On Christmas Eve, the scene at Shannon Tinnell’s household in Morgantown, West Virginia, looks like this: “Folks are outside grilling oysters and drinking beer and limoncello, someone’s inside cooking pasta, someone is frying smelt, and I’m trying to find someone else a place to sit. It’s chaos, and it’s home.” It’s also the Feast of the Seven Fishes, an annual celebration for her family, and for many other Italian-Americans.
The custom is rooted in Southern Italy, where Catholic families have long served a seafood spread over the holidays. No one is quite sure if the meal represents the seven sacraments, deadly sins, or if it was simply inspired by an available abundance. The menu can be comprised of any kind of seafood—from oysters and scallops to shrimp, squid, or sardines. Italian-Americans continued the tradition here, especially in Appalachian mountain towns where immigrants congregated, and over time, many of the feasts became festivals. Each December, Fairmont, a small community about 20 minutes outside of Morgantown, hosts one of West Virginia’s biggest feasts, and anyone, regardless of heritage, can enjoy. Tinnell and her husband, Robert Tinnell, are co-hosts.
Come Christmas Eve, they’ll do it all again. And no matter what, there’s always more than enough to go around. “My husband always asks why we have so much Tupperware,” Tinnell says. “But you always send food home with people. That sense of hospitality is both an Italian thing and a Southern thing.”
You don’t have to wait for a festival to experience the feast. We asked seven Southern cooks and chefs to share seafood dishes that bring together the best of the South and the Italian holiday. Get the recipes below: