Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Feast of the Seven Fish: Italian Seafood with a Side of All American Freedom!

My Grandma (Grammy) will be quick to tell you, “I’m Italian and I’m from Pittsburgh.” Both statements are a stretch. She has never lived in Italy nor Pittsburgh. She lives in a small town outside of the city, and both of her parents are Italian.

Nevertheless, this year my family celebrated the Feast of the Seven Fish. In the Catholic tradition, Christmas Eve is a time of fasting, so eating meat is out. I find it a little contradictory to have a feast on a day of fast, but I‘m not one to turn down a feast. If you can’t eat pigs or cows or chickens, you might as well eat as many types of fish as possible.

Like Grammy, the Feast of the Seven Fish presents itself as 100% Italian. A quick Google search revealed that the origins of the Feast are debatable. It is widely celebrated in Pittsburgh and other areas with large Italian immigrant populations. Walking into Dellalo (an Italian grocery store) on Christmas Eve will quickly clue you to the number of Italian Americans who practice the tradition. On December 24th attendants direct traffic outside, and after a few minutes inside you will feel like you are in an episode of Everyday Italian with Giada DeLaurentiis on Food Network. Store workers shout “Fresh baked bread great for bru-sket-a!” “Sale on Par-me-san-a!” . Even my Grammy asked where to find the “Cal-i-mar” (which was sold out by the way, sold out of squid…interesting). Apparently in the walls of the store you are required to use the Italian pronunciations. But do Italians really celebrate the Feast of the Seven Fish?

Italians (the ones from Italy, not the American ones) usually eat fish on Christmas Eve since the Catholic church forbids eating meat on that day, but Seven Fish is much more strongly rooted in the United States then in Italy. I tried to tell this to my Grammy but she wouldn’t hear any of it. Oh well, I don’t care where it came from, because eating seafood, drinking wine, and reuniting with family doesn’t need to be authentically Italian to be enjoyed. I asked Grammy what she remembered about Seven Fish dinners when she was a kid, and she said it was “even better than Christmas”. I might have to agree.

All of us want to have a cultural identity. Many Americans look to where their ancestors came from- Italy, Ireland, China, wherever. Sure, we might carry on some traditions that have roots in these cultures, but I’m no more Italian than the Pope is American. And what about those of us who are “mutts”? I’m a quarter Italian and a quarter Ukrainian on my Mom’s side, and my Dad’s side is such a mix there’s really no telling. Does this doom me to not having any cool traditions? No way!

Being an American is kind of like when you live in New York City all your life and never go in the Empire State Building. It’s there, but you don’t go in and appreciate it because its ALWAYS there and you start to take it for granted. Think of all the things that Americans do but other countries don’t: Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, the Wienermobile….just to name a few. My fellow Americans, if you find yourself looking for a cultural identity, no need to cling to a motherland you have little association with when you live in arguably the greatest country in the world. Whether you are Italian-American, Mexican-American or Di’Jabuti-American, don’t forget to appreciate the “American” part!

I went to pick up my Grandparents so I didn't get to do much cooking, I didn't even have a chance to get my coat off before I was handed a plate full of fish and a glass of wine.

I don't think Swedish Fish and Gold Fish Crackers count toward the 7, but it's the only "fish" my brother will eat.

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