December 23, 2010

My Big Fat Lithuanian Christmas

My sister has the knack on curling the edge on the dumplings.
 Salmon filets ( wild caught) await prep in the kitchen. This one will become gravlax, cured in salt, sugar and dill.
Fergus keeps watch over the Virtiniai process, ensuring that no flour will hit the floor.

Beets, beets, and more beets. A hot scarlet beet soup is the first course in my family's Christmas Eve Kucios dinner.

The Virtiniai are filled with a mixture of Pressed farmers cheese, cottage cheese and egg. They are then boiled, and served in melted butter. Healthy in So many ways!

Since fish is often served in the traditional Kucios meal, we serve Salmon filets is smoked, the other one I am making into Gravlax ( which of course, is NOT Lithuanian), and then we are also cooking a few filets of beef since hey, we are only human.

Having been raised in an ethnic family in a Lithuanian/American home, my memories of the Christmas season includes revolves around a strong connections with food, and now that I think about it, much of that food comes from plants. The Lithuanian diet, like much of the Baltic States is built on a solid foundation of cabbage, and there is no shortage of cabbage in our menu, but the Lithuanians celebrate Christmas in a unique way, strangely ( or not so strange) the Christmas eve dinner called Kucios, ( Kooch-us) evolved from a pagan celebration based around the winter solstice and the was only changed when Christianity reached the country which required that the holiday feast simply be moved up a few days.

Dried boletus mushrooms from Russia are added to the beet soup.

The use of evergreens as decorations on festive occasions is a custom that is older than Christianity in Lithuania. Especially in the colder climates of northern Europe, where during winter all plants and trees except for fir and pine die back or seem to go into a deep sleep, evergreens held a special place in the imaginations of the people. Because they were green all year, they were believed to have magical powers of life and fertility.

Lithuanian Christmas customs and traditions reflect the rural lifestyle of most Lithuanians of that time. Lithuanians lived on small family farms, grew their own crops, raised their own livestock. What they did, what they ate, etc., was intimately tied to the cycle of the seasons and to the products of their own labor. It is also well to remember that Lithuania is situated in northern Europe and during Christmas is in a grip of a cold winter. The ground is covered with snow, lakes and rivers are frozen. All nature seems to be in a deep sleep except for the evergreen fir and pine trees. There are no fresh flowers, no fresh fruit, no fresh vegetables.

My personal celebration dates back generations, and although I can remember my  late mother, who hosted  a Kucius every Christmas eve in the house that I now live in, since the 1960's, she lived here starting in 1940. before that,  my paternal Grandmother hosted the same dinner every Christmas eve. Since my father still lives with us at nearly 97, he still expects the same meal which we so enjoy. The Kucius dinner includes 12 courses, mainly based around fish, herring taking the lead,  but yes, many plants. The scent of freshly grated Horseradish, dill, sugar or storage beets, poppyseed pastry, sauerkraut dried boletus mushrooms and potatoes with onions all adds up to a Lithuanian meal.

Traditionally the menu has no dairy, eggs, or cheese, but most modern families have introduced many Lithuanian favorites that focus on cheese and butter, ( such as our family favorite, the cheese filled Lithuanian dumpling known as Virtiniai. Today, everyone in my family waits for this dish every year,  so much so, that we joke about how many we are going to make, and who is making them even counting them to make sure that no one stole any before Christmas. In many ways, I associate my upbringing to be very similar to the film My Big Fat Greek Wedding, except we had to replace the work GREEK with Lithuanian.

The Gravlax being weighted with river rocks. It will be ready in 2 days.

Joe will go out to the duck house to get straw for the dining table, since traditionally, straw is spread on the table, ( symbolic of Jesus in the manger) but since we are not religious, we like the connection Kucios has with the pagan ceremony around the shortest day of the year, when Lithuanians believed that the animals could speak on the evening of the shortest day ( that's all we need! It sure would be noisy around here!). Like many northern European countrys, fir branches and candles along with birch branches and logs and moss brought the outdoors, in. An extra plate is set for any family member who was unable to come ( or who has passed away), and a plate of christmas wafers is placed in the center. Dinner starts early, when the stars in the sky appear. And then, the most traditional drink of all, the Manhattans begin to flow in the kitchen!
Happy Holidays everyone.

1 comment :

  1. Anonymous12:43 PM

    What? Lithuanians take their faith very seriously! Food is centered around their Christianity. The animals only talk at midnight on Christmas Eve, it is NOT pagan. Very insulting to the Lithuanians. What is this a mockery of Jesus? You have the straw for Him to lay in but you worship mother earth? ah....but you will believe when you are in hell.


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