People all over the world have a longstanding tradition of feasting on seafood during winter holidays. Crab, salmon, lobster, oysters, shrimp, cod, carp, and lutefisk all have a place at the holiday table. It is important to remember that a courageous and hardworking man or woman braved the hazardous waters of the oceans and seas to bring that delicacy to your table. Whether you celebrate Chinese New Year, feast on Scandinavian inspired lutefisk, or enjoy the Feast of the Seven Fishes, the tradition of seafood during the holidays deserves a special thank you.
The celebration of the Chinese New Year always features fresh fish, a symbol of surplus and wealth. Linguists believe this is because the Chinese word for “fish” (yú) has the same pronunciation as the Chinese word for “abundance” or “extra.” Serving a whole fish at the end of a Chinese New Year meal with head and tail intact, carries the added symbolism of a good beginning and ending to the new year.
In Scandinavian homes, lutefisk, cod cakes, and oyster stew were old world foods brought to the Midwest by new immigrants. Lutefisk (cod that has been preserved in lye then rinsed well before cooking) is served during holidays as a way of remembering the poverty of the past. According to Hasia Diner, a professor of immigration history at New York University, consuming lutefisk is a way of honoring previous generations, those who came to this country looking for prosperity, opportunity, and a better life.
The Feast of the Seven Fishes appears to have originated in New York during the late 1800s. “Little Italy” was a thriving neighborhood rich in Italian-American culture, a blend of old world traditions and new world celebrations. Many believe that the Italian celebration of La Vigilia, or “the wait” on Christmas Eve was the inspiration of what we know today as the Feast of the Seven Fishes. Devout Italian Catholics often fasted and gave up meat on Fridays and high holidays. The Christmas Eve fast was broken with a meal rich in seafood from the abundance of the Mediterranean. Minestra de Pesce, a fish based soup, continues to be popular Christmas Eve fare in many Italian homes, and the tradition continues in the U.S. today. Why the number seven? Historians have not been able to agree on this, but it may be a way to pay homage to the seven hills of Rome, a reference to the seven sacraments of the Catholic church, or the seven seas that offer us seafood in abundance.
Crab season runs from November to June depending on the species. Winter months are prime time for this sweet and meaty delicacy. Depending on the type of crab, it takes time to work that tempting meat out of the claws using crab crackers and special forks or picks. The cracking and processing of a cooked crab can be slow, creating a meal that is perfect for leisurely holiday tables and good conversation. Crab served during any winter holiday is a truly special treat, and feasting on “in season” foods has long been a tradition around the world.
Please say a special thank you to the people who made your holiday meal possible. Whatever your traditions, we hope you make time to prepare and enjoy a celebratory feast of seafood with good friends and loved ones.