Mardipäev and soul time in Estonia

When I was a kid,  I asked my mother whether she dressed up in costumes and went trick-or-treating as a girl in Estonia. She told me – to my horror – that there was no such thing as Halloween when she was growing up.

Instead Estonian kids rubbed soot on their faces or put on a bedsheet and went knocking on a few neighbors’ doors on mardipäev (Martin’s day), though it was not widely celebrated like American Halloween.

Today, November 10, is mardipäev in Estonia.

Originally  celebrated on November 11, it honors St. Martin of Tours and is celebrated in many parts of Europe. In Estonia it was a relic from the time when Estonians were reluctant Catholics, forcibly Christianized in the 13th Century. Some time after the Protestant Reformation, however, the Estonians cleverly got back at the Roman Church by switching the date to November 10, Martin Luther’s birthday, and honoring Luther instead.

Mother didn’t get into the saints and Martin Luther business, and I didn’t care about it anyway. What I wanted to know was the burning question: did they get candy?

The horror: no candy

Of course they didn’t get candy. The poor deprived Estonian kids of the 1920s and 1930s might have gotten an apple or a few nuts from a homeowner, but certainly nothing like the Tootsie Rolls, candy corn, sticky homemade popcorn balls, candy apples, Snickers bars, lollipops, Hershey bars and other goodies that my brother and I hauled home in pillowcases after a hard evening ringing doorbells.

On trick-or-treat nights we usually brought along decorated school milk cartons to collect coins for UNICEF, and turned those in to our grade school teachers the next day. Our costumes were improvised, simple and homemade. Boys often wore  cowboy hats and carried their toy six-shooters. Girls frequently dressed as nurses or princesses. Some moms (almost nobody’s mother worked outside the home in the early 1960s) sewed or helped make their kids’ outfits.

I felt great pity for my mother and her school friends, deprived of the opportunity to devour vast quantities of candy once a year. They also missed out on the joys of Goosey Night, October 30, which is when kids in our part of North Jersey put on dark clothing and ran around ringing people’s doorbells to annoy them, or writing on car windows with soap. I presume this was intended as a warning for homeowners to stock up on candy or risk additional tricks the following night.

What on earth did they do for fun back in my mother’s childhood? I couldn’t begin to imagine.

Souls’ time – the time of the ancestors

According to various students of Estonian folklore, Martin’s day was part of a longer interval known as hingedeaeg, soul’s time, when the spirits of our ancestors and departed loved ones are near us. Some say this period began with mihklipäev, St. Michael’s Day, September 29,and concluded with kadripäev, St. Catherine’s day, November 25, or even on Christmas Eve.  Others believe the time of souls started at hingedepäev, All Souls’ Day, November 2, and ended on mardipäev, November 10.  (Let me note here that Estonians don’t capitalize the first letters of many words that we would capitalize in English. They also don’t use the word saint in mentioning a saint or saint’s day. Instead, it’s mihkel’s day, kadri’s day, martin’s day and so on.)

Soul time  is that bleak part of year when the growing season’s done,  the leaves have fallen, the nights have grown long and dark and winter is on the doorstep. Contemporary wiccans and pagans in America call this the time when the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead grows thin, and the beloved dead walk among us.

In many cultures around the world, this is a special time to remember the departed. In Mexico, November 2 is known as Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, when families create altars and deck them with colorful flowers, candles and skull shapes made from sugar.  They picnic in cemeteries, bringing the favorite foods of those they honor and love.

In Estonia, the departed are remembered throughout souls’ time rather than concentrated in a single day, according to historian Lauri Vahtre’s “Maarahva Tähtraamat”, published in 1991.  This little pamphlet describes the important days of the calendar year as observed by the maarahvas — the people of the land. Once maarahvas was what Estonians called themselves, but now it seems to include an element of paganism. Tähtraamat literally means importance-book and is a sort of calendar/almanac. The first such calendar book written in the Estonian language was called “Eesti-Ma Rahwa Kalender”, published in Tallinn in 1720. The title means Estonia-Land Folk  Calendar. It was an almanac noting feast days, the length of day and night, moon phases,  eclipses, and best days for planting, harvesting and undertaking other farm work.  Here’s a link (in Estonian) to more information about tähtraamats from the Saaremaa Museum. http://www.saartehaal.ee/2013/02/25/tahtraamat-labi-kahe-sajandi/

Ancestor worship

Vahtre  explains that the traditions of mardipäev and souls’ time developed from ancient pagan traditions of ancestor worship. All Souls’ Day, she writes, originated in 998 C.E. at the Benedictine monastery in Cluny, France and was initially only celebrated by the Benedictines. But because the annual autumnal remembrance of ancestors was widely practiced in much of Europe, the Catholic church turned that tradition into a Christian holiday.

