Today’s Christmas Eve tradition and recipe contributor and friend of mine, just happens to have been one of my professors at DePaul University in Chicago. At first I was surprised to learn that Gloria Simo and I have so much in common. After learning her family’s story, I am even more surprised to learn the reason for our commonalities.
First, our grandmothers. Although they were born in different countries, they grew up less than 80 miles from each other. Both of them left their childhood homes at young ages and immigrated by boat to the United States alone. Josephine Daniel, my Grandma, was 21 and Anna Vitek, Gloria’s grandmother was just 16. Anna was just three years older than Josephine, they immigrated within eight years of each other, and both married fellow immigrants they met here in the United States. Josephine was raised Jewish in Austria, but she became a practicing Lutheran when she married my grandfather. Anna was also Lutheran, married to a man named John Stancik.
Next, our genealogical origins. Anna was born and raised in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia. Today, Bratislava is the capital city of Slovakia. Josephine’s great-grandfather was a well-known rabbi from Pressburg, Austria-Hungary, the very same city known as Bratislava, Slovakia today. It is very likely that Josephine’s grandfather, my second great-grandfather, was born in Pressburg. I have Slavic roots as well on my Polish grandfather’s side.
Coincidence? Yeah, probably. But when Gloria described her family’s Christmas Eve meal, I said, “That sounds like something my mom used to make!” Well, we at least shared similar dietary preferences. I grew up on Polish and Austrian food. Slovakia is bordered by Poland to the North and Austria to the West. Naturally, they shared similar dinner menus.
It was the meal that featured so prominently in Gloria’s recollection of childhood:
One Christmas Eve meal tradition sticks in my head and was followed by almost every family in our small Lutheran Slovak congregation. And we wouldn’t dream of missing it. The matriarch of each family made a kind of stew of sauerkraut, pork ribs, Polish :sausage, potatoes, prunes, etc (I think whatever Grandma decided on) and paired it with honey/poppyseed biscuits. Before the meal we broke a communion like wafer called Oplatky smeared with honey and shared it around the table while saying grace. After the meal we went to candlelight services – where we knew everyone had just had the same meal – and then out Christmas caroling.
The “stew” Gloria describes is called Kapustnica, and is almost identical to a Polish dish called Bigos, or Hunter’s Stew. Trust me, it’s delicious. I have been thinking that I might want to get ambitious and start making it as part of our Christmas Eve tradition before we go to midnight mass (a Catholic tradition). Oplatky is also a Polish-Catholic tradition.
Gloria also sent recipes along with detailed instructions for celebrating in the Slovak tradition. I will post them on their own page in the coming weeks. If you’d like to have a copy sooner, please contact me here.