Saturday, December 11, 2004

The Italians of West Virginia Revisited

When I was an expatriate Italian child in Michigan, I developed an interest in all things West Virginian. This odd attraction grew out of living next door to immigrant neighbors from the American South, who like us and our parents, their European counterparts, sought a better life in Detroit's factories.

My West Virginia curiosity was also nurtured then by a Life Magazine article which featured stunning photographs of the state with its green hills and fast moving rapids. The piece spoke of its Civil War history, the break from the Virginia mother state, its provision of tens of thousands of Union soldiers and the heartbreaking conflict between brother versus brother. Its lore was also expressed in wonderful illustrations, recalling images of hauntings and river ghost tales.

After moving to California my interest in WVa waned, until I met and worked with a talented, young filmmaker named Robert Tinnell. Bobby filled me in on what that long ago Life article left out - that West Virginia had been a haven for Italian immigrants - hardworking Southern Italians, Sicilians and Calabrese who worked the farms, and mostly, the coal mines! Our friendship culminated in one lucky New Years Day spent at his folks' home in Fairmont, enjoying a delicious Tinnell family dinner. After the publication of Bob's incredible Feast of the Seven Fishes daily comic strip this year, I wished I had also spent Christmas with his family, especially with his Calabrese uncles and aunts!

My appreciation for Feast of the Seven Fishes goes beyond Robert Tinnell's excellent storytelling skills and comics veteran Alex Saviuk's evocative drawings (since he took over duties as artist, the strip has leaped giant steps forward creatively) - I also enjoy the strip because it captures a reality rarely seen in comics, or movies for that matter: sublimated ethnicity that contributes to the makeup of who we are as Americans, in this instance, Southern Italian traditions in a place that we normally see as the domain of hillbillies, rednecks and blue people - all of which are mass media stereotypes. Tinnell's Seven Fishes helps to dispel those tired notions and clichés - ironically, just as Hollywood prepares to revisit the hokum of a new Dukes of Hazzard!

Feast of the Seven Fishes is also stepping outside of the box in groundbreaking ways, by subtly asking its readers to prepare some of the fish dishes enjoyed by Italians on Christmas. Talk about interactive, this week my mouth watered as I read the beginnings of preparation for fried smelts (if ever a comic strip begged to be "scratch 'n sniff" it is this one! Fish smells, you say? Well, you've never had fish the way Italians cook it. There has been talk of a Feast of Seven Fishes cookbook. Too bad it's not available now. It would make an excellent stocking stuffer. With further success, more Americans will be cooking (and reading) Christmas 2005 the Feast of the Seven Fishes way.

Buon Natale!

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