All Saints’ Day, the church holiday preceding All Souls’ Day, is virtually unknown in Estonia. But the Tallinn city archives  show that All Souls’ was observed as far back as the 14th and 15th centuries, when it was regarded as an observance strictly for city-dwellers. The country folk, who marked the longer period called souls’ time, held specific rituals either on souls’ day or Thursdays during souls’ time. Thursday was regarded as the holy day of the week by pagan Estonians, but whether this tradition stemmed from the Taara religious cult, analogous to Scandinavian Thor worship, I do not know. Thursday is, naturally, Thor’s Day.

Fire up the saun, the ancestors are coming

The most important way to honor the ancestors was to fire up the saun (the Estonian word for sauna) and set out special foods for them, either in the saun or the house, sometimes beneath a sacred tree. The head man and woman of the household named their forebears one at a time and invited them to the feast. In return, the ancestors were asked to protect the fields and herds. At the end of souls’ time, the ancestors were thanked and wished well on their journey back.

The foods most often served to the ancestors were barley porridge, boiled meat and broth, beans and peas,  writes Kristi Salve  in an article for the Estonian website Folklore.  Link: http://www.folklore.ee/rl/pubte/ee/sator/sator2/Moningaid.html

Beans and peas were also traditionally served at wakes and funerals.

Interestingly, the ancient Romans and Etruscans believed that beans contained the souls of the dead. The Romans used beans and peas to invoke the manes, benevolent spirits of the dead, during Parentalia, a festival honoring ancestors held February 13-21. One wonders whether there is some connection between this tradition and the Estonian custom of offering legumes to the ancestors at souls’ time.

Traditionally, joking, laughing, shouting, noise and noisy work like tree-cutting were banned during souls’ time, as was spinning, according to an article edited by Mariann Joonas in last week’s Telegram online newspaper.  Link: http://www.telegram.ee/vaimsus/hingedepaevast-ja-hingedeajast

In the Middle Ages, children went from house to house, singing and begging for soul-cakes. A prayer was said for the benefit of the ancestors in exchange for each small cake. This soul-cake custom still exists in the British isles and other places, Joonas writes. In the 19th and 20th centuries, children in the Mulgi region of Estonia dressed in white  and went from door to door, though not specifically begging. Nevertheless, they were given cakes, nuts, beans and peas in memory of departed ancestors.

Hing, the Estonian word for soul, also means breath. The ancestors of the Estonian and Finnish people believed that souls existed not just in humans, but in animals and in all the rest of creation.  They believed that the soul, or a portion of it, could leave the body during sleep, sickness or unconsciousness, visibly or invisibly, sometimes as a soul-creature such as a bee or butterfly. At the time of death, the hing might enter a new person, animal or bird, go somewhere else, or remain close to its former home, according to Joonas’s article.

And so I conclude by wishing blessings to you and your ancestors at this souls’ time.

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It’s Estonian Women’s Day – have some red beer!

Today, February 2, is popularly known as Groundhog’s Day in the U.S., but unfortunately, the fun is generally over after the drowsy rodent has seen/not seen its shadow and predicted more winter/early spring.

However in Estonia, Küünlapäev, literally candleday (Candlemas) is an all-day festival for women, who head out to pubs and quaff red-dyed beer or vodka, while the men stay behind to mind the children and do the housework.

What a great idea! I always knew Estonians were geniuses, especially Estonian women. Moreover, this holiday is not just some brainchild of modern-day Estos – it’s been a tradition for perhaps centuries.

February 2 is also known by the name naistepüha or women’s holiday. Women put on their best clothes and necklaces, and went visiting or dancing at local cafes and pubs.  The special beverage of the day is called naistepuna, which literally means “women’s red”. This is beer or another alcoholic beverage colored red.

St. John’s Wort flowers

The word Naistepuna also happens to be the Estonian folk name of a plant called St. John’s Wort, hypericum perforatum in Latin. Traditionally women gathered the plant’s bright yellow flowers during the summer solstice and dried them to make red dye for the Candlemas beer.

Many of you may have heard that St. John’s Wort is considered an herbal treatment for depression, especially by people in northern Europe.  It makes me wonder if the dried flowers were put in the beer on purpose to relieve the gloom of a long northern winter and cheer the women up.  Estonian women still drink red beer on this day, but I believe it’s usually done with food coloring.

The Open-Air Museum outside Tallinn, Estonia, featured a program today in which visitors got to make candles from sheep fat, taste traditional foods and sip St. John’s Wort tea, which supposedly made people’s cheeks rosy. Pink cheeks were considered sign of good health.

In Toronto, Canada, home to a large population of Estonian immigrants and their descendants, members of Estonian women’s academic organizations will probably celebrate their 53rd annual Candlemas event this weekend.

