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Seven Fishes

(by Lisa DePaulo)

I stood in my mother’s kitchen in Dunmore, Pennsylvania—outside “Beautiful Downtown Scranton” (I always promised her that I wouldn’t say anything nasty about Scranton)—on the morning of Christmas Eve, armed with a notebook and an apron. I was there to learn about the longstanding Italian Catholic tradition called “The Seven Fishes.” For 40 years of marriage, she carried on the tradition, including several helpings of Catholic guilt. As in, “You’d better come home on Christmas Eve. I’m making Seven Fishes.”

“OK, I’m ready,” I said.

“Most of it’s already done.”

“What do you mean already done?”

She gave me a look. “The baccala’s been soaking since Tuesday, and I cleaned the calamari yesterday—well, most of it. I saved a couple for you to clean. And all the baking has been done for a week. Now, you know that Bettiann [her niece, my cousin] is bringing the smelts. [Along with her father, her husband, and her three sons.] Remember how Joey and Greg would never eat the fish? I had to make them spaghetti. But now they love it.”

Part of the longstanding tradition of The Seven Fishes is that no one under the age of 17 touches the stuff. But my mother was relentless; she figured by their 18th year, she’d have them hooked. After all, it’s tradition.

I had one burning question: “Why seven fishes?”

“Because…” My mother paused. “Gee, I don’t know. We just always had seven.”

The cooking lesson was interrupted by my father’s contribution to the meal: carrying a case of soda and a couple bottles of wine in through the kitchen door and dumping them on the table.

“Dad, any idea why we make seven fishes?”

“Ask your mother.”

“Seven is symbolic in a lot of cultures,” offered my older brother, the college professor. “And isn’t there some Catholic thing with five loaves and two fishes? No, that can’t be it.”

My sister, the other college professor and the Yankee fan, said she thought it was “because seven was Mickey Mantle’s number.”