Feast of the Seven Fishes an evolving tradition in the area

Film on the meal shot partly in Mon Valley

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One of the beauties of tradition is its evolution. One person's misty memories of the Feast of the Seven Fishes, the traditional, meatless Italian meal served on Christmas Eve, might be very different from the next, especially if you live near a fast-food restaurant.

Bob Tinnell grew up in Fairmont, W.Va., but considers himself a Pittsburgher. He attended Point Park University for a while, worked for filmmaker George Romero as a production assistant, and shot a Norm Nardini music video.

He knows his way around the Strip District, and he knows Western Pennsylvania.

So when Mr. Tinnell decided to write and direct an independent film version of his wildly successful graphic novel, "Feast of the Seven Fishes," it was only natural he'd want to shoot parts of it in the Mon Valley.

He wants as many familiar Pittsburgh actors on hand, people like Bill Cardille: "I want to fill it with these wonderful Pittsburgh faces."

It all started with an online graphic novel, a comic book if you will. Mr. Tinnell, who has found success in the horror genre as well as a director and screenwriter in film, was looking for a project.

"I was talking to someone from Sony and was thinking 'What to do next?' I thought doing a romantic comedy about a Catholic boy who brings home his Protestant girlfriend for Christmas," he said. "My manager said, 'That's the dumbest thing I ever heard.' "

Working with local artist Ed Piskor -- who has done "American Splendor" with Harvey Pekar -- he started an online comic.

"I had a friend who said 'Absolutely you should do this. You will NEVER hear from anyone or get any kind of feedback, but try it.' "

Two weeks into the installments, the fan mail began trickling in, which led to the successful publication of the strip as a book, which was nominated for an Eisner Award in 2006 (the comics' version of an Oscar), which in turn begat the idea of a movie.

The story -- it's for grownups, just like the "big table" at Christmas -- is set in "Greentown," a place "wedged between the Monongahela River and the steep hills that line its banks."

Mr. Tinnell, whose father-in-law lives in the Wilson section of Clairton, has spent the past few weeks touring the eastern part of the United States on a book tour for "Seven Fishes." Along the way, he's been promoting the idea of reviving family tradition at the holidays, not to mention some very good recipes for anyone wanting to try their own Seven Fishes menu next week.

"It's been just huge, really overwhelming," he said after a signing in Cleveland, with New York's Little Italy yet to come.

Another outcome of the Seven Fishes novel has been a Web site, www.sevenfishesblog.com, where online community can trade stories of their own Italian or Polish or Slovak or whatever dinner traditions, and did we mention the recipes?

"It's a repository for recipes, all these marvelous stories," Mr. Tinnell said.

A return to Pittsburgh with his family means hanging out at the Strip, where the Pennsylvania Macaroni Co. sells his book. It's also available through more traditional booksellers, including amazon.com and trips to Wholey's Fish Market.

Truth be told, however, the book tour, which included the second annual Seven Fishes festival in Fairmont recently, has been a lot of travel and a lot of food in a fairly short time: "We're a bit feasted-out."

Traditionally, there is great debate over which fishes are a must at the feast, where the varieties of seafood represent, according to many versions, the Seven Sacraments. It's a pretty good guess, however, that Long John Silver's was not on your great-grandma's table.

"My father was Croatian and my stepmother was Italian," said Leslie Poe, of Bethel Park. At Christmas Eve dinners during her childhood, she remembers, her maternal grandmother and her mother put together a menu with smelts, salted cod and calamari.

Her father remarried after her mother died, and the Seven Fishes dinners continued, with a twist.

"We lived in Weirton, [W.Va,] then and my stepmother would send my brothers out for Long John Silver's for the kids," she said, laughing.

This particular modern take on the feast is something Mrs. Poe still does on Christmas Eve: "It's the only fish my kids will eat. My husband runs out and gets it, maybe 12 pieces, and you have to get the French fries, too. And chicken planks."

Tim Poe is also in charge of making the crab cakes, using three different kinds of diced peppers and a from-scratch sherry-mayonnaise sauce.

It's going to be a Feast of 14 Fishes this year; the Poes are going to have the traditional dinner twice. First is dinner for 10 next Monday, then on the following Friday, her husband's relatives will be in town.

That will be a feast for 17 people.

"My husband's family, they're all German and they keep asking 'Are you going to have the Feast of the Seven Fishes?' I may have to throw a tray of lasagna in there."

Takeout lasagna is a big seller for DeLallo's, a family-owned restaurant in Bethel Park. As for fish? "The seafood thing doesn't do as much anymore," said owner Dave DeLallo.

"When we were in the grocery business, we did a lot of fish, and the old-timers are still doing it, but I don't think the young people are doing 'the fish.' It really is dying out; it's a lot of work."

There is a bit of the Seven Fishes to be found in the restaurant's appetizer menu, where occasional items include smelts, pan-fried and dusted in seasoned flour.

Calamari (squid) used to be considered an exotic ethnic dish, but is mainstream now, he said.

"It's our biggest appetizer, and it's not lost its popularity at all."

Mr. Tinnell, who wrote his graphic novel before the success of "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," said he's hoping the whole Feast of the Seven Fishes book/film/tour can help rekindle the love of food and family that made this tradition special.

"Some of us who grew up with this were sitting around talking about our childhoods, and the dinners, and we said we missed the bread, and we missed the cheese. We missed all of it.

"It's not like I missed some brilliant thing, but we just tapped into some sort of zeitgeist."

Maria Sciullo can be reached at msciullo@post-gazette.com or 412-851-1867.


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