Traditional beliefs of February 2

Traditionally, this day signifies that winter is half over, and that half the food stored for winter should still be in the larder and the barn.  Like Groundhog’s Day, Candlemas was a day for forecasting weather. A rainy day was supposed to predict a rainy summer, while a sunny one meant a dry summer.

All of the women’s winter spinning had to be finished before this day, since it was forbidden for women to spin on Candlemas, lest the sheep get sickly weak and attract wolves.  Sewing was allowed in southern Estonia, where each stitch represented a poke in a wolf’s eye. Almost all other housework was prohibited, maids got the day off, and wages were paid. People ate flitch (unsliced bacon) and barley porridge.

It was believed in Estonia that candles burned brightly on this day.  Candlemas was a Christian holiday when the church candles were blessed for the coming year. In pre-Christian times, candles and fires were used in rituals and magic to honor goddesses and gods of fertility.

The Exalted One

In Ireland, February 1st is the feast day of St. Brigid, who began as a pagan goddess, Brid or Brighid. St. Brigid remains the most celebrated and revered figure in Ireland next to St. Patrick. Sometimes this day is also called Midwinter Day, because it falls midway between the winter solstice and spring equinox.

Fire and purification are an important aspect of the ancient pagan festival of Brid (pronounced breed). In the Celtic world, she is also called Brighid or Brigit in Ireland, Brigantia in Northern England, Bride in Scotland, and Brigandu in Brittany. It is believed the name comes from a root Sanskrit word Brahti meaning “The Powerful One” or “The Exalted One”.

Brid was the Gaelic goddess of poetry, healing and smithcraft. Both goddess and saint are associated with holy wells, sacred flames, and healing. The lighting of candles and fires represents the return of warmth and the increasing power of the Sun over the coming months. On her day, the home was cleaned, old ashes removed from the fireplace, and new fire kindled.

Brid originally was a sun and fire goddess, and this is reflected in her legends: she was born at sunrise on threshold of the house as her mother was on her way out to milk the cow, and immediately a tower of flame emerged from her forehead that stretched from earth to heaven, fulfilling a druid’s prophecy that she would be neither born inside or out, or during the day or night. She was patroness of healing wells and springs, because the fire of the sun was believed to give the water healing properties at certain times of year.

In Pagan belief, the divine aspect of the feminine is associated with water, abundance and fertility. There are wells dedicated to Brigid throughout the United Kingdom, with Brigid’s well in Kildare being the most revered. People cast offerings such as coins, rings or bits of metal into wells. In a 19th century survey it was found that Ireland was home to nearly three thousand holy wells. Of these, at least fifteen are dedicated to St. Brigid.

Wives’ Feast Day

In Northern England and Scotland this day is known as Wives’ Feast Day, which sounds a lot like the Estonian women’s festival. Other members of the household cook dinner for the lady of the house, and she is given small gifts and honored as keeper of the hearth and home. It looks like they’ve got the right idea, but do they drink red beer?

In ancient Rome, Midwinter Day belonged to Juno Februata, virgin mother of the god Mars. The word Februare in Latin means “to purify”. Fires were lit for purification, and candles were blessed and burned in her honor. Women carried candles in street processions in memory of Demeter’s search for her daughter Persephone, as told in the Greek myth. Determined to stop goddess worship, Pope Sergius I in the year 453 ordered February 2 to be celebrated as the feast of the purification of the Virgin Mary, forty days after she had given birth.

No matter which name it goes by, February 1 and 2 are celebrations of fertility, the divine feminine, and the awakening of the earth that eventually leads to spring. And, let’s not forget, it’s a day when women can and should celebrate themselves.

A Vegetarian Estonian

Trying to cook traditional Estonian dishes is a challenge if you’re a vegetarian.

Since we gave up eating meat a few years ago, I’ve come to realize that Estonian holiday meals are a problem. A traditional Estonian Christmas Eve dinner, for example, features roast pork, sauerkraut, potatoes and blood sausage, accompanied by lingonberrry jam. Take away the meat, and there’s not much left. Moreover, the sauerkraut is cooked with lots of fatty pork for that special flavor. None of us will eat blood sausage, fortunately, but I’ve been trying to develop a menu that includes some of the dishes and accommodates the three vegetarians.

Our older daughter has been a vegetarian for 16 years. Her younger sister still eats meat. I often make Indian, Chinese and Italian-style dishes that are okay with everybody. But dealing with holiday meals is a challenge.

Two years ago I found a recipe for meatless mushroom strudel that makes a nice main dish for Christmas Even though it’s not Estonian, it goes with the (meatless) sauerkraut and potatoes.  I still make a small amount of roast pork for the younger daughter and any guests who are not of the vegetarian persuasion.

