W.Va. woman continues tradition despite allergies
By Debra Minor Wilson
Times West Virginian
FAIRMONT -- Most traditions build up over the years.
And some are thrust upon you.
Like making the customary Christmas Eve "Feast of the Seven Fishes'' for the family.
When Cecilia Simons married Paul Donato, she never had to prepare this traditional meal by herself.
Her mother-in-law, Lena Donato, had it all down pat.
Lena made most of the traditional "fishes'': shrimp, smelts, calamari, salted cod and baccala, but not eel.
"She prepared it all,'' Cecilia said.
It may have looked tasty, but she couldn't eat any of it.
"I'm very allergic to anything with iodine in it.''
Usually, she and Paul enjoyed two meals on Christmas Eve, an early one at 4 p.m. at Lena's home and a later one at 7 p.m. at her parents'.
Cecelia and Paul had been married for six years when Lena passed away two days after Thanksgiving in 1983.
"I had from then to Christmas to figure it out,'' Donato said.
She knew her mother-in-law was ill. So she knew at some point that sooner or later she'd have to learn to make the food she can't eat.
"But I thought I'd have one more Christmas. I thought I'd do it under her tutelage this one last time. But she died before I could even talk to her.
"I didn't think I'd have to learn quite so quickly. I never anticipated this.''
She turned to "every Italian woman I could find,'' she said. Luckily, she had more than enough Italian cooks to turn to. But that posed a problem in a way.
Most of them didn't use recipes. It was a little of this, some of that, season to taste and serve. Not exactly what a "Feast'' newbie wants to hear.
"Every Italian does it differently,'' Donato said. "It's from whatever region you're from in Italy. Betty Amoroso, my godmother, her squid sauce was more like a soup, where Lena's was like thick spaghetti sauce.
"A lot of people put their salted cod in spaghetti sauce. Lena deep-fried hers in potato dough. I tried to come up with how to do it as close to hers as I could. They say it's good. I don't know.''
She can't taste the food. Allergies, remember?
She can't even come into contact with shrimp. Or with anything that's come into contact with shrimp.
"It's not pretty,'' she said.
She would have others cook the shrimp and then clean up. Now she has people bring shrimp dishes already cooked.
She also makes another whole meal of ham and mashed potatoes, green beans, appetizers.
"Everybody came to Lena's house for Christmas Eve,'' she said. "Her house was the stopping-off point.''
So, to recap: Here was this time-honored, beloved family Christmas Eve tradition. Of seafood. That she can't taste. Because she's allergic.
That her mother-in-law had down to an art. That everyone loved and expected each holiday.
That she had to duplicate. All by herself. In less than a month.
No. No pressure at all.
Plus, Lena did her food differently from other cooks, too.
"She was the only one I know of who formed balls with baccala,'' Donato said. "I'm sure it came from her family.''
That first meal "went very well,'' she said.
"That first meal, his family came up. I was worried about the squid, but they all liked it.
"Still, I did a lot of crying for my husband. He buried his father on Christmas Eve in 1979. So I'm sure Christmas wasn't one of his top priorities.''
Her own mom had died in April that same year, so she knew the pain he was feeling.
BGK (before grandkids), the tradition was to have an all-evening meal, go to midnight Mass and come back to Lena's.
"Now our kids (there are three) want to be home Christmas morning with their kids (there are four). And that's understandable,'' she said. "So we let the little ones open gifts and then we go to early Mass instead of at midnight.''
And people seem to like her food just fine.
"They all love it,'' she said of the holiday custom.
"I think it's because it's only once a year, and that makes the food tastier and more special.''
Now, all the kids pitch in so there's not that worry about a big open house.
"It's fun,'' she said. "Traditions change now that the grandkids are here.''
She starts three or four days before Christmas to prepare her food. The salted cod soaks for three days. She makes squid on Dec. 23, "so there's enough time to set the flavor for the sauce,'' she said.
On Christmas Eve morning, she starts the baccala. The kitchen is cleaned after all the deep frying. And the guests bring appetizers and cookies.
"That makes it easy on Mom,'' she said with a laugh.
"Only'' about 30 people come to her Christmas Eve meal, she said.
"It used to be 40, 50. Traditions change. Family situations change. But it's good to keep it going.''
While she was growing up in Mannington with her five brothers and sisters, her family Christmas Eve tradition was oysters and shrimp (which she could eat before her allergy set in when she was 15), French fries and onion rings, she said.
"We never knew when we were going to have it. Half the time, either my mom or my dad had to work. So we'd have the meal later if Dad had to work.
"Those are good memories. Traditions build memories.''
She also takes pictures Christmas Eve of the kids and grandkids, she said.
"This year, it will have to move. We're running out of room. We have more stockings and had to put some on the mantel downstairs.
"But that's nice, too.''