Like many families, mine is completely inflexible when it comes to holiday foods. In particular, the Polish side of the family has established menus that have altered little over the last 50 or more years. Yet the cast of characters has changed in dramatic ways. Grandparents have left this earth; the next generation is aging and, in some cases, unable to carry on their self-appointed tasks. In the third generation and beyond, spouses and children are not of Polish heritage and the traditional dishes have no resonance. Some of us, due to food intolerance, allergy, or preference, can’t or won’t eat the traditional dishes at all.
The Christmas Eve menu for the Polish Wigilia is a case in point. In Poland, this meal is traditionally meatless, with an odd number of courses: seven, nine, or 11, most consisting of fish. My family had already tampered with this dictum before I was born, simplifying it, perhaps for the American kitchen, perhaps for economic reasons. Or, as is perhaps most likely, because someone didn’t like fish.
The meal begins with a deeply traditional moment, the sharing of oplatek, an oblong-shaped thin wafer resembling in texture and taste pressed styrofoam. It is usually embossed with images of the créche. Each family member takes a wafer and wishes health and happiness in the new year to a relative, who breaks a piece and eats it. It is a touching moment that everyone seems to treasure as they try to outdo each other with original, personal, and occasionally snarky wishes.
Then the eating starts. This odd assortment of dishes is what we’ve been served for more than 40 years. Everything can be cooked in advance, which is a plus, but two soups served back to back mean that someone is washing a load of bowls between courses.
Kapusniak or cabbage soup
Jewish rye bread
Rice pudding and other homemade desserts
With the exception of the desserts, each of these dishes offers its own challenge. The mushroom soup must be made with mushrooms imported from Poland; the cabbage soup is not exactly meatless, cooked on a base of salt pork and pork ribs; and the multi-step preparation of pierogi is daunting for the once-a-year cook. Thankfully, this last can be purchased from the Polish church, where volunteers make thousands of the filled dumplings assembly-line style to sell just for this purpose. Bakery rye bread is a dying art; I resorted to purchasing mine mail-order last year.
Beyond the logistics of procuring ingredients is the bittersweet fact that my 87-year-old aunt, who has graciously hosted this meal for more than 40 years, can no longer manage the whole thing. With the independence (some might say stubbornness) that is typical of women in my family, she denies that she can’t do it, forcing her children, my cousins, to create the illusion that she has prepared and served everything. My cousin Leslie, who can barely cook, handles the mushroom soup somehow. The pierogi comes from the church; desserts are brought by guests.
Which leaves the cabbage soup–the point of pride. It isn’t difficult to make–especially if you’ve done it hundreds of times–but a large pot with enough cabbage soup for 20 people is unwieldy already. If you are unsteady on your feet, it’s a broken hip waiting to happen. Because she doesn’t have room in her refrigerator for the soup pot, my aunt keeps the soup cool in the garage. On November 16, the outdoor temperature was 59º, not nearly cold enough to keep food safe. Pray with me that she doesn’t trip and for a cold snap by December 24.
Unless–we may be successful in convincing her that I should make the cabbage soup for my cookbook. This, my cousins believe, will give her an acceptable out. Maybe it will pave the way for a new tradition (and upcoming blog entry). Until then, this mushroom soup is much better than the sum of its parts.
Aunt Alice’s Mushroom barszcz
1 ounce dried Polish mushrooms (Borowik)
Light cream or half and half
Salt and pepper to taste
Rinse the mushrooms to remove any soil. Cook mushrooms whole, in water to cover, for about 1 1/2 hours or until tender. Add salt and pepper and some butter to taste while they are simmering. Strain out the mushrooms, cool, then slice or cut up. Return to the broth, which should be dark brown. Slowly add cream until desired rich creamy dark brown color. Add a little more butter and adjust salt and pepper. It is best to make the soup a couple of days before serving. Serve over a large spoonful of mashed potatoes.