Please welcome guest author Shannon Colaianni Tinnell. Tinnell lives in Morgantown, WV with her husband, two children and two ancient dogs. A graduate of WVU with a Masters in Public History, she is the author of several published works, including articles in Goldenseal Magazine and the local history Morgantown:Then and Now as well as the cookbook section of the Eisner Award-nominated graphic novel, FEAST OF THE SEVEN FISHES. Tinnell is also a budding documentary filmmaker with a thesis film on the Shinnston Tornado and an upcoming recounting of the Youghiogheny Forest Colony, focusing on a Depression-era artisan colony in Preston County, WV.
There is an old Italian proverb: Natale con I Tuoi e Pasque Doui Vuoi, which translates as “Christmas with your family and Easter wherever you want.” But regardless of your location when celebrating them, the two biggest holidays amongst Italian-Americans, Christmas (in particular, Christmas Eve and its traditional Feast of the Seven Fishes) and Easter, obviously share many commonalities.
The two Christian holidays represent the beginning and end of Christ’s earthly existence (and, of course, resurrection). It should be noted that at some point early Christian leaders grafted the two events onto ancient pagan celebrations, one recognizing the winter solstice and the other fertility and life, in what was perhaps an effort to make easier the adoption of Christian practices by converts. Both holidays feature elaborate feasts lovingly prepared from traditional recipes that have been handed down from generation to generation. Following these recipes fuels the authenticity of our traditions and, if studied carefully, can add to our understanding of our heritage, reminding us where we are from and, in some ways, who we are.
It is that spirit that has inspired me the past nine years when, during Fairmont, WV’s Feast of the Seven Fishes Festival, I’ve had the privilege of running a cooking school celebrating Italian-American Christmas foodways. The Feast of the Seven Fishes is a centuries-old custom observed primarily by southern Italians, consisting of a seafood meal served on Christmas Eve in observation of La Vigilia, or the vigil for the Christ child. The Roman Catholic tradition of abstaining from the consumption of meat or milk products on Fridays, and specified holy days, includes Christmas Eve.
Fairmont is located in north-central West Virginia, a place known for its large and dynamic Italian-American community, and the feast is actively celebrated in many, many homes in the region. The festival is held the second Saturday of December in downtown Fairmont, and is designed to preserve Italian-American customs and foodways as exemplified by the traditional Christmas Eve meal of the same name. The centerpiece of the festival is the food.
In 2005, my husband, Robert Tinnell, a writer and filmmaker, teamed up with artists Ed Piskor and Alex Saviuk to create a graphic novel about his family’s traditional Christmas Eve dinner. Coming from an Italian-American family myself, I knew about the Feast, but being a child of divorce, I always missed out on that side of my family’s traditions. So when my husband asked me to write the recipes that would accompany the story, I felt like a bit of a fraud.
Rather than refuse, however, I set out not only to explore the many ways different families prepared the meal but also to try and reconnect with my own family heritage and to preserve it. That led to my desire to develop a platform for myself and others to share these recipes and preserve them – thus was our blog and the festival itself conceived. I feel that as we become a more homogenized society, we can still draw upon our food memories to connect us to our heritage. Who knew something as simple as cooking calamari or learning to skin an eel and prepare it would not only give me a deep sense of satisfaction but also help me find my sense of self and place?
I was raised half the year on a farm in rural north-central West Virginia and the other half in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, PA. I was tow-headed with blue eyes, fair skin but with a slight olive twist, a southern twang and a big old last name that ended in a vowel: Colaianni! I can’t tell you how many times someone said, “But you don’t look Italian.” It wasn’t only the fact that I didn’t look Italian, but I was also from a divorced family, which in the late 1970’s was still a big deal within my Italian-American family.
In West Virginia, many people had trouble pronouncing my last name; and let’s not even talk about the butchered spelling of it. When I would leave my Pittsburgh family and friends they would always send me on my way to what they referred to as Appalachia. (Shh – don’t tell them they but they are actually part of Appalachia, too- a fact they still haven’t quite come to terms with.) As I grew up, I noticed that even though I embraced both sides of my family’s different traditions and foodways, there was inherently something in me that craved pasta, garlic, red wine, and Italian music more than the other stuff, and for the life of me I couldn’t understand why no one from my WV family ever did the Tarantella at family weddings.
