FESTIVALS EXPLORER: 7 Fishes – A Tradition, Book, Festival and Now a Feature Film

Robert Tinnell, Festival Explorer

West Virginia-native Robert Tinnell is a writer/director/producer with experience in a variety of media. He most recently adapted his Eisner Award-nominated graphic novel, Feast of the Seven Fishes, into a feature film starring Madison Iseman, Skyler Gisondo, Joe Pantoliano and Paul Ben-Victor.

The Tradition

As a kid, I didn’t even know it was called the Feast of the Seven Fishes (or even La Vigilia – the name by which is more commonly known in the old country).  It was just something we did every Christmas Eve and it was fun and the food was incredible. And it wasn’t just us.  Italian-American families all over West Virginia (and indeed the entire country) were sitting down together on Christmas Eve to a seafood feast of everything from baccala to smelt, from calamari to oysters. Even eel and octopus are known to make an appearance.

The Book

At some point I realized we should be preserving the methods of preparing these wonderful traditions.  Which in turn led to me making videos of my grandfather and great-uncles cookingthe meal back in 1994.  Some years later, I decided to write a romantic comedy that revolved around the Feast of the Seven Fishes.  That story led to an online comic strip which in turn led to the strips being collected in a book which was ultimately nominated for an Eisner Award.

In the wake of the book’s success, my friend Lou Spatafore suggested we start a holiday festival in my hometown of Fairmont – and the Feast of the Seven Fishes Festival was born.

The Festival

On Saturday Dec. 14, 2019, the Feast of the Seven Fishes Festival will take place on Monroe Street in Downtown Fairmont. In its fourteenth year (and always on the second Saturday of December), the festival generally draws over ten thousand people to the street market featuring food, drink and shopping opportunities. There is live music – the kind you would hear in an Italian-American household during the holidays – and everything is served up in a warm, authentic holiday atmosphere.  There is plenty of heated, covered space and vendors.

The night before the street fair, Dec. 13 – my wife, Shannon Colaianni Tinnell (author of the cookbook section of the original book as well as an upcoming culinary history of West Virginia), will host the annual Festival Cucina, a limited seating cooking school wherein she and six other chefs demonstrate recipes old and new and attendees enjoy generous samples of everything.  This year’s offerings include a delicious spicy shrimp that is to die for.

This year’s Holiday Homecoming is serving as a kick-off to Fairmont’s 200-year celebration. And the annual Coal Miners Appreciation Day & Swap Meet will be held at Arts & Antiques Marketplace and the end of the street fair marks the beginning of the city’s Christmas Parade.

The Movie

As happy as I was with all the attention the tradition of the Seven Fishes was getting, I still had yet to realize my biggest ambition: to adapt the book as a movie. And then the craziest thing happened.  We put together an amazing cast and I directed a movie version of the story.  And I shot it in my grandparent’s old house in Rivesville and on locations around Marion County.  And now it’s playing in theaters and streaming on demand and getting great reviews.

Obviously, for me, this year will be a very special one thanks to the release of the Feast of the Seven Fishes movie.   There will be a special screening on Sunday, Dec. 15 at the Tygart Cinemas and afterwards I’ll be there to participate in a Q & A.  Already, fans of the film are seeking out the locations we used for the shoot, and the Marion County CVB is creating maps to guide cine-tourists.

If you join us for the festival, make sure to set aside extra time to sample some of the other culinary treats Marion County has to offer. The legendary Muriale’s Restaurant is a great place to grab delicious Italian food as is the equally-beloved Colasessano’s PizzaCountry Club Bakery serves up the original pepperoni roll, and Short Story Brewing has developed a strong following thanks to their delicious beers and inviting brew pub.  Fairmont has a long-standing love affair with hot dogs, including Woody’s which served as a location in the movie and, of course,  the legendary Yann’s Hot Dogs, perched at one end of the iconic “Million Dollar Bridge (officially now known as The Robert H. Mollohan-Jefferson Street Bridge.)

Sure the recipes and ingredients and even the types of seafood might vary from family to family – but the tradition itself hung on and is now making a comeback.  And West Virginia – and Marion County in particular –  is ground zero for the resurgence of the Feast.

For more information visit Marion County CVB.

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This post was last updated on March 18, 2022