The Feast of the Seven Fishes Festival

The past few years, for Christmas Eve dinner at my mom’s, we observe the Feast of the Seven Fishes. We’re not Catholic, or even Italian, for that matter. We just really like seafood. We already were having shrimp on Christmas Eve, so why not just up the ante and supplement it with six more seafood dishes. So we just started celebrating it, and we’ve never looked back.

Last weekend, my mom and I traveled up I-79 to take in some Italian-American and Catholic culture at the Feast of the Seven Fishes Festival in Fairmont. The Feast of the Seven Fishes is a Catholic observance for Christmas Eve originating in Southern Italy, featuring a dinner with seven different fish dishes. It has connections to the practice of avoiding meat (fish doesn’t count) on Fridays for Lent.

The Feast of the Seven Fishes Festival has been going on for the past few years. A side-street in downtown Fairmont is blocked off to traffic, and vendors selling crafts, food, drinks and other items set up booths lining both sides of the street. Live music and a cooking demo are the feature events.

Feast of the Seven Fishes Festival (9)

We planned on going to the cooking demo to get some ideas for this year’s dinner on Christmas Eve. We were actually a little late getting there because the weather was not cooperating. It was patchy freezing drizzle all the way up the interstate, which made the bridges really slick. We got to the cooking demo right after the first course was served, but we got our complimentary glasses of wine and sat down, and the servers brought the first course around to us when we got settled. It was home-cured salmon on what looked like water crackers. I’m a huge fan of salmon, especially cured, and this tasted amazing. The second course was a caesar salad, with probably the best salad dressing I’ve ever tasted. It had such a fresh and sharp taste, with the black pepper and anchovies. I think what made the dressing so good was that it was literally made minutes before we ate it. Salad dressing is definitely one of those things that doesn’t get better by sitting around for hours. I cannot wait to try the recipe for the dressing myself. It’s seriously a game-changer. The next course was a fish soup. It was different from other fish soups that I’ve had because it wasn’t a tomato-based broth like Manhattan clam chowder or a cream-based soup, either. The recipe called for chicken or vegetable stock, which kept it nice and light. This is key when you’re eating seven courses.

Feast of the Seven Fishes Festival (5)

A really funny thing–something that only happens in West Virginia–happened next. We were sitting in the back row, since we got there late. The man who made the fish soup, Robert Tinnell, came around to the back of the room after his demo was over and his course was served to the crowd. He asked us if we liked the soup. We told him that we did, and my mom commented that his last name was spelled just like her mother’s maiden name, and joked that they might be related. After quizzing each other about grandfathers and great uncles and other ancestors, it turns out they are! We don’t have that much of a connection with that part of our family because most of them have died off, so it was so nice to make a new acquaintance that is also from that side of the family. I’m a junkie for geneology, and he had pictures from the family farm in Virginia and the cemetery, so I was immediately wanting to sit down with a notebook and pen and write down everything he knows about the Tinnells. We’re going to try to get together sometime soon and “have old home week,” as we say here in West Virginia.

He and his wife actually wrote a cookbook called The Feast of the Seven Fishes. The book grew out of a comic strip about an Italian-American family, and the cookbook is interspersed with comics and stories surrounding the food and festivities. His wife, Shannon, demonstrated a couple of the courses, including a delicious spicy mussels dish at the cooking demo, and needless to say, together, they are an authority on Feast of the Seven Fishes dishes. The proof is in the pudding–er, soup and mussels.

The remaining courses followed in a flurry, and included scallops with a creamy lemon sauce over pasta and arancini, rice balls made from leftover risotto mixed with cheese, breaded and fried. We’ve decided to incorporate the caesar salad, fish soup and arancini into our Christmas Eve dinner.

Local chef M.K. Olinger

Local chef M.K. Olinger

After the cooking demo, we walked through the festival, peeking to see what vendors were selling in the booths along the street. Most of the booths were selling food items, which looked delicious. I saw pizelles and lupini beans for sale, and I almost stopped to buy some. A coworker who used to work in my office was from the Fairmont area and had Italian heritage, and used to treat us to these goodies when she would come back from a trip back home.

Feast of the Seven Fishes Festival

Pizelles and other goodies for sale

There was even a wine tasting competition. I didn’t stay around for the results, but I’ll bet they were all delicious.

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There was such an atmosphere of community pride, and of course Christmas spirit. Big propane heaters were lined up the middle of the street, and folks were standing around high-top tables eating food from the booths and enjoying local wine and beer and telling stories. I would have loved to pull up a spot at one of the tables and shoot the breeze with the white-haired guys holding court, but we had to head back.

The festival is always held the second Saturday in December, and is worth the trip. It was definitely worth the trek up the interstate for us, especially since we connected with long, lost family and got some wonderful recipes for our dinner. I definitely want to go back next year to see what new recipes I can get. And maybe I’ll pick up some of those pizelles.

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