Although growing up between two very different worlds was at times difficult, immersion into two completely different backgrounds, including a broad introduction to different family foodways, opened up my perspective, and my taste buds. No matter where I was, food was an essential part of my life, and never less than on Easter Sunday.
Like the Feast of the Seven Fishes, Easter also has some unique recipes and traditions that have migrated from Italy, and although we don’t have a festival dedicated to them, they remain a part of our observation of the holiday every year, as they do with Italian-American families across the country. I make an effort every Easter to prepare something that reflects my family’s Italian heritage and through the years have enjoyed making, among other things, Pizza Rustica, Ricotta Pie, and Manicotti.
But ultimately I always come back to the two dishes that I grew up with: Easter Bread and Veal Ravioli. In a few days my kitchen will be filled with colorful dyed Easter eggs ready to braid into warm yeasty dough that will bake into delicious Easter Bread. The workflow that results in the Veal Ravioli will represent an ever larger investment of time and labor (and money – veal is definitely not cheap these days). These two recipes have been prepared for generations in my Italian American family. I love to make them and feel a deep responsibility to preserve them for the future generations.
Recently my father came down to Appalachia all the way from Pittsburgh to deliver a lesson in ravioli making. He spent the day teaching all of us, including my children and my niece and nephew, how to make our family Easter specialty in the Colaianni-style. Now it is my time to be the recipe bearer and make the ravioli for to the next generation and hopefully the children and their children will keep the tradition alive – because when they do, they keep a little bit of us all alive with it.
PS – For some yummy Feast of the Seven Fishes’ recipes check out our blog.
5 Cups of flour
1 Cup of water
2 Tablespoons of Olive Oil
1/4 Tablespoon Salt
1 Pound of ground veal
1 Package of Chopped Spinach
1/2 cup Bread Crumbs
8 oz. Package of Cream Cheese
1-2 Tablespoons of fresh chopped parsley
1/4 Cup of Parmesan Cheese
2 Large cans of Tomato Puree
1 Small can of tomato paste
Minced garlic to taste
1/4 cup olive oil
1 Small white onion chopped fine
Fresh basil to taste
Salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes to taste
First prepare the sauce. Lightly brown the garlic and onion in olive oil. Add the tomato products and seasonings. Simmer on low heat for a few hours, remembering to stir. Add the fresh basil at the end of the cooking time.
The second step is to brown the ground veal. Then add the chopped garlic, spinach and onions and cook until softened. After the filling has cooled, put in a food processor, add the remaining ingredients and lightly pulse a few times.
The dough is next. Place flour on pastry board – add eggs, salt, and just enough of the water to moisten the mixture. Knead until stiff. There are two ways to proceed from here: Either hand roll the dough or use a pasta machine. In either case, the trick is for the dough to be thick enough to hold the filling, but thin enough not to mask the flavor of the filling. Divide the dough into eight equal parts and start with one section at a time leaving the remaining dough covered in the bowl. The use of the machine requires the dough to be run through five-to-six times – going from the widest setting on the machine to the smallest setting.
Lay the rolled-out dough on a floured surface, fold it lengthwise in half to mark the center, and then unfold it. Mark the dough lightly with ravioli cutter, but do not cut through – this helps you eye how many shapes will fit on each strip. Place a teaspoon of filling on one-half of each shape, brush dough lightly with cool water, then fold the other half over. Next, use the ravioli cutter to press it into shape. Crimp the edges together and let dry, covered with a towel, for a few hours. If freezing the ravioli poke each one’s center with a fork and layer them in rows on freezer paper, then put them in freezer bags.
When it comes time to cook the raviolis, bring a large pot of salted water to boil, then drop in a few at a time and cook for 3-5 minutes. Repeat until all ravioli are cooked. In a large baking pan place a layer of sauce, then ravioli, and then repeat until pan is full. Sprinkle with fresh herbs and additional Parmesan cheese and bake for 1 hour in a 325 degree oven.