My Rouses Everyday, November/December 2017
Christmas Eve has always been a special time for Chef Nick Lama and his family.
To kick off the evening, Lama and his brother grill oysters in the backyard, maybe cracking a few beers while enjoying one of those cool and calm December evenings Southeast Louisiana so often enjoys.
As guests start trickling in, Lama’s mother whips up a special cocktail for the group while his wife begins popping a few bottles of bubbly to help with the celebratory mood. Meanwhile, a buttery hot crab dip quietly makes an appearance before quickly disappearing, the way buttery hot crab dips have a tendency to do. As the guests — a collection of Lama’s nearest and dearest — begin to take their seats, the wine bottles are uncorked, the glasses are topped off and the real magic begins to unfold.
A soup of some kind, maybe a seafood gumbo bobbing with shrimp and crab, will appear, followed by a pasta course like linguine with clams or mussels, and maybe a blistered pepper hot from the oven, stuffed with crabmeat and Italian sausage tucked under a bubbling cap of melted Fontina cheese. The dishes keep arriving — fried calamari, drizzled with lemon juice and parsley; a sautéed grouper framed by roasted potatoes; a salt-baked snapper stuffed with fennel, lemons and herbs — and the wine keeps flowing.
A third-generation Sicilian, Lama runs the Italian restaurant, Avo, in the Uptown neighborhood of New Orleans. His great-grandparents left the coastal Sicilian city of Cefalù for the United States in the early 1900s, and his family eventually went on to run the original St. Roch seafood market on St. Claude Avenue, until it closed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
For years now, Lama and his family have been celebrating the Feast of the Seven Fishes, the Italian-American Christmas Eve tradition adapted by immigrants from southern Italy who came to America en masse between the 1880s and 1920s. In Italy, the event is known as La Vigilia di Natale or, simply, La Vigilia, which translates to “the eve.” It is celebrated to commemorate the wait for the midnight birth of Jesus. Catholic tradition calls for an abstinence from meat on Christmas Eve, the vigil of Christmas Day. The multi-course seafood feast (traditionally held after Midnight Mass) reflects the willingness of the faithful to abstain from red meat until Christmas Day.
In the United States, Italian-American communities have carried the torch while imprinting their own marks on the tradition. No one really knows where the number seven came from and, while differing opinions abound, it is widely accepted to be Italian-American in origin. Some say the number stems from the seven sacraments in the Roman Catholic Church; others say it points to the most widely used number in the Bible, and some argue that the number points to the famed seven hills of Rome.
Naples, Sardinia and the island of Sicily — places in the southern-most regions of Italy where fresh fish and seafood are abundant — are where the Christmas Eve tradition is most widely celebrated. The more than four million immigrants that left Italy during the period of mass migration were predominantly from the South — farmers, day laborers and fishermen leaving dire economic situations in search of work and a better life.
New Orleans, in particular, had long been a desirable gateway for Sicilians, as the Port of New Orleans was America’s second largest port for the Sicilian citrus trade, says Enrico Villamaino, a museum curator at the American Italian Cultural Center in New Orleans.
“New Orleans had a very close economic and cultural connection to Sicily,” Villamaino said. “And one of the things that made for an easier transition for Italian immigrants (was) that Sicily and New Orleans had comparable climates … similar agriculture and similar fishing industries.”
The colorful altars that spring up across the city every year to commemorate St. Joseph’s Day are one example of the strong Sicilian foothold in the city. And while the Feast of the Seven Fishes isn’t as widely practiced in the South as it is in Italian-American households in the North, the abundance of seafood makes the tradition especially fitting for those living in the Gulf states.
In New Orleans, restaurateurs — even those without Italian affiliations — have taken to hosting extravagant, multi-course seafood celebrations around the holidays in honor of the tradition.
Last year, Italian newcomer Josephine Estelle at the Ace Hotel hosted its inaugural take on the family-style feast, and the French Quarter seafood institution GW Fins is now in its eighth year of throwing a special holiday seafood dinner in the weeks leading up to Christmas.
At the upscale Bienville Street restaurant, diners are treated to a more relaxed and communal setting, with smaller, more intricate dishes like an oyster and artichoke bisque or fresh lump crabmeat drizzled with capers and brown butter leading the way to larger, family-style platters of garlicky linguine and clams, Parmesan-crusted flounder, lightly fried calamari, shrimp and artichokes sprinkled with lemon and parsley, and grilled sardines tucked under a bright and zesty gremolata.
Gulf standbys like pompano and cobia are tossed on the grill, and drum, sheepshead and red snapper often make appearances.
“You’ve got to do something with shrimp, because they’re just so abundant, and that time of year there’s usually a lot of flounder, too,” says Executive Chef Michael Nelson, who last year featured a dish of Gulf shrimp alongside Sicily’s quintessential dish, eggplant caponata.
The dinners have proven so popular, GW Fins now hosts the celebration two nights instead of one, and a steady flow of Italian wines are served throughout both evenings.
“After the first couple of courses and glasses of wine, everyone’s kind of buttered up a bit and gotten to know everybody at the table,” Nelson says. “At that point we put all the wine out and everyone just goes at it: It’s noisy, people are yelling and talking, and it’s this really fun, family-style affair.”
For Chef Lama, sharing his family’s long-standing tradition with his customers at his restaurant was a no-brainer.
“I wanted to share the tradition with the people in town and at my restaurant, and with the neighbors — a lot of those people have become like family,” Lama says.
At Avo, a Feast of the Seven Fishes dinner is served throughout the month of December, with courses and menus changing to reflect what is fresh and in season at the time.
Despite the restaurant’s success with the dinners, Lama says there is still nothing like celebrating the event at home, with friends and family.
“What I really like about it is the aspect of everyone being together and cooking together,” Lama says. “And for anybody who is going to attempt it — try to enjoy it. The people you invite are going to be people who are near and dear to you — people that you love. You’re there to have a good time, to celebrate and to be together.”
The Feast of the Seven Fishes is an Italian-American Christmas Eve tradition adapted by immigrants from southern Italy who came to America en masse between the 1880s and 1920s. In Italy, the event is known as La Vigilia di Natale or, simply, La Vigilia, which translates to “the eve.” It is celebrated to commemorate the wait for the midnight birth of Jesus. Catholic tradition calls for an abstinence from meat on Christmas Eve, the vigil of Christmas Day. The multi-course seafood feast (traditionally held after Midnight Mass) reflects the willingness of the faithful to abstain from red meat until Christmas Day. No one really knows where the number seven came from. Some say the number stems from the seven sacraments in the Roman Catholic Church; others say it points to the most widely used number in the Bible, and some argue that the number points to the famed seven hills of Rome.
The abundance of seafood makes the tradition especially fitting for those of living here on the Gulf Coast. If this is your first year making the feast, don’t be intimidated by the number seven. If you count each piece of seafood served, you can knock it out with a single pot of seafood gumbo. But if you prefer an extravagant, multi-course seafood celebration, it’s easy to get to seven. Choose lighter, smaller dishes so guests don’t fill up to quickly. We have Gulf standbys like shrimp, crabmeat, oysters, fish and crawfish tails, as well as East Coast mussels, clams and lobsters. And remember frogs, turtles and alligator are officially classified as seafood.