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|Memories of Christmas
By Alfred Opp, Vancouver, British Columbia
Edited by Connie Dahlke, Walla Walla, Washington
In my home town of Teplitz, Bessarabia the Christmas
baking and food preparation often started in November.
This was a busy time of year that involved much thought
and preparation. Our families were tight-knit and these
family relationships became even closer at Christmas
time, when families observed the custom of visiting
back and forth in each others' homes. In all of these
events, delightful foods played a central role. Both
warm and cold dishes were served. The warm food generally
centered around goose and young chickens that were hatched
late in the year. My mother made very tasty dishes along
these lines. Generally a festive meal started with Nudlesuppe
(Noodle Soup generally containing chicken, seasoned
with carrots and onions); then came the meat dish ccompanied
with rice and raisins steamed in milk, home-made noodles
or roasted potatoes. Since by that time of year we had
no fresh vegetables left, we used vegetables we had
pickled in the fall. Usually this included a spicy red
beet sauce. For dessert we were served bowls of Geelee
(colored, flavored gel made from red or green 4"x
6" square sheets dissolved in a specified amount
of hot water then allowed to chill and set up) or Schneeballen
which was a dessert in which egg yolks and milk were
prepared into a cooked vanilla pudding, then the reserved
egg whites were beaten until stiff then scooped onto
the pudding. I'm telling you, no matter how full one
was there was always room for a Schneeballa. And yet
the feasting was not finished. After celebrating, exchanging
memories and a few glasses of wine, everyone felt good.
Around 9 PM my mother went into the kitchen to set out
the cold platters. These women had their hands full!
Today, it is hard to imagine how they managed without
gas ovens, microwaves or even electricity. In Teplitz,
our village mothers cooked on mud brick stoves. Heat
was controlled by adding or removing cast iron rings.
To keep prepared dishes hot was another challenge -
to accomplish that my mother used the mud brick house
furnace that had an oven space to keep things warm.
The cold platters offered a variety of items. Sometimes
purchased items were served such as olives and pickled
herring. More typical were the homemade Suelze (in Russian
Kaladjez) which is head-cheese, along with sausages
and pickled vegetables. As was common among the families,
my parents developed their own specialty: smoked goose
thighs and breast. Was that ever tasty!
To close out the evening, Mom served tea and baked goodies,
along with Judanuesla (peanuts). Why were these called
Judanuesla? I have two stories about that: One story
says that the village folks first came to know about
peanuts when they purchased them from a Jewish merchant.
The other story says, "Jews only eat the best!"
and so this shows the high regard in which peanuts were
Tea preparation in Russia was a fine art. In Russian
high society, water for tea was heated in a Samovar
or a water-heating apparatus. At home we had a Tschainik,
which was a triangle-shaped teapot. It was topped by
a small Tschainik or triangle to hold the tea leaves
as the water percolated. The most important step was
to gradually heat the water in the lower Tschainik or
pot. After the tea was percolated to the correct strength,
it was poured into the tea-cups. My grandparents had
special glasses they used to serve tea.
My Oma Zacher was an artistic person. For holiday meals,
each dish was beautifully served. In addition, the table
was always set using hand-embroidered napkins and tablecloth.
When my grandmother Zacher made Geelee she would shape
it into cubes or stars and serve it in a fancy glass
bowl. It was so pretty that one hated to cut into it.
Cookie baking was done according to recipes brought
from the Old Country (Germany). During hard times when
money was short, the expensive ingredients were shorted
in the cookies. I especially remember the tasty Hutzelbrot
(fruitcake) that my mother made. We always had lots
of dried fruits and we mixed this with our own walnuts.
These Hutzelbrot were always baked well in advance so
that they could soften up prior to the holiday time.
Now, we children also liked candies. Purchased candies
were rare and only a few were purchased to be saved
and used for special guests. But we children were not
left without candies because our mothers know how to
make home-made candies. One candy my mother made was
of milk, chocolate powder and walnuts. After boiling
the mixture to the correct consistency, mother rolled
the mass to a 1/2-inch thickness. When the candy was
cooled sufficiently, she cut the candy into squares
about 3/4-inch by 1 1/2-inch size. For every-day, such
candy was then ready to serve. But on Christmas, these
candies were wrapped in blue or red paper napkins cut
into squares. After wrapping a piece of candy, Mother
would twist the ends of the paper and then snip the
ends of the paper into a fringe to give a festive look.
While we had few luxuries, we were rich just the same.
The memories of these homemade events are so special
to us. I would not exchange my memories for the more
commercial things of today. These memories of my childhood
are precious to me. While I cannot bring back those
times, I can think of them often and I take pleasure
in sharing them with you.
Alfred Opp is the author of "Pawns
on the World Stage" - the memoirs of his
childhood in Teplitz, Bessarabia and the experiences
of his family in war-torn Europe (Poland during 1941-1945
before they fled to East Germany in 1945, then the
reconstruction of West Germany 1945-1955).
Note: Many of these recipes can be found in "Bessarabische
Spezialitaeten:aus der Kolonisten am Schwarzen Meer,
1814 - 1940", 1999, 82 pages in color, compiled
by Gertrud Knopp-Rueb.
English translation of the cookbook title is "Bessarabian
Food Specialities: From the Settlement Period of the
German Colonies in the Black Sea Region, 1814 -1940".
This cookbook is available including a translation
of the recipes at this webpage: library.ndsu.edu/grhc/order/cookbook/knopp2.html
to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested
by contacting Michael