I came from a family where the less said about religion the better. My Polish Jewish mother had suffered unspeakable cruelties at the hands of the Nazis, and survived by hiding in plain sight while masquerading as a Catholic. My American Jewish father had seen the horrors of war as a soldier in World War 2. Neither put much stock in overt magical thinking, and we grew up with hidden, confused and conflicting practices. One of the most fun among them was Polish Christmas Eve.
My mother had become enamored of the delicious banquet that Polish Christmas Eve entailed: twelve luscious courses of food, laced copiously with butter, and culminating with a twelve-fruit compote. Such luxury could only be had without a war on, and memories of starvation fueled her longing to recreate that special meal. When I was about 11 or 12, we first sat down to this sumptuous feast.
Borcht (or barszcz in Polish) with uszki, or little ears, dumplings stuffed with chopped onion and dried mushrooms sauteed in butter; herring in cream; dried peas baked with sauerkraut; carp swimming in wine and butter; cookies; and a twelve-fruit compote, the ultimate luxury in a freezing northern climate, dried fruits and fresh simmered in wine and sugar. Coffee or tea counted when needed to make up the courses. We all ate everything, whether we liked it or not, then.
My sister and I grew up and had households and children of our own. Times changed, husbands had opinions, and yet we hewed as best we could to traditions. My children despised the soup. I can’t even look at peas and sauerkraut, never mind herring. Away from my own family, we joined with another family, also partially Jewish, who added kugel to the mix. My sister added Easter Deviled Eggs so her kids would eat something. Here in California, carp became grilled salmon. My daughter doesn’t eat fish. My husband dislikes kugel. A green salad would add some balance. And what are these Easter Eggs doing at Christmas? Still the only item universally liked, they stuck with both my sister and me.
I’m now a grandmother, and it’s grandson’s first Christmas Eve. My son-in-law, bless his heart, will eat everything. And so I put my mind to the compote. My daughter had received a gift of Harry & David pears, and they were going soft fast. I had a giant pomegranate. I decided on poached pears in white wine, with pomegranate seeds for color. A two-fruit compote.
I sliced the pears, boiled the white wine with sugar until it was lightly syrupy, added vanilla, and poached the pears. I poured them into the decorative compote dish, garnished with mint sprigs, and grabbed the big, beautiful pomegranate and my knife. I plunged it in, and the pomegranate split open to reveal a completely rotten fruit.
This Christmas Eve menu will be: barszcz z uszkami, Easter Deviled Eggs, kugel, grilled salmon, a nice green salad, and one-fruit compote. Ah, Tradition! Merry Christmas!