Posted by BornFeetFirst on December 21, 2011
The carp were destined for the bathtub. On every bus and tram and in the rickety-wheeled metal shopping carts pulled by stooped babushkas, clear plastic bags strained with the cargo of tradition. In vain the smoky grey bottom-feeders flailed against each other in just enough murky water to keep them alive until they reached the bathtub prisons awaiting them. But they wouldn’t stay long on death row; Christmas Eve was just around the corner.
Poland, with its deep roots in Catholicism, stood by the Vatican’s ban on consuming meat on Fridays and holidays. Fish were permitted, though, and carp, being cheap and easy to farm, became the culinary centerpiece of the traditional Christmas Eve dinner. I had noticed the oil drum barrels full of live carp in the Russian market with lengthy lines of shoppers at each barrel. Decades of shortages and fears that demand would far exceed supply meant that families bought their carp early. Because fish spoils easily, the best way to ensure the freshest meal possible was to keep the fish alive until the last possible moment – the morning of Christmas Eve. The best place to keep fish alive for a week? The bathtub.
I cringed and tried to avoid thinking about what Christmas Eve dinner would be like – thirteen traditional Polish dishes, many of which would include bathtub carp. When Krystyna, a member of my evening class for elementary school English teachers invited me to dinner with her family, I imagined a golden turkey or maybe a glazed ham, mashed potatoes, bright orange carrots, emerald green beans and buttery biscuits. But several of my students described the tradition of carp for Christmas, dashing my taste buds’ hopes. I couldn’t help but feel a bit homesick at the thought of eating the slimy, grey river dwellers. I almost cried at the thought of Christmas Eve fish rather than turkey, and wondered if, somehow, I could graciously bow out of dinner. It really didn’t feel like Christmas anyway.
In the weeks leading up to December 25, I noticed a few odds and ends of decorations in stores, but nothing even close to the rampant commercialism back home. There were no holiday sweaters, no green and red swags lining balconies, no Christmas tree lots and no strings of colorful lights or jolly store Santas with children whispering secret wishes into their ears.
The only real signs of Christmas were a few small, brightly wrapped gifts sent by friends and family sitting under a minute plastic Christmas tree that my roommate Tracey and I had decorated with tiny paper chains made from strips of magazine ads. Though Tracey and I had each opened a few gifts from home, we agreed to wait until Christmas morning for the rest, and to have a little celebration of our own. But first, we each had Christmas Eve dinners to attend.
Krystyna picked me up early in the afternoon and because buses and trams were on an almost non-existent holiday schedule, we had a 20-minute walk across town to her parents’ flat. An icy blast, seemingly straight from the North Pole had swept across the northern half of Poland. The air was the bitterest cold I had ever felt – my lungs burned with every breath. Tiny, sharp needles of cold poked at my eyes until I could barely stand to keep them open. Each step seemed slower than the last as my legs slowly hardened like chicken in a freezer.
We finally reached the non-descript commie block of flats where Krystyna’s parents lived. A steamy cloud, heavy with the aromas of cooked fish and stewed vegetables enveloped us when Krystyna’s mother flung the door open to welcome us. Her fleshy arms pulled me close as she plastered my cheeks with the traditional three kisses of greeting – right, left, right. I presented my hostess and her husband with a poinsettia that had, unfortunately, shriveled from exposure to the arctic elements, despite the fact that I had protected it with several layers of newspaper.
I quickly unwound the two scarves I had tucked carefully around my neck and under my wool hat. I pulled off my hiking boots and heavy socks, and the two sweaters I had layered over my turtleneck. In contrast to the polar outdoors, the flat was positively tropical.
After a quick tour of the small flat, Krystyna’s mother led me to the head of the table where an empty plate stared openly upward, waiting patiently for food I hoped I could enjoy. The two women paraded from the kitchen with platters and bowls full of food while the father and I sat silently smiling at each other, having exhausted the limits of my Polish language skills with a brief discussion of the weather.
As the culinary offerings filled the table, I carefully evaluated the contents of each dish. I easily identified the cucumber and cream salad topped with dill – a dish I liked. Next to it, though, was a molded gelatinous mass. Are those peas? I wondered, taking in the grayish-green pebbles suspended in river-water colored goop. I had grown up going to church potlucks where well-intentioned ladies added peas and celery to green jello, but the molded mass in front of me was like nothing I had seen before. And what is that at the bottom? Something akin to mushy grains of rice anchored the mound to the plate.
The heavy platters and bowls began their short circuit around the table, each person taking a spoonful of the cucumber salad, then a portion of fried carp with caraway seeds on top, some boiled potatoes, steamed cabbage, then baked carp still in its skin. Finally, the murky jello mold jiggled to life as Krystyna’s mother hefted it from the table and handed it to me with an encouraging smile. The smallest scoop I could manage without seeming rude landed on my plate with a slurp. Only then could I see that the sludgy mass at the bottom was shredded carp meat. This was no church potluck. I was about to eat carp jello.
That evening back in my flat, I couldn’t help but marvel at my iron clad stomach. I had made it through fried carp, baked carp and carp jello, not to mention a variety of stewed cabbage and onion dishes. But, while my stomach was full, I felt completely empty. I hadn’t realized how tied my soul was to the comforts of home holiday cooking and time with people I love. I cried myself to sleep that night, missing home, family and friends more than I could have imagined possible.
With the coming of Christmas morning, though, some culinary redemption: hot chocolate with marshmallows, a box of my favorite crackers and an instant Jello cheesecake mix from care packages under the tree. Tracey and I didn’t often eat our meals together, but Christmas morning seemed like a good opportunity to relax at our minute kitchen table, lingering over eggs, toast and the happy surprise of hot chocolate while comparing notes about our Christmas Eve meals.
“Oh my god,” she exclaimed when I described the carp jello. “You ate it?”
“How could I not? I didn’t want to be rude.”
She shook her head in disbelief. “I didn’t eat any of the carp, just potatoes and bread.”
Later that afternoon we bundled ourselves up for the one-mile walk to our friends’ flat for an American Christmas dinner – or, as close as we could get. I carefully carried the instant cheesecake that I had made in our frying pan since we didn’t have a cake pan.
As we climbed the four stories to their flat, I could smell the true aromas of Christmas. Somewhere, they had found a turkey breast and roasted it to a crispy, buttery perfection. We filled our plates with perfectly seasoned stuffing, creamy mashed potatoes, golden carrots and flaky biscuits. We sat around their warm kitchen all afternoon and into the evening, talking, laughing, playing games and, over time, finishing off the entire cheesecake.
Tracey and I finally called it a night, strolling back to our flat under a clear sky full of stars, with snow crunching under our boots. I was content, satisfied, fulfilled. Back at home, I filled the deep bathtub and poured some shampoo under the flowing tap to create luxurious bubbles. A long, hot soak in the tub was the perfect way to end the holiday.