Thanksgiving is a whole other story. I’m not even sure my immigrant family celebrated it until I was around 12, when my mother decided to give it a try. It was not a big deal to us.

I’ve never cooked anything Estonian on Thanksgiving – only American dishes. Some Estonian-American friends make a pot of sauerkraut to serve alongside the turkey and other fixings, but I feel there’s enough to do without adding another item to the menu. As for the vegetarian aspect, we’ve experimented with the tofu turkeys and the Quorn turkeys, and frankly I can’t stand them.

So I’ve been cruising the internet searching for something that would make a festive but meatless main dish, without being extremely complicated. Stuffed acorn squash seems to be the answer.

The vegetarian Reuben

During my quest I made a fabulous discovery — Vegetarian Reuben sandwiches. It’s been ages since I had a decent Reuben, the kind you get in New York City and parts of New Jersey. Marylanders for the most part are clueless about them. Needless to say, my Estonian immigrant parents never heard of things like Reubens, pastrami or corned beef, and as a result I was unacquainted with them until I was in my 20s. I never knew what a bagel was either, until I got to college.

The best Reubens I knew were from the late, lamented Hockey’s Deli on Albany Street in New Brunswick, NJ, back before that block was urbanly renewed into a big chain hotel a few decades ago. Believe me, this was not an improvement. Many wonderful little ethnic eateries and bookstores in New Brunswick vanished as the result of redevelopment. The town used to teem with Hungarian restaurants, but I think they’re all gone. In the 70s or 80s there was an influx of refugees from Lebanon who contributed their Middle Eastern dishes to the local dining scene. Gone. Now there are expensive places with bland corporate menus, and one holdout, Doll’s, which was relocated to make room for another of New Brunswick’s multitude of parking garages. My daughter still drops in at Doll’s when she’s in town.

Here is the Vegetarian Reuben, adapted to reduce some of the calories:

Rye bread
Reduced fat Swiss cheese
Sauerkraut (preferable the kind that comes refrigerated in plastic bags)
Butter (I use a spread made with butter and olive oil – easier to spread and less cholesterol)
Homemade Russian dressing

Drain the sauerkraut well and warm it a bit in the microwave.
Butter one side of a slice of rye and put it butter side down in a frying pan. Top with cheese, some sauerkraut, more cheese, and another slice of bread. Butter the top slice and start cooking over medium heat. Push it down with a spatula and flip over to brown the other side. Serve hot with Russian dressing on the side for dipping.

Russian Dressing (this is an amalgam of several recipes)

Mix together
1/2 cup light mayonnaise
2 tablespoons ketchup
2 tablespoons sweet pickle relish
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
A few dashes of paprika
A few dashes of celery seed or celery salt

I made this last week. My daughters swooned.

But getting back to the issue of finding vegetarian Estonian recipes, I learned that during the Soviet occupation, meat was extremely difficult to find. When Estonia regained its freedom in 1991, my aunt and cousin told me they hadn’t eaten it in a very long time. So what did they cook in its place? Surely there must be a variety of meatless dishes that Estonians relied on during those long years.

Estonian peasant food

In the 19th century, meat was a rare delicacy for the typical Estonian peasant, according to Silvia Kalvik, who published a cookbook called (translated) Estonian Cuisine in 1981. In the 1800s, she writes, the main meal of the peasants consisted of porridge or soup, usually barley soup. It was served with bread and, if available, salted herring. Other typical soups were based on beans, peas, lentils, cabbage and fish. During the summers, milk soup was frequently served.

While the Estonian pea soup my mother made always included a ham bone, it seems to me that one could find fairly balanced vegetarian dishes among these older traditional foods. Sour milk, milk curds and roasted meal made from a combination of grains and pulses (beans, peas, lentils) were other protein sources in the peasant diet.

Hemp seed recipes

Estonians also used to eat hemp seeds, though not in the 20th century. My mother’s very old Estonian cookbook includes a recipe for pirukad (pierogies) filled with mashed hemp seed, which they called kanep (derived from the word cannabis). Mashed hemp seed, which probably resembled peanut butter, was also spread on bread and baked in pies. I doubt that their hemp, which was grown primarily in eastern and southern Estonia, contained enough THC to get anyone high. There were other foods prepared with hemp seed.

“Hemp seed milk was a milk substitute poured on soups or served with porridges when the cows were not in milk, ” Kalvik writes.

Obviously I’m not going to start making Estonian hemp seed dishes, because the stuff remains illegal in most states. If the laws change and people begin growing low-THC hemp to make rope and fabric, it would be interesting to try out some of those hemp seed-based peasant foods and find out what they were like.

