By Colleen S. Good
Times West Virginian
Despite the rain and chilly weather, many turned out to experience the food and tradition at Fairmont’s eighth annual Feast of the Seven Fishes Festival Saturday.
“It’s a chilly, rainy morning, but not in our hearts,” Doreen Larson, president of Pierpont Community & Technical College, said. “We have warm thoughts of Christmas and family.”
The event was held from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. downtown Saturday, with most festival activities taking place on Monroe Street.
Because of the rain, the cooking school was moved to Veterans’ Square, where Pierpont students also had free hot cocoa and cookies for visitors. A free shuttle was available to bring visitors to Veterans’ Square from Monroe Street.
The cooking school, held each year, showcased a number of chefs demonstrating how to prepare traditional Italian dishes. Among the demonstrated dishes, chefs made homemade ricotta, bruschetta, an Italian cocktail and Italian cold broccoli salad.
Shannon Tinnell is in charge of the cooking school, also known as “Festival Cucina.” The demonstrations went from noon to 2 p.m., and tickets were $20. Tickets included samples of all of the dishes, a copy of the recipes, and, for those over 21, a glass of wine.
The cooking school always includes demonstrations of at least seven dishes, in honor of the “seven fishes” in the festival.
Joel Brown, a cook and event planner from Morgantown, and one of the chefs Saturday, gave out the recipe for his bruchetta dressing.
“This was a top-secret recipe that was closely guarded for many years,” Brown said.
“We’ve been able to get little Italian grandmothers to give us their secret recipes, so don’t feel bad,” Shannon Tinnell laughed.
The festival also included vendors selling traditional Italian holiday food like calamari and baked goods like pita piata, as well as Christmas gifts, like earrings and wreathes.
Natalie Tennant, West Virginia secretary of state, attended the festival to continue her mother’s Christmas traditions by making her traditional pita piata recipe for the festival.
“It’s important to me on many different levels because it represents what my mother passed down to us, and so we honor her by being here, and we also pass it on to my daughter,” Tennant said. “I like making it because you sit down, you take a little more time, you roll it up, and you think about how this is how my mother did it, this is how her mother did it, and this is how they do it in San Giovanni in Italy.”
Pita piata is a traditional Italian baked good made with flour, nuts, raisins, sugar, and, in Tennant’s mother’s recipe, oregano.
Larson said the festival was an important part of the Christmas season.
“It just has a feeling of an old-fashioned Christmas, and what Christmas should be about,” Larson said. “Having this tradition, and bringing people downtown and kids downtown — it’s something they’ll remember forever.”
Robert Tinnell worked with his wife, Shannon Tinnell, and Main Street Fairmont to bring the Feast of the Seven Fishes to downtown Fairmont in 2006. Robert Tinnell also wrote a graphic novel about the festival in 2005 that helped inspire the yearly downtown celebration.
Robert said bringing people downtown is one of the goals of the festival.
“I was a kid growing up when Fairmont downtown was just packed with people and opportunity, and we’re back down here, and it feels wonderful,” Robert said. “It’s just great to see so many people in downtown, enjoying each other, and it reminds them of what this downtown can be, and I think what it’s on track to become again.”
Robert said that the festival wouldn’t be possible without all of the city workers and volunteers, many of whom were helping to set up the night before and 6 a.m. the morning of the festival. The planning work for the festival started in earnest in August.
“I think people just want a genuine, authentic experience, and everyone works really hard to give it to them,” Robert said.
Kate Greene, executive director of Main Street Fairmont, emphasized how important volunteers were to the festival’s success.
“They have given countless hours, not just today, but all through the year, to set up this event,” Greene said.
Throughout the day, visitors could enjoy live music warm and dry inside at the Firehouse Studios space on Monroe Street. Musical performers included Ben DeFazio, Amici, 5 Guys Named Moe, and Sam and Ott. Zany Umbrella Circus out of Pittsburgh did street performances, and home brewers provided samples of their homemade beer.
Santa and Mrs. Claus also made an appearance at the festival, waving and greeting children from the Gatherings building. Historic tours, coffee and homemade desserts were available inside. A Catholic Mass was held at 6 p.m.
The festival was sponsored by “champions” Pierpont Community & Technical College and Mylan Pharmaceuticals, as well as other sponsors including Rose Padden and Petty, MVB Bank, Novelis and Fairmont State University. Community partners included the City of Fairmont, the Marion County Commission, the Town of White Hall, and the Convention and Visitors Bureau of Marion County.
“The county has always been supportive of this event, and it’s easy to see why. It’s great to see the togetherness and community so close to the holidays,” Butch Tennant, Marion County commissioner, said.
Email Colleen S. Good at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @CSGoodTWV.