Five years ago, my husband and I attended the Feast of the Seven Fishes celebration in Fairmont.
We both grew up in the Northern Panhandle and, while neither of us is Italian, we were familiar with this Italian-American Christmas Eve celebration.
We made the trip again this year after hearing all of the hype about the new movie, “Feast of the Seven Fishes,” filmed entirely in West Virginia and directed by Robert Tinnell, who with his wife, Shannon, hosts a culinary event associated with the festival.
The Christmas Eve meal consists of seven different seafood dishes. The tradition of abstaining from eating meat until Christmas Day is not unique to Italian-Americans. It is practice observed by Roman Catholics, including my husband’s Polish-American family.
The most famous dish served at the Feast of Seven Fishes is baccala (salted cod fish). My late hometown friend, Huntington Police Chief Joe Ciccarelli, once joked that the smell of baccala cooking on Christmas Eve at his grandmother’s house almost made him sick to his stomach.
Joe’s grandfather owned a small grocery store less than a block from my childhood home. I remember being fascinated by the stiff, dried fish that he sold at this time of the year, because food like that was unfamiliar to my German family.
This year’s event was the 14th year of The Feast of Seven Fishes cooking demonstration and sampling. Home cooks and professional chefs presented traditional and contemporary fish dishes. A cookbook of the recipes was given to every attendee.
Our first dish was to have been an eel dish, but the eel was unavailable and the chef, Marion Ohlinger, owner of Hill and Hollow Restaurant in Morgantown, substituted baby octopus. I had never tried octopus, and I was grateful for this new culinary experience. It wasn’t revolting, but it wasn’t a favorite.
I was delighted to find that I was correct in assuming this year’s culinary event would be special. Between courses, Robert Tinnell talked about making the film based on his graphic novel of the same name. It has been listed as one of the top 10 Christmas films this year.
Throughout the meal, Tinnell called lead actors in the film and they sent holiday greetings to us from New York City and Los Angeles. I think everyone in the room was happy for Tinnell, who exhibited pride in the movie and admiration for our state and its people.
He relayed how it “took a village” to produce the movie in-state. He relied heavily on family and friends, especially his West Virginia University Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity brothers.
With all of the recognition and adulation Tinnell is receiving, he has remained humble and has garnered great respect in the movie industry.
Tinnell said there have been requests to do a sequel, but — if that were to happen — it will probably not be done in West Virginia, after the Legislature eliminated the state’s film tax credit program last year, when an audit report deemed the credit provided “minimal economic impact.”
People who work in the film industry, including Tinnell, do not agree with this assessment. According to an interview Tinnell gave on West Virginia Public Radio, the production of “Feast of the Seven Fishes” benefited greatly from the now-defunct tax credit. The incentive from the tax credit allowed him to film and produce the movie in West Virginia with actors and crew from the larger out-of-state film industry.
Without the credit, it will be harder to attract big productions to West Virginia, disabling the ability to bring feature films and TV projects to the state.
Last year, during the Legislative session, Delegate Dianna Graves (R-Kanawha) introduced a bill to reinstate the film tax credit making adjustments based on the earlier audit report. The bill passed in the House, but it was never taken up by the Senate Finance Committee. Graves intends to reintroduce her bill during the 2020 session.
This week’s column doesn’t include a recipe. Instead, it is an invitation to watch “Feast of the Seven Fishes,” a film that emphasizes togetherness of family during the holiday season. There are romantic themes, hometown nostalgia and fears of being alone during the holidays woven within the plot. But, above all, there is constant reference to the preparation and consumption of food.
Roger Ebert’s website recommends this movie, and I hope you will, too, especially to your legislators who can bring back the film tax credit program. The film shines a positive light on West Virginia and individuals of Italian extraction who constitute one of the most important ethnic groups in our state.