At our house, the holiday season begins with Christmas and ends on January 11.
Why January 11? That’s my husband Stuart’s birthday. We don’t clear out the wrapping paper and bows until Jan. 12. Our serious efforts to go back to low-carb eating only starts after that date also.
This year, Stuart discovered a tradition in his men’s group that meets daily for coffee during the week: The birthday boy treats everyone else on his special day.
“Why don’t you invite them to come here for lunch?” I asked.
Stuart looked surprised. I have not been a complete hermit the last year but perhaps half-hermit might be accurate. I’ve needed concentrated time for my book and have not entertained very often in our home.
Also, both of us are just now recovering from a particularly nasty cold/flu that attacked us in late December.
Due to our illnesses, we had had to decline a party with friends and missed our traditional New Year’s Day feast of pork and sauerkraut. We had the pork chops and pureed pumpkin in the freezer begging to be consumed.
Stuart got into the spirit of his party right away, emailing his eleven friends. Nine of them came; so, adding the two of us, our table stretched out to its full capacity.
I offered Stuart a Sweet and Sour Pennsylvania Dutch (actually Swiss/German in ethnic origins) meal. I had intended to make this meal while our children were with us, but we never got to it.
My memoir writing also stimulated my interest. I included a chapter in my memoir called “Seven Sweets and Seven Sours,” and I have found it interesting to do research — both the kind you read about and the kind you eat! Stuart and I grew up on this kind of food.
While writing the chapter on food, I consulted Sauerkraut Yankees by Pennsylvania German Foods and Foodways expert, William Woys Weaver. I wanted to know how and why the cuisine of my childhood and that of most of the descendents of the Germans and German-speaking Swiss in Pennsylvania developed its special emphasis on meats, sweets, and sours.
I am quite sure that ten generations of Mennonite/Pennsylvania Dutch cooking has created a permanent taste for certain piquant combinations. Weaver explains it as a “taste culture” that was pork and flour based with emphasis on dough, noodles, dumplings, “as accompaniments to fatty meat.” Since there was so much fat to absorb, vinegar and/or fruit juices became a way to “cut” the fat.
A perfect meal in this tradition includes soft meats and mounds of mashed potatoes, crunch in some form, even in the limp crunch of sauerkraut, but usually also celery, pickles, or other fresh or pickled vegetables.
Originally, says Weaver, “The basic interplay of tastes in Pennsylvania-German cookery was the tart flavor of fruits contrasted against the salty or smoke flavor of meats, not the sweet-sour taste of refined sugar and vinegar” (152). After about 1910, however, refined sugar and vinegar increased and the proportion of pork and smoked meats declined somewhat in the diet.
On New Year’s Day, however, the “good luck” charm is to eat the kind of cabbage for which the German-speaking world is famous — Kraut! Today we can feel good about the fact that sauerkraut is a pro-biotic food. Good for us!
We started our meal in the morning with grilling of thick pork chops. Even though the meat would become extremely soft, I wanted to see those grill marks.
All morning long, the meat and sauerkraut bubbled together in the crock pot.
When our guests arrived, Stuart invited them to a punch bowl and offered cheese and crackers for appetizers.
Then I went into high gear in the kitchen, drawing on my mother’s example of beating peeled and well-cooked potatoes into high mounds made light and smooth by hot milk added at the very end and blended at high speed. Add browned butter and a little parsley, and it’s time to call everyone to the table. Plate up the meat and sauerkraut, bread and honey, and sit down.
Take a deep breath!
It was easy to find the words for a grace that thanked God for Stuart’s life and love, these friends, and this food.
I didn’t do much writing last Friday, January 11, but I did a lot of living. And that’s what memoir is: cremated living.
Do you agree?
What is your New Year meal tradition? Tell me about your “taste culture.” I’m eager to hear from you.