Friday, December 17, 2010

Without blood sausage….

As headlines go, “Without blood sausage, it just wouldn’t be Christmas” is right up there. (Source: NY Times.)

Who knew?

Perhaps because my family doesn’t have a  Christmas Eve food tradition, I wasn’t aware that for some folks (namely, the Estonians) blood sausage is the sine qua non for a festive Christmas Eve.

Food Festivus for the Restivus, for the most part, does not involve the blood sausage in any way, shape or form.

It is not that my family lacks for Christmas Eve traditions.

For one thing, we’ve always opened our presents on Christmas Eve.

When I was a kid this custom was just one more reason why we were weird. Not that it wasn’t fun to open presents when it was dark out, but I always envied those TV and other normal kids who got to scoot downstairs in their PJ’s, at dawn, to see what Santa had left them. Not that there were any stairs to scoot down.  We lived in a flat in my grandmother’s decker until moving into a one story house. Our scooting would, thus, have been horizontal rather than vertical.

Now that I’m all grown up, I rather like having Christmas Eve as the main event.

And we do now, and have always, done plenty of eating (and, now that I think  of it, drinking) on Christmas Eve.

Early on, Christmas Eve was a no-meat day for Catholics. So the grown ups ate creamed salmon, and the kids ate tuna sandwiches. Once the meat fatwa was rescinded, my mother introduced a smorgasbord that included kidney bean and meatball casserole, baked ziti, baked ham, and this completely ghastly fruit salad (that I completely adored) that included grapes, pineapple, walnuts, tiny marshmallows, and I can’t remember what-all-else, in a terrifyingly sweet white sauce made of, I’m guessing, equal parts heavy cream and confectioners sugar.

I now do Christmas Eve at my house and, over the years, we’ve settled on lots of appetizers, followed by sandwiches. (Just as well for me, as I’m not much of a cook.) 

This year, we’ll be resurrecting some of our old traditionals. My sister Kath will be making kidney bean and meatball casserole, and Trish will be doing the ziti. These are both dishes that are within range of my cooking repertoire and core cooking competence, but better my sisters, who are both excellent cooks, do the honors.

There will be plenty of other “stuff” to eat and drink.  Not to mention our traditional song fest, which features “Good King Wenceslas,” “Christmas in Killarney,” and “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer.”  Not to mention the plastic Santa on a reindeer from my parents’ first Christmas.  Not to mention our more recent adoption of the Yankee Swap.  (I have an excellent swap gift to put into the mix this year. Just excellent.  I went Yankee Swap shopping with my niece Molly and she picked up a lulu, as well.  In fact, hers might well be in contention for nuttiest Yankee Swap ever, which, in our family, is going some.)

We (at least the female “we”) will, barring terrible weather, take a walk around the neighborhood, admiring the shop windows on Charles Street and the lights in the Common.

We will have a quite wonderful time, all in all, but there will be no blood sausage on the menu.

Not that I grew up sausage-free, mind you.

My mother was German.  Her father was a butcher. And every once in a while, Chicago sent Worcester some kind of heavy-duty sausage thing. I remember one arrival: something called a summer sausage, that smelled just terrible, and appeared to be encased in something resembling a tire tread. Summer sausage I wouldn’t touch with a barge pole, although I did like kielbasa as a kid. (These days, I wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole, either.) And it’s not like sausage (a.k.a., white pudding, black pudding, and blood pudding – not to be confused with Jello Pudding and Pie Filling) is food incognita to the Irish, either.

But, unlike the Estonians, we didn’t do blood sausage in our family.

…in traditional Estonian village life, verivorstid were made immediately after the slaughter each autumn, when the weather turned cold and the cost of keeping animals warm and fed became too high. Bacon, ham and smoked sausages were laid down for the winter, but blood is highly perishable and must be cooked right away. So the fresh blood sausage was boiled, frozen and saved as a treat for Christmas Eve.

And now, at Estonian House in NYC, the younger generations are learning to make the verivorstid that it just wouldn’t be Christmas Eve without.

In truth, I’d probably like Estonian blood sausage just fine.

It’s just that to our overly refined, too many generations removed from the farm, sensibilities, the name “blood sausage” makes it sound just ghastly.

If they said “Estonian sausage”, and mentioned that it was made with onions and barley, I’d be licking my chops. Especially if they omitted the operative word “blood”.

But blood sausage?

Yecch. (I have occasionally sucked on a paper cut, but that’s about as vampirish as I get.)

I’m apparently not alone.

…in American kitchens, blood is the final frontier of the nose-to-tail movement.

“It’s 7 percent of the animal down the drain,” said Brad Farmerie, who has taught blood sausage workshops to fellow chefs in New York. He learned the craft during his eight years in England, where the principle of using everything edible is firmly in place.

Here, even among those who cure sausages and cut up carcasses, he said, blood is still considered unappetizing and odd.

So, there’ll be no blood sausage on the menu this Christmas Eve. But, traditionalists that we are, we will be singing a rousing chorus of “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.”

Grandma got run over by a reindeer
Walking home from our house Christmas Eve.
You may say there’s no such thing as Santa.
But, as for me and Grandpa, we believe.

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