By Tom Przybylak
(Post submitted entirely unedited and not proofread. I have Mushroom Soup to make…)
Tonight starts the tradition of Wigilia, or “Vigil” for thousands of western NY Polish Families. The tradition of Wigilia carries over from Poland, where a meatless meal based primarily on seafood and starches is served on Christmas Eve. While my mom always said dinner started at “sundown” for anyone who asked when they should show up – the true time to start is “when the first star is seen.”
The meal starts with the sharing of Christmas Wafer, called “Oplatek” and wishes of good luck for the upcoming new year. You can buy these wafers at any Catholic Church in Buffalo – but if you’re reading this and forgot – it is already too late. To our family, this sharing of the wafer is the most important tradition we have. My mom and dad always shared their wafer first, in front of the entire family, and it was always a thank you to each other for their love, kindness, and understanding throughout the years. Then they worked their way through their nine kids, starting with the eldest and ending with me. In the meantime, the rest of the family breaks off and shares some of their wafer, a hug, and a tear or two is as common as a smile or a joke. It is a very emotional time, especially among those of Eastern European descent who are taught that feeling your feelings is bad. I believe that more deep seeded disputes have been resolved in our family with a Wigilia hug than through any other outlet. For non-Catholics, this is a great opportunity to taste the elusive “host” that you’ve always wondered about.
Herring – Wine, Cream, or – Rollmops?
There are many components of the tradition that carry through but some are especially significant among Buffalo’s polish population. My mom always said you need to eat nine foods for good luck. I won’t go through all of them, but I’ll select a few favorites. Pickled Herring, or sledzie is always on the table to snack on. An acquired taste, it actually goes down really well with a sip of cold beer and a well buttered hunk of Al Cohen’s rye bread. There are two varieties – pickled in wine, or pickled in sour cream. Many a Christmas Eve debate has stretched into the night as to which is better. There is a third traditional variation on sledzie called a Rollmop. Fancier than its wine and cream cousins, the herring fillet is wrapped around a pickle. My first sampling of these was this past year at The Spotted Pig in New York’s West Village with my fellow Polish culinarian Chef Bruce Wieszala of Thin Man Brewery. Perhaps some year I’ll try to take that challenge on. It should be noted that eventually, whoever hosts the Wigilia dinner ends up with two crusted jars of this stuff crammed into the back of their refrigerator, where they will sit and mellow until they are ultimately tossed out some time in March to make room for Easter Kielbasa and Buttered Lamb.
Another key piece of the meal is the pierogi. I truly believe that most of the world identifies pierogi as those perfectly formed pillows of potato in Mrs T’s freezer section boxes and thus have no idea what a real pierogi tastes like. I don’t know any real polish folks in Buffalo that make or eat potato pierogi. The staple fillings are cheese and sauerkraut. That is it. I guess there are some date ones out there, but I think those are reserved for retired nuns. My mom and sisters made them for years, but they are a ton of work, so we eventually started sourcing them at one of the many Kaisertown shops that pop up for the holidays.
Real pierogi should be mildly misshapen, imperfect, and show all of the signs of being handmade with love. After boiling them off in water until they float, they go into a 100 year old aluminum pan with a broken handle that burns one’s hand enough to keep the inexperienced in the family from experimenting, or otherwise trying to usurp the process. Thinly sliced white onions are fried off in margarine (yes, I know butter is better but where else would mom get all of those Country Crock containers to store leftovers?) The onions go from raw, to translucent, to cooked, to browned, to just about black enough to stick to the pan, while the pierogi are seared off to a crisp brown patina on each side. As the dumplings are complete, they are piled into a roaster, covered with burnt onions and butter, and kept in the oven to keep warm. A true sign of one’s traditional move to Polish Adulthood is when the number of Kraut pierogi exceed the number of cheese on your plate.
There is a requisite traditional mushroom soup called Zupa Grzybowa that warm up bellies and get them set for the rest of the meal. The mushroom soup is a brothy stew, studded with whatever variety of mushrooms can be found and finished with some cream. The stock is mushroom based, and I save shitaki stems all year in the freezer for this. The coup de gras is the addition of dried Polish mushrooms (a variety of porcini) that can be found at various polish delis in the area. If you’re in good with the proprietor, they will often reach back behind the counter, past the commercially packaged mushrooms, and sell you some of the stash that one of their uncles foraged and dried during the year. These dried mushrooms are what really pushes this soup over the top.
Seafood Bisque/Chowder – Depending on who makes it
Our family also makes a seafood bisque that is not traditional for much of Buffalo. We do it as a nod to my mom’s family, who actually came over from Poland to Baltimore and setup shop in Fells Point as inner harbor crabbers. Over the years I’ve managed to put this soup together with seafood stock, some heavy cream, and a bit of tomato paste – but I always throw in a can of tomato soup because – mom wants it that way. The seafood is added toward the end, with hunks of cod being added and cooked down until it almost disintegrates, giving the soup some texture and flavor. Shrimp, scallops, lobster dainties, squid, or any other seafood can be added and cooked in the soup. We always finish ours with a solid shot of Old Bay seasoning and salute our crabbing polish past.
A pro move is to cross the streams, and mix the bisque and mushroom soups together.
Especially on the Buffalo Christmas Eve table, Fried Fish takes center stage. Traditionally haddock or cod, it is fried in the garage, usually by gentlemen sipping their way through Ginger Brandy, B&B, or whatever spirits showed up to keep warm and happy. The offer of hard liquor in the garage serves another purpose of keeping the non-cooks out of the way of the kitchen. When the fish hits the table, it is time to eat. Sour Cream is the condiment of choice, as it can go on everything from pierogi to fish.
Dessert/Midnight Mass/Kielbasa at 1 AM
When dinner is done, there are all too many desserts, ranging from polish cheese cake, to piles of Mikes Sponge Candy, to all of those amazing cutouts and cookies and fudge that were made throughout the previous weeks. More drinks are poured, presents are opened, and the party goes until it is time for Midnight Mass. As most Buffalo Polish are, at least in theory, Catholic, Midnight Mass is a beautiful celebration of drunk people being driven to Church for the second time all year by whatever teenagers are currently in the blissfully sober age slot between “having a drivers license” and “not being old enough to drink.” When mass is over and you get home, the meatless fast has ended, and you may dine on homemade kielbasa and ham sandwiches as a late night snack before drifting off to sleep.
I know there are other traditions, but I can’t really speak to them. Some folks leave a place setting empty in a form of religious respect – but our family has always been so big that every seat was taken and then some. There is something about manger hay that I can’t really attest to. I know there are other foods, like borscht and kapusta, which our family enjoys but haven’t really had on the table for this event. The point is, it’s a tradition, and one that has come over from a very poor Eastern European country that has been through literal hell and back. It is what you make it, and it is beautiful and perfect because it is family. On years where the fish burned, or someone forgot the sour cream, or mom’s cheesecake froze in the garage – it was still perfect. These meals are the ones that stick with us, and make us who we are.
I hope your Christmas meal is full of family, laughter, love, and tradition.