Are the Foods You Grew up on Super Weird?
This holiday season, let’s reflect on all the strange things you enjoyed eating in the name of family tradition.
There’s a moment when every child of immigrants realizes that the food they grew up on is an acquired taste.
My parents are both from Poland. Most people know and love pierogi, those little pillows of buttered goodness, fried on bacon grease. But the same people who brought you pierogi also consume pickled herring, fish in gelatin, tripe soup, and smalec (essentially lard spread), to name just a few.
I don’t know how many pounds of headcheese my mother consumed over the years, but it was essentially our bologna.
For me, I didn’t know the general populous thought our spreads were strange until I was well into adulthood. I’d start inviting friends, and then boyfriends, to our family gatherings, where these things would be passed around with a normalcy that confused them.
The exotic nature of traditional favorites is never clearer as on Christmas Eve, or Wigilia for the Poles out there.
My then-boyfriend and now-husband Brian experienced this culinary adventure firsthand on his first Christmas Eve with my family. This was on top of not being a native Polish speaker like the rest of those at the table, all chattering away as if he could decipher the words if he just listened harder.
(This never deterred my aunt, who is more likely to send a wisp of cigarette smoke into the sky rather than acknowledge that perhaps she could learn a word or two of English, having lived in the United States for the better part of 50 years.)
Following the exchange of oplatek, the Christmas wafer shared among all the guests with well wishes for the new year, the actual meal always starts out easily enough. Hot cups of sour barszcz, or beet soup, are passed around, little ears of mushroom dumplings plunked inside, soaking up the bright red juices. Growing up in Chicago, the soup course was always a welcome one, the snow blanketing the world outside if you’re lucky.
Some years you’d just get the ice storm, which was not as welcome, or temperatures that froze your eyebrow gel, also not welcome.
The soup kicked off the rest of the 12 dishes that would follow, 12 for the disciples of Jesus, I imagine.
Red meat doesn’t touch this night. The focus is on seafood.
We’d sometimes get a shrimp cocktail platter for my cousin who’d pop those things like candy, but otherwise, most of the menu items were expected standbys.
It’s the pickled herring options that really set a Wigilia feast above the rest. We’d always have at least two plates, a creamed variety with shaved apples, my favorite, and the traditional vinegar-soaked variety, all fishy with a texture that may be alarming to those who didn’t grow up on it. The herring has a tendency to dissolve in your mouth somehow, the salt and strong white onion garnish lingering on those taste buds well into the dessert course.
Sometimes the herring comes rolled, with pickles or other pickled veggies tucked inside. This method is very cute in its presentation, with similarly problematic textures for some.
Brian was all about it. He’s not one to be all weird about textures and new tastes, having eaten bugs on sticks as an appetizer in our travels around the world. But as I’ve watched my less adventurous friends attempt to enjoy pickled herring for my benefit since, I can tell it’s a literally tough one to swallow.
Less offensive cold sides include pickled beets and sauerkraut salads, with hot plates of pierogi in two styles — sauerkraut/mushroom and Ruskie, or potato and cheese — rounding things out until the main event.
My mom would always attempt one new dish as far as the main fishes were concerned. Sometimes it’d be lemon-drizzled tilapia fillets, or glazed salmon steaks as a crowd-pleaser. A Greek-style fish in a tomato-based sauce and a vinegar-marinated fried white fish were always on the table, served cold.
But a sign that you’re really at an intense Wigilia celebration is one dish that tops the rest on the weird scale, for those not used to such delicacies.
I say delicacy a bit in jest here, as this one wasn’t even a dish that I enjoyed that much: ryba w galarecie, or fish in gelatin. You need to douse this one in white vinegar to make it more enjoyable, something Brian embraced wholeheartedly. He went after this one so aggressively that it made the table in the successive years that followed, despite him being the only one who’d touch the stuff back then.
It may be that Brian’s indulging in another Polish tradition, shots of vodka throughout the night, helped his taste buds become more welcoming to new, unique flavors.
On that note, it’s difficult to say you’ve had enough when an uncle that speaks very little English is proclaiming “MORE! MORE!” as he joyously pours clear liquor into tiny glasses. It’s also difficult to stand up when you realize at the end of the night that everyone around you was sipping on those shots, not shooting the shots.
Brian sure did shoot his shot that night.
In any case, we warmly describe this special dish as “fish jello.” My mom would let this one set in special little bowls, making single servings of the gelatinous surprise. Suspended as if by magic were pieces of the white fish of the day, bits of veg — typically carrots, and some herbs for color like dill or parsley — and hard boiled egg if you’re feeling fancy.
The meal ends in an innocuous way, with poppyseed cake and a wide variety of cookies and sweets if there’s room after all that gelatin. Sometimes you’ll find kutia on the table at the end, a grain dish with poppyseed and dried fruits that is considered a ceremonial dish in many other cultures.
And then the meal is over, everyone warmed up from the vodka and the fish and the dumplings and the soup, and it’s back to Polish flying back and forth, more frantically now.
And if you’re the one guest who doesn’t speak the language, you smile and nod from time to time, even when your mother-in-law proclaims “Oh, he understands!” when you really don’t, as Polish is indeed quite the difficult language. Because at least you’re a little bit drunk now, and you braved the fish jello.