the ambassador here. That’s what I get the most gratification out of.”
A hop, skip, and a jump from Wholey’s is Marty’s Market, which prides itself on sustainable fishery and its organic grocery. “It was important that we sourced responsibly,” says Butcher and Fishmonger Steven Beachy. “We actually partnered with Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program in California. They do an excellent job of evaluating fishing practices worldwide in the categories of ‘best choice,’ ‘good alternative,’ and ‘ones to avoid.’ We only carry off of their ‘best choice’ list.”
Beachy, a former New York City chef, recommends firing up the grill or using a cast iron pan for dinner prep. “The more delicate fish — halibut, cod, or rainbow trout — are suitable for poaching,” he says. “For meatier fishes, like swordfish and salmon, I suggest pan-frying.” This year, he’s also encouraging shoppers to prepare oysters raw. “It’s a tough sell in Pittsburgh,” he says. “They’re delicious.” Or, try one of the other sustainable seafood selections Marty’s carries, such as swordfish loin steaks, king salmon, or wild-striped bass.
For Gerasole, her preparations start with soaking the baccalà five days in advance, changing the water twice a day to eliminate the salt and tenderize. Her menu includes fresh tuna salad, scallop scampi, a crabmeat salad, clams on the half shell, breaded smelts, angel hair pasta with scallop-stuffed calamari sauce, and her baccalà salad, shown below.
While the numeral origin of The Feast of the Seven Fishes is somewhat of a mystery, some families celebrate with seven fishes for the seven Sacraments and even 13 for the 12 apostles plus Jesus. Says Gerasole, “For us, it’s either 7, 10, or 13, but never a number in between. Many Italians consider it bad luck.”
For my family, the ritual continues to flourish as our family grows and new recipes mix with beloved must-haves. The louder and busier the kitchen, the better!
Gerasole agrees, “I love all of the excitement and everyone gathering together. The drinking, eating, and singing — I just love this time of year.”