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Food for Thought

Old World, New World

By Steve Billings

At 4 o'clock on Christmas Eve, the preparations for Holy Supper were well under way. The kitchen was humming with activity, the windows in the adjoining room steamed already. A huge pot of water boiled on the stove, expectant. Rounds of uncooked dough crowded together atop the chopping block in the middle of the room, wrapped in plastic, staying moist. Bowls of sauerkraut, red cabbage, kale, and potatoes and cheese colored the countertop next to the stove. Marlene, my girlfriend's mother, lets no space go unused.

Meanwhile, my girlfriend, Zoe, rolled out dough with her grandmother's white marble pin, working it into sheets that were thin and strong. The dough was then sectioned into squares, filled with a dollop of sauerkraut, folded over and pinched shut. We did the same thing many times until all of the fillings were used. A pirohi is once again born.

The pirohi is the ravioli-like centerpiece of the meal that my girlfriend's family has been preparing each Christmas Eve since long before her great-grandparents immigrated to Pittsburgh, Penn., from Slovakia in the 1920s. Back then, their neighborhood was populated with a few hundred working-class families of Slavic origin. Most of the family live in California now, but the traditions carry on.

The meal still begins with a mushroom soup whose broth is based on sauerkraut juice and browned flour. Some would call it an acquired taste, but when the broth is not overly potent and the sourness is balanced, the soup shines and wakes you up. This is eaten with a round, almost focaccia-type bread called pagach that is sometimes piled in the middle of the table to reflect Jesus as the bread of life. After this come the pirohis, which, when they are made right (as they were this year), are near the apex of comfort food.

Before we sat down at the table to eat, there were ceremonial touches to be done. Marlene lit the Holy Candle, blessed by the church, symbolizing the Star of Bethlehem. We passed around a bowl of silver change, washing our hands in money, encouraging and inviting prosperity in the coming year. Marlene then marked the sign of the cross in honey on each of our foreheads in hopes that the "lives of all present will be sweet without any bitterness."

We passed around a bowl containing cloves of raw peeled garlic to be eaten for its healthful benefits and ability to keep away evil spirits.

This year our prayers were said for us some 3,000 miles away by the oldest member of the family, Marlene's 85-year-old aunt MaryAnne from Pittsburgh. As we sat at the candlelit table, Marlene played the long voicemail left by her aunt. It was a few minutes long, some of it spoken words, some song, all of it in Slovak.

Of course, I understood nothing as she sang and prayed. I just listened, letting the words and what felt like kindness run over me. After all these years, new traditions keep arising.

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From the January 12-18, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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