I’ve read that people are losing the skill of cooking. In this age of prepared, pre-packaged, pre-washed fast foods, a lot of the dishes our grandmothers made have been lost to us. No where is this more apparent to me than in some of the dishes I remember from Christmases past.
My great-grandparents and grandparents emigrated from Europe around the turn of the twentieth century, lured to
Their desires were fulfilled on both counts. In my childhood, Christmas was a time of church and food, with the emphasis on food. I remember gathering at my grandmother’s tiny house with my aunts and uncles and cousins on Christmas Eve. We’d arrive after the church Christmas concert to open presents and to eat. My maternal grandmother learned the recipes of her German heritage while living in
Christmas at Granny’s house wouldn’t be Christmas without two things: cabbage rolls and strudel.
Strictly speaking, cabbage rolls, or halopchi, are thought of as a Ukrainian dish, but everyone in my family and community made them and ate them when I was growing up, even though we were of German descent. Though the Ukrainian version are often meatless and are filled with rice, my grandmother’s cabbage rolls were made of a hearty combination of ground pork, long grained rice, and diced onion spiced with salt and pepper. The meat mixture was then rolled inside a leaf of sour cabbage and gently boiled on top of the stove until the rice was soft. Granny’s cabbage rolls were the best.
The Christmas strudel was usually made long before Christmas and then frozen until the holidays. Granny had a wooden table in her living room that folded into a compact two feet by three feet when not in use, but could be extended with leaves to become eight feet long. I have memories of my grandmother, my mother and my aunts gently pulling the strudel dough across this table until it stretched from one end to another, all the while taking care not to tear the delicate dough. Once it was stretched to near transparency, my grandmother would cover the dough with slices of apple and raisin, dot it liberally with butter, and sprinkle the whole thing with sugar and cinnamon. Then the painstaking job of rolling the strudel would then begin. Each aunt would take her position at one part of the strudel and they would roll in unison until they reached the end. This long roll was then cut into sections and distributed among the aunts. When baked, the result was a flaky, fragrant, delicious concoction that melted in the mouth. I looked forward to it every Christmas.
When I give you the ingredients for Christmas strudel, it comes from my memory of the taste and what I remember seeing. As far as I know Granny had no written recipe. She could barely read and write, at least in English. I have no idea how that flaky, phyllo type dough was created. I know my mother never made strudel on her own after Granny died and as far as I know, neither did my aunts. When Granny died, the Christmas strudel died with her.
Fortunately, the cabbage rolls fared better. My mother and aunts, and now me, my sister in law and cousins, all learned to make our family staple. I still don’t have a written recipe, instead preferring the tried and true method of mixing ingredients until it feels and tastes just right. This Christmas my daughters and I will get together around the kitchen table and roll dollops of meat and rice inside leaves of cabbage and debate who rolls the prettiest cabbage roll. It just wouldn’t be Christmas without them.