The Holiday Eating Conversation
The first time my in-laws came from Munich to spend Christmas with us, I coasted on automatic and ordered a goose from the local butcher. I sliced up the red cabbage very fine while browning the lardons (bacon cubes) for sweet-sour red cabbage, and then scored the Brussel sprouts while the cream cheese and dill sauce bubbled on the stove. I stuffed the goose with prune and walnut stuffing, and let’s face it, I embodied my mother preparing Christmas Day dinner.
My mother-in-law later observed the table over her glasses. “Markus, I thought your girlfriend was American,” she whispered. Well German-American. And Norwegian-American. Europeans often find these references to ethnic roots to be at best amusing and at worst cloying. But as a social psychologist, I am not surprised by American’s attachment to their ethnic roots. First of all how else can I explain my name, which no one outside of Germany can even pronounce? After a year of slow spelling my name slowly over the phone in France, I went to a conference in Germany. Ten of us wanted to eat in a restaurant in Würzburg, but only I spoke German. So I picked up the phone. Yes, a table at 8 p.m. For ten people, sure. Name? “Niedenthal,” I answered. “OK, see you at 8.” Click. I listened to the dial tone for a while and in my head I spelled, “N-I-E-D-E-N-T-H-A-L.”
And how else do we decide what to make for Christmas dinner or Passover Seder or a Greek Orthodox Easter celebration? Some, though not all of us, do refer to a national group from which we came, even if 200 years ago. At least we do in the North. My mother told me it would be OK to refer to her in my blog, and I must do so now because her American-Norwegian identification runs very high, as it tends to do in states like Wisconsin and Minnesota. You’ve have perhaps listened to the monologues in a Prairie Home Companion, so you you’ve already had the crash course on my mother’s entire childhood. You might have laughed, in wonder and confusion, but there was nothing made up in those stories. Thanks to my mom, we had to eat lutefisk and lefse every Christmas Eve. If she decided to do us a favor by also making Swedish meatballs and creamy turnips, we were lucky. But sometimes she didn’t. On those occasions just the lutefisk dominated the table, shaking like jelly, staring at us while we eyed my mother nervously. My father was always especially restless, but he bravely ate the lutefisk every Christmas.
Lutefisk is codfish that has been dried and stored in lye. Before you prepare it, you therefore have to soak it for a long time, during which it transforms into a veiny gelatinous blob, and then you boil it and serve it with melted butter. My brother Simon, who lives in Sweden, reports that the average self-respecting Norwegian has not served lutefisk on Christmas Eve, or any other time for that matter, for about 200 years. But that doesn’t stop anyone in Wisconsin. Lefse, on the other hand, is flat bread made from potatoes. My aunt Crystal was the master of lefse making. It is often served spread with butter and brown sugar and it would be difficult for anyone not to love it. My mom bribed us to eat the lutefisk by holding back on the lefse until we had emptied our plate of the quivering cod.
While the Norwegians are not doing lutefisk so much, a lot of their dried cod is sent down to Portugal for people like my friend Guida to prepare, also for Christmas. But the hundreds of Bacalao recipes do not resemble lutefisk in the end. A couple of years ago Simon and his family came down to France for Christmas in order to catch a few rays of sunlight. Since my sister-in-law is a vegetarian who eats fish, I pleased my mother by telling her that I was preparing codfish, but then picked up the phone and asked Guida to come over and tell me how to prepare it. Guida was delighted. “Meet me in the Portuguese store in the rue de la Boucherie,” she said. So I did.
The store was filled with piles of rock-hard, salted cods. Guida and the owner circled the pile for a while speaking in Portuguese as they poked and prodded the planks of fish. After they had agreed that several were hard and thick enough, I bought the cods and took them home. Guida went back to her office and texted me, “Now soak them in water.” It was hard to find a vessel large enough for the fish, but I found a bucket and covered them in clear water, which quickly turned cloudy. The next day, Guida texted, “Change the water now.” Four days later our house had begun to smell strongly of cod, and Guida arrived for lunch. We prepared the cod in three ways, tried them all and then, leaving me with a Portuguese cookbook containing photographs of appropriate presentations, Guida left for Lisbon for the holidays.
Left to my own devices, I studied the photographs in the cook book, boiled the potatoes and the Portuguese cabbage, speared peeled garlic cloves with toothpicks and prepared a black-eyed peas salad, just the way I was supposed to. On Christmas Day I took the photograph up there on the top right and sent it to Guida who showed it to her mother.
Not at all like an American, her mother murrmered.