For many on Christmas Eve, the anticipation of the next day’s treats, gifts and surprises fills the air.
For others, it is the scent of seven fish dishes, cabbage rolls, tamales and baked cauliflower.
Particularly in America, the food traditions we call upon to acknowledge the holidays is as varied as our ethnic, religious and social backgrounds.
The following is a taste of what’s cooking in Kenosha on Christmas Eve; some items are simple, others are labor intensive, but all are filled with joyous social interaction.
Traditional Polish meal
Treasured food memories based on religious and cultural traditions are the core of Christmas Eve for Kenosha resident Allen Sowinski.
“I’m full blooded Polish and the absolute biggest tradition is Wigilia, or the traditional Christmas Eve Polish meal that’s enjoyed while the family awaits the birth of Christ,” he said.
Wigilia (pronounced “veegelia”) is an enormous feast of meatless dishes that ordinarily contains 13 individual items, he explained. “The 13 representative dishes were supposed to symbolize the 12 Apostles and Christ. Some Polish families only set out 12 dishes, but my family always served 13.
“It’s a very heavy meal eaten late on Christmas Eve, followed by going to church for midnight Mass that celebrates the birth of Christ. (Trying to stay awake with a full stomach was the real challenge in church after the meal.)”
The feast includes noodles and poppy seed casserole, cabbage and beans, dried fruit compote, pierogies, baked cauliflower and marinated herring in sour cream. Summing up the recipes of his family’s holiday meal, Sowinski said, “They all have an emotional, sentimental attachment.”
“The table was always set for whoever was invited plus one extra setting for a lonely traveler who may come to the door in search of a meal. My mother’s mother always placed straw (to symbolize the manger) beneath her best white linen table cloth. My mother and my wife always set their Wigilia tables with a few blades of wheat straw placed discreetly on the table.”
Sowinski says his mother made the dishes several days prior to Christmas Eve. “When I did it, it took me three days,” he said.
Italian fish dishes
For those in traditional Italian homes, many dishes — and many fishes — are served on the day as well. For them, Christmas Eve is marked by a meatless meal known as the “Feast of the Seven Fishes,” seven dishes made with fish, or fewer dishes made with at least seven types of fish.
The bountiful spread varies by family, tradition and region, but usually includes fish with pasta, a fish soup or stew and sometimes a seafood salad.
Tony Bonnano, grocery department manager at Tenuta’s, recited several made by his wife and family for the occasion: pasta with sardines, (pasta con le sarde) and dishes made from dried bacalao (codfish), calamari and octopus and a soup called cioppino.
Of these, he said, his favorite is the cioppino.
While the fish dishes are prepared fresh for Christmas Eve, Bonnano noted that holiday pastries, including scalidi (sweet fried dough) and pita piata (rosette cakes made with nuts and raisins), which are time consuming to make, are made well in advance.
In many Mexican households, tamales are the main event on Christmas Eve.
Tamale making involves a several-step process of filling corn dough with shredded or chopped meat or cheese, wrapping them in softened corn husks and steaming them until done. For this reason tamale making is often done “by committee,” or a group of cooks who produce copious numbers of them for their families.
“Making tamales is a big social thing,” said Lizbeth Tenorio, counter clerk at San Luis grocery store, 1824 52nd St.
Several other dishes that comprise her family’s Christmas Eve celebrations include carnitas; barbacoa (slow cooked beef or goat that is shredded); posole (a stew of hominy with meat); and bunuelos (light flour disks topped with cinnamon sugar or anise flavored syrup.)
Of these delectables, Tenorio says the tamales made by her mother, stuffed with chicken and verde sauce or fajita filling, are her favorites.
Family’s cabbage rolls
For still other families, Christmas Eve traditions don’t have ethnic roots or religious connotations — they’re just good family recipes handed down through the generations.
For the family of Kenosha resident Justin Weber, Christmas Eve would not be Christmas Eve without his great-aunt Irene’s cabbage rolls made by his grandmother, Helen Weber.
When asked by the News for the recipe, he wrote: “This recipe is well over 60 years old and is what generations of Webers both here and in Canada have enjoyed every Christmas Eve!”
Over the years, Helen Weber has “made some changes to the cabbage rolls to fit the eating preferences of the family’s grandchildren,” Justin said. “She makes one pan of her traditional cabbage rolls and one pan vegetarian.” For the latter she substitutes rice and soy granules for meat.
“Grandma is very accommodating and loves to take care of us all!” he said.