For a cook, there is no greater pleasure than to fill a holiday table so full of feast that it groans with the load. But a steward of good food will consider conservation with consumption and a conscious way of thinking with all feasting. Every culture brings to their holiday table rich culinary tradition-a unique and special connection to their history and past. Greek families bake sticky sweets laden with nuts like baklava with 33 layers of paper thin dough as a reference to the years of Christ’s life. Jewish Grandmother’s sizzle latkes in oil and fry jelly donuts recalling the miracle of Hanukkah, which centers around oil. For Italians, Christmas Eve means feasting on fish.
The Feast of the Seven Fishes (an acceptable occasion to use the word ‘fishes’) is a much- celebrated meal for Italian-American families served on Christmas Eve in remembrance of the wait, or Virgil, for the midnight birth of Jesus. Unlike many other holidays, the ritual of what is eaten is a little looser. Catholic Italians do not eat meat on holy days. But, each cook creates his or her ideas for this feast with commonality: there will be fishes.
Despite what the name implies, at any feast there could be any number of seafood dishes as varied as the families who eat them, with explanations tied to Catholicism. There is a belief that the number is symbolic of the seven sacraments, the seven virtues, or even the seven deadly sins. Others serve 13 dishes, symbolic of the 12 apostles and Jesus, while others leave out Jesus and Judas and serve eleven. There are even those who put out only three dishes for the Holy Trinity or The Three Wise Men. And just as many create their number based simply on the time and energy of the cook. One thing is certain, there are plenty of incredible Italian seafood dishes to choose from; calamari stuffed and baked in marinara, flaky baccala (salted dried cod), garlic-heavy shrimp scampi and Insalata de Scungilli (a large marine snail) made into a salad with a lemony vinaigrette, are common favorites. A host of any feast knows the joy and pride in providing a beautifully executed menu and the responsibility to create sustenance and conviviality to guests. It is in this sense of responsibility and mindfulness that a meal can be created that leaves plenty of fishes for future feasts.
Today, there is much concern over the declining health of our oceans and sea life. The ocean covers more than 70 percent of the earth, but even that vast resource is not limitless, and seafood is rapidly growing in demand. According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, 90 percent of the world’s fisheries are now fully exploited, overexploited or have collapsed. Oceans play an important role in biodiversity, and a fishing industry without limits and sustainable practices threatens this balance. Issues such as over-fishing, destructive fishing, irresponsible aquaculture or fish farming, pollution, and even pirate fishing and using slave labor are all dangers to the seas and those who rely on their bounty. Sustainable seafood is seafood that is caught or farmed in ways that promote good stewardship of the oceans by considering the health and abundance of the species being harvested and the well-being of the waters and the communities that are dependent upon it for livelihood. Without sustainable fishing methods and responsible aquaculture practices, our world’s waters will not be able to meet the demands of the years of feasts to come
Shelley Dearhart, the Good Catch Coordinator at the South Carolina Aquarium, works with chefs, schools, seafood purveyors, and consumers to educate on how to make seafood choices that support the health of our oceans. She offers some excellent advice on how to make seafood choices that are sustainable, for this holiday feast or any occasion.
Start the Conversation
Don’t be intimidated to ask your fishmonger or restaurant server where the fish they are selling came from, how it was caught or how it was farmed. Those are important questions. Shelley relates this to the total comfort a restaurant diner would have to ask what region and vineyard a bottle of wine is grown or bottled. Becoming comfortable asking questions starts the conversation and lets your purveyor know that is matters to you. Shelley’s advice, “If they don’t know the answer and can’t find out, then don’t buy. Conversation and relationship-building are important.”
Buy Local or American
The Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996 governs the management of fisheries in the US and includes rules on overfishing, maximum sustainable yields and regular assessment of US governed waters. Because of this act, buying domestically caught seafood is a good place to start. But, to know your seafood, know your fisherman. There are seafood purveyors and retailers that can trace the fish they sell back to the captain and boat. That kind of old world relationship is ideal to create a feast that celebrates and honors their hard work. Another option in coastal areas is a Community Supported Fishery, or CSF. Much like a CSA is for produce, in a CSF consumers purchase a “share” in what a captain fishes and receive frequent allotments of seafood based on what is caught locally. Mark Marhefka runs the CSF, Abundant Seafood, in the Charleston, SC area. His customers, including Shelley, pick up seafood right on the dock, usually with Mark there cleaning it himself. You may not know what will be available ahead of time or only have unique seafood available depending on the catch, so this option is for the more adventurous cook.
Try Something New
Take a culinary aquatic adventure and try a new sea creature at your festive spread. Species like swordfish, Atlantic salmon, and Bluefin tuna are popular and common choices in today's seafood market. But, with popularity comes susceptibility to overfishing and depletion. Many of the less popular or less well-known fish species are some of the best choices to consume. Eating a diversity of seafood helps ease the pressure on the popular species. Shelley is an advocate for the underutilized and under-appreciated fish. One of her favorite species is lionfish, an invasive fish that is rarely sold commercially. Chefs Collaborative, an organization of food professionals dedicated to building better food systems, popularized the term “Trash Fish” for these types of underutilized species when they created a now well-known educational fundraising dinner series with renowned chefs creating beautiful meals featuring them. Maybe a Trash Fishes Feast could inspire your guests.
One of the biggest challenges for Shelley in her work is that “the fisheries industry is ever- changing”. There is a lot to keep up with to understand how to make the best choices for a feast. But, if you are a seafood eater, taking the time to learn how your meal makes an impact ensures that our oceans are healthy, and we’ll have fish in the future. Know that there are resources that can help. Seafood Watch has an app for smartphones that helps with
recommendations to make sustainable seafood decisions. There are many sites online with up- to-date information on what species and fisheries are the most sustainable, many with rating systems to help. And of course, aquariums across the country host valuable information on sustainability and conservation efforts.
A cook’s biggest fear is running out of food. And some of our most treasured traditions come from leftovers. But, it’s ok to be cautious not to overproduce. Approximately 40 percent of food in the U.S. goes to waste according to the Food and Agriculture Organization. Honor the fish on the table and those who worked to provide it; cook what is needed and find a use for what is left. Another way to consciously scale back on our seafood consumption is to let side dishes and vegetables be the star. Fill platters with the bounty of farmers as well as fisherman. Linguine with clams is simple and filling, but with a smaller proportion of seafood. Maybe even add a little whimsy and have the little ones decorate fish and seashell shaped sugar cookies to count as one of your seven dishes.
Sometimes traditions need to be updated. They need polished, shined and rejuvenated by the current generation. Traditional cultural foods can be cultivated to create awareness of and responsibility for our food systems at every gathering. A seafood feast that honors those who worked to provide it and that protects the treasures and resources of the precious seas, is the right way to feast on fishes.