There were a few years, quite some time ago, when I rented a three bedroom house and shared it with a couple of housemates. One of these was a guy I had known in college who, unbeknownst to me, carried some culinary baggage that was interesting to say the least. A beloved tradition for him was to create, during the winter holiday, a concoction that he was pleased to call krupnik.
At the time, I believed that he called it that because he just liked saying the word because he did so, constantly, during the several days that he spent making this particular witch’s brew. I have since learned that krupnik is a beverage of Lithuanian origin which usually includes honey and a variety of whole spices and pretty much always includes a very hefty portion of the purest grain alcohol.
If one consults Wikipedia, one will learn that the drink is “sometimes heated before being served,” and I think that this has to be true because the application of heat would probably work as well as anything else to kill the taste of the stuff. I mean it’s no surprise to also read in the same source that Polish soldiers used krupnick during World War II as a disinfectant. A versatile potable was my housemate’s krupnick – disinfectant, insect repellent, paint stripper – it would have worked for any number of household uses except, of course, the one for which it was intended.
The stuff lived in a huge vat during the period that it took to drink it up thus taking up a large amount of real estate in our shared refrigerator. When I complained about this one evening while trying to put together my dinner, I was told that chilling was vital so that the krupnik wouldn’t “spoil.” I ventured the opinion that there was no possible way to know if the stuff was spoiled or not since it was guaranteed to kill all functioning taste receptors. I was then told that it was “pretty sad” that I didn’t have any holiday traditions of my own. I’m sure that my reply was something steeped in mature wisdom like “I do so!” but later I thought, “Well do I?”
When it came to culinary traditions relating to Christmas (which was the holiday my family celebrated) what could I claim? I’m afraid what did, and still does, come to mind is the special gravy that my grandmother would make year after year. It was a chicken gravy -amply supplied with giblets – which would have been okay (sort of) except for the fact that my grandmother also included sliced hard-boiled eggs. I liked eggs just fine but somehow the sight of those particular eggs – staring up at me from the gravy bowl like horrible yellow eyes – was simply too much – and so year after year, I ate my dry turkey and looked forward to dessert.
Whatever holidays you celebrate around this time of year, your table might very well hold some sort of culinary tradition. It might be a tradition peculiar to your own family or it might be a tradition rooted in your heritage. Please note that I’m looking specifically at Christmas here only because that’s the tradition that I was raised with, and I in no way want to deny or make light of the food traditions of other cultures. I will say that there are some culinary customs peculiar to this time of year that have always baffled me. These include Christmas tree centerpieces made of shrimp, cheese balls, turducken, and – I’m sorry ya’ll – fruitcake.
So what are some of the food traditions of other countries? In France, a Yule Log cake is always baked and served during the winter holiday. It is a sponge cake filled with cream or jam, rolled into a log shape and iced and otherwise decorated to resemble a log. The old Yule Log was a European custom of burning a log toward the end of the year that was meant to light the first fire started in the new one. If you want to try constructing your own version of this tasty confection, you’ll find a good one in My Paris Kitchen by David Lebovitz. Lebovitz’s cake is beautiful and includes a chocolate icing marked to resemble wood bark as well as the requisite meringue mushrooms.
Gluhwein, is a mulled wine flavored with various spices, that is beloved in part of Germany and Austria. The fact of those whole spices steeped in alcohol and served warm bring it a little too close to my erstwhile housemate’s krupnick for my comfort. I’m sure though, that most who partake are raising one to two cups at most and are, no doubt, enjoying the beverage with food at the same time. Alas, you’ll find no recipe for Gluhwein in Frank Rosin’s Modern German Cookbook. I was able to locate a recipe for something called Glogg in Joy of Cooking by Irma Rombauer. Rombauer was herself of German heritage and the many editions of her seminal cookbook certainly show that influence. Her glogg recipe calls for two bottles of port, one bottle of brandy and 2 cups of vodka. I dare not think of how many people this is meant to serve. In the finest tradition of holiday cheer, this drink features whole spices and is served warm with “small spoons” for adding raisins should you fancy such an embellishment.
Generally a group effort, and a true labor of love, are tamales – a holiday food particular to Mexico. Having participated in a tamale-making party myself, I can tell you that putting them together and cooking them is really fun, if the work is shared with friends and family, and the results are absolutely delicious. Tamales, if you aren’t familiar with them, are steamed bundles of masa filled with savory or sweet mixtures. You’ll find recipes for all sorts of tamales – bean, chicken, pork, cheese and yes, sweet – in The Essential Cuisines of Mexico by Diana Kennedy. If you have a notion to round up some friends for a participatory party I guarantee that you’ll all have a great time.
Lutefisk is a unique dish that has come in for a fair share of abuse from such cultural institutions as The Prairie Home Companion. Of Norwegian origin, this traditional favorite involves soaking dried fish in cold water for six days (changed daily), then soaking two days in a mixture of cold water and lye until the fish reaches a jelly-like consistency (notice my emphasis). My Wikipedia source goes on to say that in order “to make the fish edible a final treatment of yet another four to six days of soaking in cold water is needed.” Now I don’t know about you, but I am made wary by any instruction that includes the phrase “to make the fish edible…” Should you be of a mind to try making this delicacy yourself, you’ll find a recipe for it in Sylvia Munsen’s Cooking the Norwegian Way along with recipes for dishes less likely to have you saying “it must be an acquired taste” such as gingerbread cookies, potato soup and whipped cream cake.
Finally, I can’t leave this musing on holiday food traditions without commenting on an interesting Christmas phenomenon in Japan. Due to Kentucky Fried Chicken’s successful ad campaign launched in 1974, thousands of Japanese people wait up to two hours on December 25th to purchase their bucket of holiday cheer. Some choose to order their dinners months in advance. The Colonel even offers customers chocolate cake and sparkling wine! It is truly “Kentucky for Christmas” and really, why not? Want to read read more about this iconic food? Check out Fried Chicken: an American story by John T. Edge. Edge is an engaging writer and this fun little book is part of a series he has done on quintessential American dishes that includes Apple Pie: an American story and Hamburgers and Fries: an American story.
What are some of the holiday food traditions that you have loved? What are some that you haven’t loved quite so much?