Christmas Eve always meant heading to my grandparents’ house in the Kaisertown neighborhood of Buffalo. We’d pile into the car, get to church early, and get a seat close to the back door so we could beat traffic out of the parking lot. Then it was a beeline to Nana and Poppa’s for dinner. Of course, being Buffalo, it was always cold. Often exceptionally so on Christmas Eve for some reason. However, their house was always toasty warm. All that cooking certainly helped. The oven and stove top were packed full of Polish goodness. If there were two stoves, they would have both been stuffed to capacity.
During my early years, the dinner crowd was quite extensive and included my great-grandmother (babci), great aunts and uncles, and various generations of cousins on my mother’s side. Many a folding chair made an appearance down the center of the “parlor.” Eventually it became a more intimate affair with just my parents, sister, grandmother and me, but I’m pretty sure we had just as much food for the five of us as we did for fifteen!
Polish Christmas Eve dinner fare, while not exactly the healthiest foods, is ridiculously comforting. Fish, pierogi, sauerkraut and mushroom soup are the staples. The fish and pierogi were fried, thus adding to their appeal. In fact, there was so much frying that I don’t recall a year when the smoke detector didn’t go off! Can you fry sauerkraut? Or soup? I’m pretty sure you can and my grandmother must have managed to find a way.
Back to the mushroom soup. Ask Don. It warrants its own paragraph. My mom grew up with this tradition and she never ate the soup. My sister and I never ate the soup. My dad, who married into the family, actually eats the soup. Before Don came with me for his first Christmas with my family, mom called to ask if he liked mushroom soup. Sure he did. What a weird question, he thought. Well, he never had Polish mushroom soup. To hear him tell the “story of the mushroom soup” never gets old. He never knew there would be specially imported mushrooms “the size of trees” in the soup. Not only that, he was basically bullied into adding heaping piles of mashed potatoes and sour cream to his bowl. “That’s the way we do it,” said Nan. So he did it, noticing that other than Nan, none of the other blood relatives ate the soup. Sucker! My sister’s boyfriend at the time didn’t eat the soup. Needless to say, he’s no longer in the picture. Hmmm… Eat the soup, welcome to the family!
It has been years since we’ve had the truly traditional Polish Christmas Eve dinner. Nan kept up hosting duties for quite a while, even after Poppa died. Lately, my mom is continuing the tradition. She learned to make pierogi and passed the recipe along to me. However, I have yet to actually make them myself. There is a lot of history behind those pierogi and I don’t want to disappoint. Besides, I don’t have a smoke detector in my kitchen.