The Family Cooks

When I think of Christmas, I can’t help but think of my family – those who are still here and those who have gone before me. If you are like me and were fortunate to grow up in a Polish and Italian family with two very ethnic ideas of Christmas, you quickly realize how blessed you really are with tons of food, cookies, laughter and family around the table.

From Poland…

Christmas Eve has always been a special time for my family. We celebrate Christmas Eve with my dad’s family – the Polish side. It starts with the way the table is prepared. Straw is placed under my grandmother’s white linen tablecloth as a reminder of Christ’s birth in a stable. My dad shares a blessing around the table as we break the oplatki, a Christmas wafer that means “angel bread” and distributes it to each member of the family. In distributing the wafer each member of the family is kissed and is wished a joyful year ahead. The rest of the family then greets one another in the same way. The oplatki is shared with each family member as a sign of charity, unity and friendship. In addition, an extra place is set for a stranger who happens to pass by as well as in memory of those who are departed. It really is a magical time around the table and someone always ends up crying. ‘Tis the season.

Another part of our Christmas Eve dinner is the Wigilia meal, which means a meatless meal. The Wigilia typically consists of an odd number of dishes, usually 13, to represent the 12 Apostles and Christ. The food represents the four corners of the earth – mushrooms from the forest (my grandma used to make a mean homemade mushroom soup, which my mom now makes using her recipe), grain from the fields, fruit from the orchards and fish from the lakes and sea. And, who could forget pierogis!!

… and Italy!

Also, let’s not forget about my Italian tradition for Christmas Eve – La Vigilia. It’s another great one with food at its center. On my mom’s side we celebrate the Feast of the Seven Fishes. One of my families’ favorite dishes is baccalà (salted cod fish) with pasta. We also have homemade fried smelts, calamari and basically anything else my grandma comes up with. Let’s just say we feed about 50 people, and we could probably feed another 50.

The desserts are just as special as the Feast of the Seven Fishes. The week or so before Christmas you could find my grandma and grandpa (who are in their 80s) baking up a storm. They make pizzelles, a traditional Italian waffle cookie as well as alechi, a sweet bread dough, braided and fried to a golden brown. I must say alechi are best when eaten warm and smothered with butter on Christmas morning. Taralli, is another family favorite and consists of a dry-dough that is shaped in a circle, boiled and seasoned with cracked black pepper and delicious when dipped in wine or coffee. That’s just a few of the traditional Italian baked goods, but there are many others that we make and enjoy!

I could go on and on about our Christmas cooking…

As you can see, we have a lot of traditions that take place over Christmas Eve and Christmas, but at the heart of those traditions is family. There is no greater blessing than to sit around the table and reminisce about Christmases past and present. It truly is the most wonderful time of the year!

May the joy of the season be with you and yours. Merry Christmas!