Christmas Eve tradition in Appalachia gets fishy

By Candace Nelson - 10:00 AM

Feast of the Seven Fishes

Here's my latest column for the Charleston Gazette-Mail:

For many in Appalachia, Christmas Eve consists of light snacks in anticipation of the next day’s baked ham with brown sugar glaze, mashed potatoes and gravy, green bean casserole and lots of cookies.

But if you’re of Italian heritage, the day before Christmas may consist of deep-fried calamari, octopus salad, clams, fried smelts, scallops, shrimp cocktail, oyster shooters, scungilli (sea snail) and baccala (salt cod).

The Feast of the Seven Fishes, held on Christmas Eve, is an Italian-American celebration that features fish and other seafood dishes and is rooted in the ancient tradition of Roman Catholics abstaining from meat and dairy products before holidays, according to Saveur, the gourmet food and travel magazine.

“It’s unclear where the fixation on seven types of seafood came from in the America meal — some say it represents the seven sacraments, seven cardinal virtues, or seven days of the week. Some Italian-Americans set a different number all together, like 12 (guessed by some to represent the 12 apostles),” reads an article by Saveur’s Stacy Adimando.

While the features of the meal are rooted in Italian traditions, the Feast of the Seven Fishes is an Italian-American creation. It’s likely Southern Italian immigrants brought the concept with them to America, and it has developed over time into the official “Feast of the Seven Fishes” meal that celebrates history, family and food.

Communities all across America now host the feast on Christmas Eve, specifically in areas with large Italian populations — including Appalachia.

Many Italians from the Calabria region of Italy made their way to North Central West Virginia to work in the coal mines in the early 1900s. In 1910, more than 17,000 Italians were living in West Virginia, making up 30 percent of the entire foreign-born population of the state, according to the West Virginia Encyclopedia.

Robert Tinnell, a Marion County native with Italian heritage, wanted to document the Feast of the Seven Fishes Christmas Eve tradition he grew up with by creating a graphic novel in 2005.

The graphic novel spurred Fairmont’s “Feast of the Seven Fishes” festival the following year, which was filled with street vendors, a cooking school, entertainment and music. Thousands attend the festival each year, and it has been named a Top 20 Event for December by the Southeast Tourism Society.

Most recently, the book has been adapted into a film and was shot in North Central West Virginia — cementing the region’s status as the capital of the beloved feast.

Like many events, the Feast of the Seven Fishes Festival will look a bit different this year, with drive-thru menu options and televised programming in lieu of a street festival.

But the sentiment of the holiday remains. West Virginians can continue to celebrate the heritage of West Virginia and the patchwork of various cultures that make Appalachia unique during these uncertain times.

The Feast of the Seven Fishes is one example of honoring our roots while maintaining an Appalachian spirit. Now, I think more than ever, it’s important to keep our neighbors and community in mind as we weather challenges ahead during this different holiday.

So, maybe add a fish dish to your upcoming holiday in honor of this tradition, celebrate Appalachian heritage and stay healthy, friends.

Stuffed Squid or Stuffed Calamari

From Shannon Colaianni Tinnell. Originally presented by Robert Tinnell.

Marion County native Robert Tinnell celebrated the Feast of the Seven Fishes with his family every Christmas Eve growing up, and in 2006 partnered with Main Street Fairmont to host a festival in its honor. One key part of the festival is the “Festival Cucina” kickoff, an evening cooking school where his wife, Shannon, also shares some classic seafood recipes and dishes. The tradition has gained popularity in Appalachia not only through the festival, but also through the couple’s graphic novel and, most recently, a film. The festival will look a bit different this year, with a televised cooking school airing on WDTV on Friday, Dec. 11, a pop-up shop downtown and drive-thru feast option. If you’d like to get started early, check out this recipe from the Tinnells for a true, authentic taste of one of seven fishes.

2 to 3 pounds calamari

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 bunch finely chopped parsley

1 head finely garlic

1 whole egg

2-3 cups freshly grated Parmesan cheese

1 large can fine dry unflavored breadcrumbs

½ to 1 cup milk

1 teaspoon salt and pepper

Tomato Sauce:

2 large cans tomato puree

1 small can tomato paste

5 cloves minced garlic

1/4 cup olive oil

1 small white onion, chopped fine

fresh basil to taste

salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes to taste

First prepare the sauce. Saute the garlic and onion in olive oil over medium heat being careful not to burn the garlic. Add the tomato products and seasonings. Simmer on low heat. Add the fresh basil at the end of the cooking time.

Clean and prepare the squid by removing the tentacles and leaving only the body cavity. Chop the squid tentacles very fine. In a bowl mix them with the stuffing ingredients. Mix by hand, slowly adding the milk until a thick moist mixture is achieved.

Stuff the calamari being careful not to overstuff because they will shrink during the cooking process and burst. Drizzle the baking dish with olive oil. In the baking dish, lay the stuffed calamari in rows and cover with tomato sauce. Drizzle the baking dish with olive oil. Sprinkle with grated cheese and fresh basil.

Cover tightly with foil and cook in a 450-degree oven for 45-60 minutes. The squid is done when it feels tender at the pricking of a fork.

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