Friday, December 24, 2010

Hard to Swallow Traditions

It's been years, but for years Christmas Eve meant the traditional Slovak supper in my family--turns out it even has a terrific name, Stedry Vecer. (No, he wasn't a linebacker for the Lombardi Packers, wise guy.) Also turns out our version wasn't the same as the traditional ones people have posted on the web now--those all talk about a fish dish, but we didn't do that. No, for the most part our meal was all about the mostly inedible. Which seems fitting, as so much of being Slovak seemed to be misery--this is my mom's side of the family I'm writing about, the one that doesn't say, "Have a good time," when you're out the door to do something fun, they intone, "Just be careful." Remember, the Slovaks are the poor peasants in the Czechoslovakia divorce.

I can vividly remember one year having the meal at my grandmother's house in Dunmore, PA (that's right, they didn't even rate Scranton itself, but one of its suburbs). I felt sick beforehand, so barely ate, but my guess is it was an anticipation-born illness, as I didn't want to face the meal. For it's not just a meal, it's religion and superstition wrapped in a lovely Christmas bow. My grandmother and mother were super-Catholic--Baba's church was a mere 4 minute walk out her back gate, even, that's how close to god she was--but that didn't mean a bit of Slavic voodoo didn't run in their genes. Back when I lived within driving distance of her house and would still come home for holidays my mom would put her statue of the Blessed Virgin in the window to watch out for me.

Coming from a legacy like that, it's no surprise that the dinner's components were more about symbolism than taste. It kicks off with something I now know is called oplatky (notice while Italian is a language of grace and beauty, Slovak is a language of dumpling-lumpy consonants) and looks like a communion wafer but it's rectangular, maybe 2 by 4 inches, and stamped with a Nativity scene. You get to put honey on it, so it tastes like sweetened cardboard and if you're lucky your piece is the one with the baby Jesus. You get it served to you, I'm not kidding, on a bit of straw, to symbolize Christ's humble birth. The straw could be the tastiest part of the meal. (They do let you drizzle a bit of honey on it. Yes, that makes it sticky cardboard.)

I'm not sure of the order of the middle courses, four of them that lined-up any way spell gastronomic disaster. To be honest, there was one good part of the meal, mushroom soup, although I'm not sure how they made the stock (no meat, remember?) and I didn't start paying attention to cooking until I went to college and had to feed myself and by then learning the mysterious ins-and-outs of the Stedry Vecer were out of the question. I do know my mom would use dried mushrooms actually shipped from the Old Country, which truly seemed old to me, full of things beyond my young life at the time. So that was good. But pairing it with a mix of sauerkraut tossed with ripped up poppyseed rolls (poppyseeds being a Slovak staple--it might be the closest they got to a spice) was a bit perverse. Seems from the web that the mushroom soup itself in other traditions had the sauerkraut, so it was "nice" of my ancestors to pull it out and give you a separate dish to dislike, a deconstructed sauerkraut sandwich.

Then there was pierogi, that Eastern European dumpling that has all sorts of expressions in that area of the world. The kind passed down in my family, however, perhaps should never have been expressed. Super-doughy, they lacked any sense of lightness something a cross between a pasta and pastry should have. For filling, since they weren't starchy enough, the choice was potato. For a crowning touch, they got slathered in brown butter, but I think there was even flour in that--we're not talking the light napping of a brown butter and sage you might find with your gnocchi. We're talking cannonballs of carbohydrates. My guess is they symbolism here is "don't enjoy food, it's fuel."

For the last of the main course components also could be something lovely, but the ingenious Slovak cooks figured out a way to make it something disgusting. It was sort of a quiche, but made with cottage cheese. And I don't think anything else in it--maybe onion--but it just had a mushy texture and a bland taste. The one thing my mom could always pull off in the kitchen was great pie dough, but that wasn't enough to save this dish.

Dessert was fruit, and you can imagine how exotic an orange might be to a Slovak (now I've got them in my backyard, so stop on in, Baba!), and whole nuts you got to crack open, which as a kid is a blast. Of course we didn't have an ornate nutcracker, but the element of danger (don't get your finger in there!) and the opportunity to break something with impunity always seemed like a good deal. It was also good to take your time with your nuts, using that extra pick tool a dentist might wield to get out all the walnut, slowly, as the candle awaited.

For, on Christmas Eve, while most children dreamed of Santa and loot, I dreamed of learning I wouldn't die during the next year. For after dinner, a single white taper makes its way from diner to diner, and each person gets to light the candle and blow it out. If your smoke goes straight up, that means good luck for the coming year. If it blew downward, that meant bad luck, and perhaps the worst luck of all, no luck at all. What could be more Slovak than this: "Merry Christmas, your candle just told you you're going to kick the bucket next year"?

So maybe I didn't want to eat as that candle waited at the end.

And now that Baba's candle and my mom's candle and my dad's candle have all blown out, I miss these meals, miss hating them, miss their bitterness that knew more than I still want to know.

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