Today I have the enormous honor of welcoming Robert Tinnell, one of the authors of Feast of the Seven Fishes: The Collected Comic Strip and Italian Holiday Cookbook and of the Seven Fishes Blog.
THE GIFT THAT KEEPS ON GIVING:
FEAST OF THE SEVEN FISHES IN OUR HOUSE
For those of you who don’t know, once upon a time I created, along with artists Ed Piskor and Alex Saviuk, an online comic strip called Feast of the Seven Fishes.
The strip developed a strong following and that in turn led to a book that collected the entire storyline (which, I should probably mention, deals with one Italian-American family’s 1983 Christmas Eve celebration in romantic comedy fashion) complete with a cookbook section (authored by my wife, Shannon) as well as an essay on the people, places and events from my life that inspired the story.
Since making the fateful decision to pursue this project back in 2004, the Feast of the Seven Fishes – the book – has taken on a life of its own. The book has done very well, drawing attention from major foodie outlets like public radio’s The Splendid Table and was nominated for the prestigious Eisner Award for Best Graphic Album – Reprint.
My home town of Fairmont, WV is in the third year of a Feast of the Seven Fishes Festival which was inspired by the book’s success and is growing by leaps and bounds, all the while continuing to help preserve this marvelous holiday tradition. And, while it was somewhat delayed, there is in fact a film version of the book going into production in the near future.
For all those wonderful benefits the book has generated, however, nothing compares to what the Feast itself has done for my family.
When I was kid, eating fish on Christmas Eve was just something you did. We never called it by name. I never even bothered to question why we did it, especially as I had not been raised Catholic. All I knew was that December 24th meant a delicious meal of exotic foods, cooked up by my ancient great-grandmother, Isabella Oliverio, on her wood-fired stove in the basement of her modest home in Rivesville, WV.
As kids we savored the smelt and the stuffed calamari and her delicious soup – the latter of which, I’m sorry to say, I’ve been unable to replicate. Why didn’t I take more notice at the time? Why did I take it all for granted? In the book I excuse my inattentiveness to the fact that “when you’re young, you’re busy being young, you know?” If only I had a time machine.
Well, as a matter of fact, now I do.
I can’t recreate my great-grandmother’s dishes in exacting detail. Nor can I resurrect relatives long gone and sorely missed. But what I can do – what my family and I have done – is recreate the atmosphere of those long-ago Christmas Eves. We do it with food and smell and wine and music and laughter and love. And if I’m being honest I admit that we do it at the top of our lungs.
I don’t want to make generalizations about other Italians, but I will say that mine is, um, loud. Maybe you know an Italian family like that.
Once I finally took an interest in recapturing the magic of the Feast of the Seven Fishes, far too many older relatives had passed away. Fortunately my grandfather and his brothers were still alive and took me under wing, initiating me into the wonder of the preparation of the Feast, as well as the viability of polkas as Christmas carols.
My grandfather has been gone now nearly ten years, but on Christmas Eve I feel him at my side. Which is a wonderful feeling – especially since I don’t have to hear him yell.
The morning of Christmas Eve, my wife, my brother and my father-in-law and myself start cooking – although I should add that we’ve actually started days earlier with the soaking of the baccala and other things. We spend the day in a fury of fish, garlic, music, beer and wine. As the day rolls along we are joined by other family and friends. When all is said and done we average around fifty for dinner.
The dinner itself is a marathon, however, and is no longer limited to seven fishes. Instead it has evolved into a melting pot of traditional family recipes and new and exciting efforts. The smelt and whiting and baccala and eel, all prepared using the methods passed down through my family, sit snugly beside the octopus (grilled over open flame and served over a bed of sea salt) and the grilled sardines (drizzled in lemon juice atop anchovy angel hair pasta).
My wife and I decided a few years ago that we would go all out for the Feast and that it would serve as our Christmas present to extended family and friends. It costs quite a bit to prepare and we thought to ourselves that giving this meal and this experience to our guests would mean more than buying just anything to say we were “giving.”
To our way of thinking, what better gift than these marvelous dishes and the effort that goes into preparing them?
And rather than having one’s memories dominated by the endless gauntlet of shopping that has come to define the holidays, we hope to provide an authentic experience, one our guests will, hopefully, look forward to year-after-year.
As the world endures this time of grave economic uncertainty, it’s our hope that more people will reconsider just what they are giving for the holidays. We would, honestly, treasure a gift of homemade bread or canned jelly much more than some mass-produced trinket someone felt compelled to give us.
In that spirit, let me encourage any and all who’ve taken a moment to read this, to consider integrating the Feast of the Seven Fishes into your Christmas Eve celebration. And if you don’t have an annual Christmas Eve celebration, consider starting one.
You needn’t go as crazy as us. You needn’t even be Italian. If I’m being really honest, you needn’t even serve fish – because the real point is for you to have an honest moment with family and friends. Hopefully one centered around delicious food you’ve taken the time to prepare yourself.
Thanks so much Robert! I couldn’t agree with you more.
Anyone else starving now?