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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Functionally Polish

I don't remember what my family used to eat on Christmas Eve. Probably, I was too excited about the next morning to pay much attention to what was on the dinner table. I do recall, however, what was served on Christmas Day for many years: a Pennsylvania Dutch concoction called "Dutch Goose," which is comprised of a pig's stomach stuffed with sausage and potatoes. My generation was sufficiently removed from the family's farm that Dutch Goose held a maximum ick factor - I used to eat the filling within a one-inch border around the hog casing. In later years, the Dutch Goose was replaced with a crown roast of pork - much more kid-friendly, with its top hat-like paper frills.

In my husband's family, Christmas Eve is a big event. They still have a traditional Polish Wigilia feast (say "Veel-ee-yah"). As I understand it, Wigilia means "vigil" as in waiting for the Christ child. The meal is traditionally meatless.

My father-in-law does most of the cooking for their family and prepares fish cakes, stuffed mushrooms, homemade pierogies - both potato-cheese and saurkraut, - boiled shrimp, and more. The first few years that we were married, my hubby and I would make it to the feast on alternate years. Now that we have our little guy, however, we've been staying home for Christmas. Since I don't have a strong emotional attachment to Christmas Eve foods, I'm happy to make a Wigilia feast for my husband. (Heck, even if I did have a strong emotional attachment I'd probably be up for making the feast anyway. Let's call a spade a spade - I'm a cooking junkie).

I had my first truly authentic Polish Wigilia a few years ago, prepared by my friend Marta (the guest cook in our paczki episode). While we were enjoying that delicious meal it became apparent that some of my husband's family traditions differ from Marta's. Subsequent conversations with other Polish-American families have revealed further divergence from the homeland. Such as, whether or not to serve soup (my hubby's family: no, Marta's family: why, of course).

Marta is joining us for Wigilia supper this year and I'm a little worried about what to make. I bought pierogies and saurkraut at a Polish deli, so I've got that covered, and Marta is making a mushroom soup - but I need to come up with a fish thing. I like fish but it's one of those things that I can't quite get right when I try to cook it. Or at least, when I try to cook it Polish-style.

I can handle a basic saute, or baked fish recipe, and I have a couple of Indian and Korean recipes that work OK for me, but my Polish cookbooks leave me stymied - all the recipes call for fish types that I can't seem to find. When was the last time you saw pike in the market? Or carp? Last year I decided on tilapia and stood patiently in line with the rest of the horde at Super88 on Christmas Eve to get a freshly-killed fish. I passed the time by consulting with a fellow shopper on how much fish I needed to feed 4 people. She recommended a 2-lb tilapia. Well, that might have worked out all right if I'd cooked the fish whole, but when I brought the little fella home and my hubby tried to fillet it, there just wasn't that much fish. I guess that tilapia is not a big filleting fish? I ended up sending the hubby out to the grocery store for supplemental tilapia.

Frankly, I'm a bit tempted to sneak in one of those Indian or Korean fish recipes to our Wigilia supper, since I know that they will turn out OK. Marta's husband is Korean-American, and my son is ethnically Korean, so it's not such a wild idea, really. These days, many families are culturally blended; does it really matter if our traditional Polish feast is not 100% Polish? There's a trend amongst adoptive parents with children of international origins to refer to the whole family as Chinese-American, or Irish-Ethiopean, etc. - basically applying the cultural sum of the family members to the family as a whole, to help create a family identity. In that vein, our full family identity is Polish-American-Korean-WASP, but we jokingly refer to ourselves as Functionally Polish since that's the type of food I'm usually cooking for holidays. As I learn more Korean dishes, however, that's likely to change; my son's last two birthday parties have been billed as "kimchee and kapusta" events.

At any rate, my menu is almost set and cod was the winning fish. I picked it up this morning when I was running errands; after the weekend's storm and other events, I don't have the fortitude to face the Super88 fish counter tomorrow. Marta's coming over early to make the soup, so maybe I can get her to help me pick a recipe for the fish. I'll let y'all know how it all comes out.

1 comment:

Jen said...

Have a great Christmas eve dinner Karen. Whatever you make will be delicious(Jim and I LOVE the Polish food you made the other night). I like the idea of having a meatless Christmas Eve tradition especially when it means eating fish! Let us know what recipe you guys use.