Tomato sandwiches

Sept. 1, 2012 – This is the time of year when we’re usually deluged with ripening tomatoes from the garden. To my mind, there are few things better to make with this crimson bounty than tomato sandwiches. And thinking about tomato sandwiches reminds me of days at the Estonian Children’s Summer Camp in Long Island, where I first learned to make and eat them back in the early 1960s.

I have to give credit to the women who toiled in the camp kitchen, turning out three meals a day on a limited budget augmented by U.S. Department of Agriculture surplus foods such as powdered eggs and oatmeal. They tried to do their best with what they had to work with, in a sweltering kitchen in the middle of July. Usually the food was plain but good. But once in a while they would produce a dish like the dreaded baked eggs and macaroni casserole, made with flavorless USDA surplus powdered eggs, the top crust hard as rocks. This was a dish that could only be choked down with vast amounts of salt and catsup, if at all. I couldn’t bring myself to eat it even with catsup, although some of the other kids seemed to accept it. My brother usually made a mess of half catsup, half egg casserole, and devoured it without a problem.

Having been raised by parents who often went without food in a post-war refugee camp in Germany, I was lectured endlessly at home about not wasting food, cleaning your plate, and so on. My conscience didn’t dare accept a serving of the eggs-and-mac, only to leave it uneaten. On the other hand, I did want something for supper.

Alternatives to the dreaded eggs-and-macaroni casserole

At lunch and dinner, the long tables at camp were usually set with plates of sliced tomatoes and/or cucumbers, as well as small baskets of bread slices. Salt, catsup, mustard and butter were available, and sometimes jars of peanut butter and jelly as well. Sometimes, as an alternative to the main supper dish, they also set out cheese, bologna and salami slices, so there were alternatives if we didn’t like the regular meal. But on those lean days when eggs-and-mac appeared without cold cuts or peanut butter, we carefully buttered our bread and topped it with three or four tomato slices and dined on those.

I was an impatient kid and slapped on the butter any which way. My friend Rita, however, meticulously spread her butter evenly over every bit of the bread. I was usually finished by the time Rita was ready to take her perfect first bite. (This probably explains why Rita had a stellar career as a government banking official in Estonia when it regained its freedom, and why I’ve struggled to find work as a freelance writer since my journalism career came to a close 15 years ago.)

And once in a long while, when there weren’t tomatoes or cucumbers on the table, we made catsup sandwiches instead.

I love Bosco

In the morning, the kitchen ladies often served hot cooked oatmeal or farina. Some unsung genius among the campers developed the trick of stirring lots and lots of Bosco chocolate syrup into the farina to make it palatable. This bit of camp wisdom was passed down from camper to younger camper over the years. Bosco didn’t mix as nicely with the oatmeal, which we usually drowned in milk and sugar. Many of us who were kids in the early 1960s fondly remember Bosco and its rival product, Cocoa Marsh, which made drinking milk so much more enjoyable. I wonder when they disappeared from the stores.

Some little monster, at camp or elsewhere, came up with a parody of the Bosco TV jingle, “I Love Bosco”. It went:

I hate Bosco, Bosco’s bad for me.
Mommy put it in my milk to try and poison me.
I fooled Mommy. I put in in her tea.
No more Mommy, to try and poison me.

Every day a couple of campers were chosen for KP, which meant setting the tables for all three meals, clearing them afterward, washing down the tables, scraping leftovers into a slop bucket, and lugging that smelly bucket out to the woods to the solgi auk (slop hole) for disposal. This was a pit dug in the sandy soil, and covered over at the end of the camp season. One of the neat things about going to the solgi auk was the chance to spot frogs and other wildlife attracted to the food scraps. One of the not-so-nice things, at least to us girls, was the chance of encountering a snake attracted to the wildlife.

One year at camp, some of us felt duty-bound to made life harder for the kids whose turn it was at KP, particularly if we didn’t happen to like one or more of them. We made mini-slops. Someone would leave something on their plate and pass it to the next kid, who would add something else, and so on. The idea was to be as creative as possible. A really good slop would have a liberal assortment of potato pieces, Bosco syrup, cucumber slices, catsup, bread, milk, mustard, jelly and whatever else happened to be served at that meal. It was left at the table as a special “treat” for the hapless kids on KP to deal with.

Trust me, being on the receiving like of a slop was not fun, but there are worse things in the world.

And one of the best things in the world is spreading “real” mayonnaise, the light version, on a slice of good bread, and topping it with dripping fresh sliced tomatoes from your own back yard. A little salt, a little pepper. One bite, and you’re in Tomato Paradise. I can hardly wait for next summer’s tomato season already.

NOTE: This was supposed to be posted on Sept. 1, not in late October.

