By Debra Minor Wilson
Times West Virginian
FAIRMONT -- Most traditions build up over the years.
And some are thrust upon you.
Like making the customary Christmas Eve "Feast of the Seven Fishes'' for the family.
When Cecilia Simons married Paul Donato, she never had to prepare this traditional meal by herself.
Her mother-in-law, Lena Donato, had it all down pat.
Lena made most of the traditional "fishes'': shrimp, smelts, calamari, salted cod and baccala, but not eel.
"She prepared it all,'' Cecilia said.
It may have looked tasty, but she couldn't eat any of it.
"I'm very allergic to anything with iodine in it.''
Usually, she and Paul enjoyed two meals on Christmas Eve, an early one at 4 p.m. at Lena's home and a later one at 7 p.m. at her parents'.
Cecelia and Paul had been married for six years when Lena passed away two days after Thanksgiving in 1983.
"I had from then to Christmas to figure it out,'' Donato said.
She knew her mother-in-law was ill. So she knew at some point that sooner or later she'd have to learn to make the food she can't eat.
"But I thought I'd have one more Christmas. I thought I'd do it under her tutelage this one last time. But she died before I could even talk to her.
"I didn't think I'd have to learn quite so quickly. I never anticipated this.''
She turned to "every Italian woman I could find,'' she said. Luckily, she had more than enough Italian cooks to turn to. But that posed a problem in a way.
Most of them didn't use recipes. It was a little of this, some of that, season to taste and serve. Not exactly what a "Feast'' newbie wants to hear.
"Every Italian does it differently,'' Donato said. "It's from whatever region you're from in Italy. Betty Amoroso, my godmother, her squid sauce was more like a soup, where Lena's was like thick spaghetti sauce.
"A lot of people put their salted cod in spaghetti sauce. Lena deep-fried hers in potato dough. I tried to come up with how to do it as close to hers as I could. They say it's good. I don't know.''
She can't taste the food. Allergies, remember?
She can't even come into contact with shrimp. Or with anything that's come into contact with shrimp.
"It's not pretty,'' she said.
She would have others cook the shrimp and then clean up. Now she has people bring shrimp dishes already cooked.
She also makes another whole meal of ham and mashed potatoes, green beans, appetizers.
"Everybody came to Lena's house for Christmas Eve,'' she said. "Her house was the stopping-off point.''
So, to recap: Here was this time-honored, beloved family Christmas Eve tradition. Of seafood. That she can't taste. Because she's allergic.