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Reflecting on tasty childhood New Year's traditions

Growing up in a mostly Polish Catholic household, New Year's was always a very special day for me.

We observed many traditions beloved by my mom and grandparents that seemed more like strange superstitions.

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When I was a child, New Year's Day brunch was served around 11 a.m. Fresh eggs, which we were told symbolized life, were a staple at the meal, as my family believed you had to eat eggs to have life for the next year.

We also had kielbasa, which is polish sausage. Pork and beef kielbasa are often flavored with garlic and various mild or strong herbs, and then smoked for a day or so prior to being sold. Once you have it home and are preparing it for a meal, you boil it to get the oils out and then bake or grill it so the casing gets nice and crunchy. Of course, there was always bread, which we were told was a symbol of having enough to eat throughout the winter months.

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And what good Polish brunch would be complete without a strong Bloody Mary, as well? My brother and I enjoyed virgin drinks while my parents and grandparents had the alcoholic versions.

Later in the day, dinner would be served. Dinner would start with my grandmother's Polish soup called zurek, which is a sour rye soup with sausages and potatoes floating in it. My grandfather said dunking your bread or rolls in this soup and slurping it let the cook know you were enjoying it. I am not sure if that is just something he made up or if that's true, as I have never found it anywhere in the customs of the Polish people, but it was always a fun and enjoyable part of the New Year's dinner.

The rest of the dinner consisted of a stuffed fish. The fish represents the sea, which is very important to the Polish culture.

Typically my grandmother would stuff a carp, trout or haddock with a mixture of bread crumbs, mushrooms, onions, celery, and either rosemary or sage. The mushrooms, onions, celery, rosemary and sage are all symbols of the earth, as they all grow from the land. Both sets of my great-grandparents had been farmers, so the earth and bountiful harvest were very critical to their very existence. Eating vegetables and herbs that came from the earth on New Year's was supposed to bring a fruitful harvest.

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Along with the stuffed fish, we would have Grandma's homemade pierogis. She would make potato and cheese ones for me and my brother and cabbage ones for my grandfather. Pierogis are pockets of dough traditionally filled with meat, cabbage, potato, cheese, or most any leftover in the refrigerator, though you will also occasionally find oddball fillings such as chocolate, strawberries, blueberries or even rhubarb. Pierogis are an inexpensive and easy food to make and they keep for a while, making them a very desirable addition to the New Year's feast.

There would be lots of fruit on the dinner table, too, including wild raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, huckleberries and even cranberries. These fruits symbolized a warm and fruitful spring.

Of course, my favorite part of any meal was and still is dessert. My grandmother would make a sernik, Polish cheesecake. Polish cheesecake is much different than the typical cheesecake we are used to here in America. Polish cheesecake is flatter, heavier and drier, and has a much stronger taste to it. Dessert on New Year's symbolized a sweet life.

Whatever your New Year's traditions, I wish you a very happy, healthy and fabulous 2016.

Terry Chaney is a Reisterstown resident and can be reached via email at

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