Štědrý Večer 2012

The Orsak-Lubrano-Georgio-Apple-Armstrong-Cormie-Chapman-Theriot-McMurray family.
Since I was a teenager, my parents have hosted dinner on Štědrý večer (Christmas Eve) Texas-Czech style. I could write a small book about this meal, but will settle for this post. The meal is the same one my mother ate when she was growing up (and we went to my grandmother's for when I was younger) and many of the dishes are, in fact, the same or similar to those her parents ate when they were growing up. We are, as a family, very proud of this meal, since my mother is the only one of her seven siblings who has carried on the culinary traditions. We have the same dishes every year; most have some Czech background.

To begin the meal, we have a meatless soup that traditionally has every foodstuff available at the time in it to ask the universe for a good harvest for all crops in the coming year... vegetables dried and fresh, legumes, a grain. In our house, the soup has evolved into a peppery vegetable soup with "homemade" noodles. This year, the soup was thick with potatoes, cabbage, carrots, tomatoes, onions and celery. It's peppery because my grandmother loved the spice.

The main meal is a collection of dishes, each of which has a story and history. To give you an idea of just how old a few of these dishes are, in a December 22, 1972 article in the Texas Catholic Herald, my grandmother's brother, Bishop John Morkovsky, was interviewed about his memories of Christmas as a boy. The article states "Other memorable events the Bishop cited were the Christmas Eve suppers on the farm near Yoakum from 1912 to 1918. In keeping with Church law and the custom of their Czech ancestry, Mr. and Mrs. Morkovsky (the Bishop's parents) and their seven sons and three daughters would have a salmon salad as the main dish. In the old country the main dish was baked fish." My family has both dishes for our meal. The salmon salad, now being eaten in the same way for at least 100 years, is made with potatoes, flaked poached salmon, pickles and onion.

Skinning the salmon fillets for the salad.
Cold salmon salad.

When my mom was a child, the fish her Catholic family ate on Christmas eve was caught by her father in a local tank or pond and was probably trout. When my father fished regularly on the coast, we would have something he'd caught and froze. Some years, my parents just buy the fish. But this year, we ate yellow cat (catfish) caught by an aunt and uncle in Lake Texana, on whose shore they live. Below is my intrepid Aunt Deniese holding the fish we may of eaten for Štědrý večer and below that, my father's pan fried yellow cat. Rather than stuffing the fillets as he usually does, he laid the chunks of fish on top of the stuffing (which has crab and sometimes shrimp in it) and then baked it. 

We also have fried oysters, which were an addition from my grandfather... not Czech, just yummy, and now they're traditional on our table. My father used to fry them himself, but family members complained about the whole house smelling like oysters all night long, so now someone slips away a few minutes before the meal and picks them up from Landry's. Below is my grandmother's handwritten recipe for frying oysters. Couldn't be simpler.... "Clean, salt and pepper them. Roll in cornmeal. Fry in deep fat."

To accompany all the seafood, we have creamed peas (below), various pickles from my parents' canning pantry (beets, cucumbers, okra), and the decidedly non-Czech dishes of au gratin potatoes and pimiento cheese-stuffed celery sticks.

I used to be frankly embarrassed to mention one of the other dishes on our table... Cream of Wheat. Who eats that for dinner and especially for the most special meal of the year? Well, some Slavs do. It took a post by Barbara Rolek in her awesome blog Eastern European Food for About.com to educate me. It turns out that cooked wheat puddings are eaten in several Slavic cultures for Christmas Eve. Our Cream of Wheat was vindicated! I don't know why this seemingly archaic dish lasted in my family from Wallachia to Houston, but somehow it did and it's one of my favorite parts of the meal. My mother cooks it with milk, butter, cinnamon, vanilla and globs of butter.
Cream of Wheat with cinnamon and butter.
Cooked prunes.

Lastly, we have what I'd heard my grandmother call both plum pudding and prune gravy, which is what we call it now. It's really just pitted prunes cooked down with butter and cinnamon. I'm not sure how it was originally eaten, but my favorite way is plopped on top of a scoop of the buttery Cream of Wheat, especially leftover for breakfast.

My father waiting patiently for everyone to come to the table already.
In the Catholic Herald article I mention above, the reporter wrote that Bishop John reminisced "But the festive meal was secondary to the family gathering that made Christmas Eve suppers so unforgettable." It's the same for our family. We were blessed to have all but one family member at the meal this year. We had new family members with us - my parent's 3-week-old great granddaughter and my brother's fiance. There were 10 kids age 3 weeks to 16 years, unstoppable running from outside to in, upstairs to down. The adults did a lot of drinking and laughing and dishwashing and children chasing with not a TV in site, I'm so pleased to say, though there was some checking of Facebook. It was certainly a different kind of gathering than my grandmother and her brother experienced as children in the 1910s, but the spirit of the night, full of food and family, prevailed.

My mother and her great-granddaughter, Charley, three weeks young. 
My son, Rome, gives the superhero fist up for family traditions
(in satin cape sewn by my mother for Christmas.)


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