The Empire of the Brassicaceae strikes back

I was cutting up a couple of broccoli crowns this evening, and my dog Penny was lurking at my feet, expecting to be tossed several green florets, as is her due. She and her canine partner-in-crime Bailey are veggie-loving dogs. They’ll happily devour not just broccoli, but also baby carrots, zucchini slices, pieces of cauliflower, raw and cooked green beans, peas, sweet potato fries, cucumber chunks, and more.

But my mind was on half a dozen different things, and the knife slipped, and cut my thumb. That should remind me to practice mindfulness next time I slay a broccoli, but I’ll forget. Anyway, it was probably karmic payback for all the destruction I wrought earlier in the day on the broccoli’s distant relatives, the hairy bittercress infesting the yard.

Bittercress, also known as cardamine, is a member of the vast empire of the cabbage family, which includes broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, mustard, radishes, turnips, watercress , beets, chard and many more. I like many of them, but the hairy bittercress is something else altogether.

Know thine enemy

Most people don’t notice bittercress, unless they happen to be gardeners or lawn fanatics. It’s a small, unobtrusive-looking plant, with a central stem (or two, or four, or a dozen) rising from a rosette of basal leaves that are usually a dull green, sometimes dark purple. These stems are topped by tiny white four-petaled flowers smaller than peppercorns, and they are the first things to bloom in late winter, long before the snowdrops and crocuses have risen from the thawing earth. These tiny flowers quickly go to seed, forming brown pods less than a centimeter long. And when something touches them, they explode and scatter seeds all over the place. Try to weed them out, and they spit seeds defiantly the moment you touch them.

No matter how many of the dratted things I yank out, more appear, seemingly out of nowhere. I swear they send out secret signals alerting every other bittercress within a given distance to send up more stems and start flowering like mad. As though there were some sort of sinister sentience among them, with but a single goal: to take over the garden, then the lawn, the neighborhood and ultimately the entire world, mwa-ha-ha-ha!

Edible?

I didn’t know until I looked cardamine up in Wikipedia today that some even consider the wretched weed edible. No, thank you! My Euell Gibbons days of stalking edible wild plants are over.

I can still point out various things in the back yard and tell someone whether they can be eaten, and some day when civilization as we know it collapses, this knowledge may come in handy. But my ventures into weed cuisine have generally not been worth the effort.

Except perhaps  for that time in the 1970s when I proved to my co-workers that I could make lunch from the weeds in the parking lot. That was back when I worked at the Somerset Messenger-Gazette, a large weekly paper serving Somerset County, N.J., now defunct like most of the newspapers for which I’ve worked. (And it wasn’t my fault they died, honest.) But I digress, as usual.

Parking lot lunch

Armed with a skillet, knife, an egg, cooking oil, bread crumbs and a few other items, I went to work on the stems of some plant that grew in the lot. Cardoon, I think. I battered and fried them, and I have to admit they tasted slightly of motor oil from the cars. None of the folks in the editorial department dared to sample them, but the looks on their faces were priceless. They kept eyeing me all afternoon to see if I would suddenly collapse, frothing at the mouth, but they were sorely disappointed.

Doll’s

I’d far rather cook and eat pasta broccoli the way they used to make it at Doll’s Restaurant in New Brunswick, NJ, seasoned with fennel seeds, garlic and red pepper flakes. This is my comfort food, and I made it tonight for my 60th birthday dinner. We’ll go out for the vegetarian buffet at our favorite Indian place this weekend, but tonight I wanted pasta broccoli.

Broccoli is kind of a funny thing with me. I don’t believe I tasted fresh broccoli, cooked or raw, until my late teens, and it was love at first taste. My mother started using the dismal frozen stuff at some point, but like other Estonians, she was unfamiliar with broccoli when I was a kid. It didn’t grow there — too cold or something. There wasn’t even a word for it in Estonian, unlike cauliflower, which they call lillekapsas – flower cabbage.

Regular cabbage, one of the staple foods of Estonia, is called kapsas, a word derived from the Russian kapusta, which ultimately comes from the Latin word for head, caput.

Ah, sauerkraut

Estonians raise and cook cabbage in many ways, but their favorite dish is sauerkraut. They call it hapukapsas. It’s sometimes prepared with barley, and is sweeter than the stuff Americans pile on their hot dogs, because we rinse the pickled cabbage thoroughly before cooking. My mom made great sauerkraut, but I’m afraid I didn’t appreciate it when I was young; I refused to eat it.

Today I rarely prepare sauerkraut, and when I do, it never comes out like hers. My brother’s version is wonderful. If I get up to New Jersey during the summer when there’s some big bash going on at the Lakewood Estonian House, I always get a bowl of the wonderful hot sauerkraut soup they sell in the kitchen. It’s unbeatable, even on a simmering August night when it’s 90 degrees outside..

