Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Thinking about Stedry Vecer

Christmas Eve is three days away and, like most years of my life, I will be at my parent's house for our annual holiday get-together. The article below about our gathering was written for the Plate and Vine newsletter of the Wine and Food Foundation of Texas and was included in the Fall 2004 issue. Nothing has changed since I wrote it, which really pleased me when I reread the article recently in preparation for writing a few blog posts about Christmas food traditions. 

I'd love to have comments from those of you who might still include dishes in your holiday celebration that can be traced back to the motherland.  

Family Traditions: A Texas Czech Holiday

My family's Christmas Eve meal tells the story of our Texas Czech heritage. Though the dishes come straight from my mother's grandparents, the meal is influenced by my parents' creative and inquisitive approach to cooking and the finicky tastes of children and in-laws. We call this meal Stedra, a mispronunciation of the Czech words Stedry Vecer, which mean Christmas Eve. Czechs traditionally celebrate Christmas on this night... eating a meal, visiting, singing koledy (carols), opening gifts and attending midnight mass. My parents still host this night for their four children. Not all of us are there every year, but at my parents’ welcoming table, there is usually a cousin or an uncle to fill our chairs when we do not.

For four generations, the Christmas Eve dishes we eat have remained virtually the same with only a small change here and there, maybe for an inclusive gesture towards a husband's traditions. Even those changes can be traced and discussed until my great aunts' and uncles' hatred of dried peas as children in the 1920s is as familiar to me as my own son's predictable eating habits. My family loves food, embraces tradition and is conscious of history as if it's a guest at our Christmas Eve table.

We begin with a simple vegetable soup; a clear tomato broth so peppery with my father's favorite spice it makes your throat burn. In the Czech tradition the soup is filled with as many vegetables as possible to symbolize a bountiful harvest in the coming year. My father chooses carrots, potatoes, onions, tomatoes, celery, parsley and cabbage. The bony but tasty carp is traditionally served as the main dish in the Czech Republic; not a common fish here in Texas. My mother's father would serve a fish he'd caught himself. Influenced by years of visiting and fishing on the Texas Gulf Coast, my own father bakes trout or flounder fillets stuffed with shrimp and crab.

Several dishes fall under my mother's domain including a potato and salmon salad and stewed prunes. For the salad, cooked potatoes are combined with poached salmon, onions and home-canned garlic pickles. Accompanying the main dishes are dried prunes, a fruit commonly associated with Czech-Texas sweets, that have been simmered slowly in water until they are soft and plump, and then seasoned with cinnamon and butter.

Throughout the meal we drink wine from crystal carried by my mother and sister and me back to Houston from a tiny, sparkling glass shop in the town of Frenstat in Northeastern Moravia. The crystal was my mother's souvenir of the town from where both of her grandfathers emigrated in the 19th century. We toast our ancestors' hard work and spirit; we toast the generations of cooks that have given us this sumptuous meal to share and love. And we wish each other Vesele Vanoce (Merry Christmas.)