Now that Estonia is independent, they have access to many more foods and cuisines than they did in the Soviet era. And I see that they have finally gotten into broccoli and given it an Estonian name: brokoli. Nice and simple. I found the word in a recipe book brought home from my last visit there.

Do they know it’s brokoli?

I wonder what, if anything, Estonians call broccoli rabe, also known as rapini, the vegetable that heralds spring in the supermarkets? Do they even know what it is? It’s actually more closely related to turnips than to broccoli.

I was introduced to this deliciously bitter green by my first mother-in-law, who was Italian. She rinsed it off, cut out the toughest stems, and steamed it slowly in a covered pan with only the water that clung to the leaves. The stuff was amazing; after eating it you could feel the vitamins coursing through the veins. Green Geritol, if you will.

And I’ll definitely need that green energy to tackle the rapidly advancing hordes of hairy bittercress that are silently marching across the lawn, even as we sleep,  preparing to conquer us all.

Immigrants on the loose

So here we were in Wayne, NJ, the immigrant kids (as we thought of ourselves even though we were born in the U.S.) dumped among the white-bread White Anglo-Saxon-Protestant, German, Irish and Italian kids whose families had arrived a couple of generations earlier.  And the Dutch kids whose ancestors colonized north Jersey, and whose language was spoken here widely before the English took it over.

When we were children, there were no Asians, no blacks, virtually no Jews and pretty much nobody else too unusual in our community.  We were less than 20 miles from New York City, and Wayne was as white as Wonder Bread.  And equally lacking in flavor.

My mom, like any good Estonian mother, forbade us to eat Wonder Bread or anything like it.  She called it soft white mush. Our sandwiches, when we toted them to school, were made on heavy dark rye or pumpernickel, breads with substance. And they were made with butter.

None of this foreign stuff like mayonnaise was acceptable to my mom; Estonians used butter.

And not salted butter either. Salting butter, she claimed, was done solely to conceal the fact that it was spoiled.  Even now, just a few months shy of turning 60, I regard salted butter as an exotic delicacy.

Our determined mom even spread butter under the peanut butter.

Pumpernickel – butter – Skippy -strawberry  jam – pumpernickel. That was the recipe for one of our lunch sandwiches, and it definitely did not look like the sandwiches of our classmates. Another day’s sandwich might be rye – butter – salami – rye.  Or pumpernickel – butter – ham – pumpernickel.  Rye-butter-tuna salad-rye.

And then came sixth grade, and the school cafeteria. Hot lunch, cold lunch, submarine  sandwiches: American cuisine as interpreted by the lunch ladies.  Among my discoveries was pizza. At school it was presented as a flat disc about six inches in diameter, topped with a bland tomato sauce and bland melted cheese. How amazing! How different from our Estonian diet of meat and potatoes and sauerkraut. I raved about pizza at home.

One day at the supermarket, I spotted small  pizzas in the frozen food section, and urged my mother to buy some. To my surprise and delight, she did.

However, she did not put them in the oven to bake. Mama added a special twist of her own: she fried them in butter. She even flipped them over and fried the side with the sauce and cheese, which made quite a mess. But we all loved them. The fried pizzas were juicier and tastier than the ones at the cafeteria, and we devoured them in happy ignorance.

So the very first time I begged a quarter from my father and went with a friend to Tony’s Pizza in Pompton Lakes, I experienced Pizza Nirvana.

That huge hot pizza slice , speckled with unfamiliar oregano and dripping with melted mozzarella, was the most delicious thing I’d ever eaten. After conducting more research, I went and informed my mother that Americans-do-not-fry-pizzas-in-butter-they-bake-them-in-ovens.  I must have been about 12.

Mama, ever the cosmopolite, decided to branch out into the mysteries of pasta, only we didn’t call it pasta back then; it was either spaghetti or macaroni. She clipped a recipe out of Family Circle and proceeded to make tomato sauce and meatballs, with boiled spaghetti.

When it came to the table, the dish looked peculiar, to say the least. It was pink. My brother and I knew that regardless of how the lunch ladies might decide to  interpret spaghetti sauce in the cafeteria, it was always red.  We didn’t discover pasta Alfredo and pasta Aglio e Olio and pesto sauce until considerably later in life.

Not only was the sauce pink, but the spaghetti underneath it was littered with bits of potato.

Mom explained that the sauce, as made from the recipe, looked thin to her, so she added some heft in the form of sour cream. My brother and I groaned.

And the potato pieces? Evidently our father insisted on potatoes at dinner, and refused to eat this peculiar foreign spaghetti stuff.  Not wanting to wash two pots, she simply boiled the spaghetti with the potatoes. At least the meatballs seemed normal to our uneducated palates. I don’t believe  my mother ever purchased garlic in her life.

We didn’t have the money to go to restaurants, so our experiences with cooking other than our mother’s was limited to  meals at the homes of family friends who were Estonian, snacks at the homes of our American playmates, and the culinary delights of the cafeteria at  Schuyler-Colfax Junior High School.

Despite these minor mishaps, our mother was a wonderful cook. Like her own mother, she could make  tasty gravy out of almost anything. She brewed marvelous fragrant coffee. She made sweet-tart lingonberry jam from imported lingonberries, which are like tiny cranberries that grow in northern Europe.

She made pickled pumpkin, a lovely traditional sweet-and-sour addition to Estonian smorgasbord tables.  Her pink beet-and-potato salad (called rosolje  in Estonian), mushroom salad, herring salad and regular potato salad were better than anyone else’s.

Her cakes were out of this world. She made heavy moist sponge cakes using a dozen carefully separated eggs. You tiptoed in and out of the kitchen while it baked, lest it fall.

When the sponge cake was done and properly cooled, she would slice it into two layers, and fill the middle with crushed strawberries steeped in a little red currant wine and sugar. The top layer went back on, and she covered it with her mocha frosting, made with butter and sugar,  coffee and a little cocoa powder, and I can’t recall what else.  This cake was sublime.

She grew gooseberries and made gooseberry tart, which I imagine few Americans have tasted.  She made delicious Estonian-style sauerkraut, which is only slightly sour and definitely sweet,  laced with caraway seeds or cooked barley. I can’t really describe it, nor can I make it. My brother can.

Years after she passed away, many old family friends remembered my mother as an excellent cook.

But there was one thing she made that I avoided like the plague. Sült. Americans call it head cheese, but it’s more like an unsweetened Jello mold made with pigs feet that have been boiled to bits and the bones taken out. Real Estonians love the stuff, devouring it with vinegar or mustard. I used to get nightmares just looking at it.

Because we stuck to Estonian food at home, I never tasted a bagel with cream cheese and lox until college, when Jewish friends dragged me to a diner. Heavenly!

Another college friend introduced me to the joys of falafel in Greenwich Village. On another trip to the city, he tried to refrain from snickering when I innocently ordered the hot version of a dish at a Pakistani restaurant, choking some of it down with glass after glass of water, tears running down my face, before giving up. I never dared to tryPakistani food again, though I adore Indian cuisine and enjoyed dining at a Nepalese restaurant last summer.

Chinese food was also a novel experience after the bland chow mein at school. On one dreadful  occasion, the cafeteria crew at our high school ran short of canned chow mein, and stretched it out with canned spinach and oatmeal, of all things.  It was ghastly.

Not all the food at school was bad. Our high school cafeteria served a wonderful macaroni and cheese dish with stewed tomatoes. I liked it so much that when I came home from college early for Thanksgiving break, I sneaked into the high school cafeteria and bought a plate of it.   In later years, I tried to re-create it from memory, and achieved a reasonable facsimile:

Wayne Hills High School Macaroni and Cheese

16 oz. dry elbow macaroni

4 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons white flour

1½ cups milk or skim milk

Paprika and celery seed or celery salt to taste

1 teaspoon salt

1 cup grated cheddar cheese

½ cup breadcrumbs, plain or Italian seasoned.

Olive oil cooking spray

Cook a package of elbow macaroni according to directions. – do not overcook. Meanwhile spray a casserole dish with olive oil cooking spray. Add the macaroni when it is cooked and drained.

While the macaroni cooks, slowly melt 4 tablespoons butter in a saucepan and remove from heat. Stir in 2 tablespoons of white flour until thoroughly blended. Then gradually stir in 1½ cups of milk, stirring with a whisk until the mixture is blended and free of lumps. Add salt and a dash or two of paprika and celery salt or celery seed.  Cook on medium heat, stirring frequently, until the milk mixture thickens.  Remove from heat and pour over the cooked macaroni.

Stir in 1 cup or more of grated cheddar – depending on how cheesy you like it.

Sprinkle breadcrumbs on top and spray lightly with the cooking spray.

Bake 35-40 minutes at 350°.

Top each serving with stewed tomatoes. Serves 6.

(To reduce cholesterol, substitute olive oil for melted butter, and use low-fat cheese and skim milk.)

Stewed tomatoes

2 15-ounce cans stewed tomatoes

2 heaping tablespoons cornstarch

1 15-ounce can water

½ can water

Pour the tomatoes and liquid in a pot and add a can of water. If you want, cut the tomato slices into quarters. Heat slowly.

Meanwhile, stir 1 heaping tablespoon cornstarch in about 1/2 can of water until dissolved. When the tomatoes begin to simmer, add the water-cornstarch mixture and cook until the liquid is thickened.

Serves 6.

Enjoy!