A rose in the wintertime

“… and I’ll bring you hope, when hope is hard to find.

And I’ll bring a song of love, and a rose in the wintertime.”

— from “Come Sing a Song with Me”, Unitarian Universalist hymn by Carolyn McDade, 1976

We sang this hymn at Sunday service today. It’s a favorite of mine, so fitting at this time of year, when the plants around us are dead, or dying, or curled up in winter sleep. Everything looks dead. The days are short, and frequently dark and cloudy. The sunlight that reaches us is thin and weak, like watery tea. It’s not enough to charge our internal solar-powered batteries — at least not mine. I don’t think I could stand winter in Estonia, where the sun comes up around 9 a.m. and vanishes by 3 p.m. at this time of year.

It’s awfully hard to feel hope at this time of year. Too many people are suffering. The world is full of those who are sick, starving, poor; those fleeing from wars, droughts, famine, climate changes  and other terrors. We may not witness these struggles personally, but they eat into our consciousness. We write checks, donate bags of food, buy mittens and scarves for the needy, give what we can.

What we do is just a drop in the bucket of the globe’s desperate needs, just as setting up a single rain barrel is only a miniscule contribution toward reversing the drastic changes in our planet’s climate. It is the willingness to make the gesture, and making it, that counts. It helps point a neighbor down the same path, and eventually leads to more meaningful awareness and change in the community. Or at least one hopes that it does.

And then there’s the loss of one’s personal sense of hope in this cold season. For me, it’s the effect of more than four years without a job, or sufficient freelance writing  work. I see people unable to find work after age 50, or 55. At 60, I’ve just about lost all hope of ever earning a paycheck again.  My work for many years was writing for newspapers, and then for small magazines and web sites devoted to the use of natural gas for saving energy.  Cogeneration, waste heat recapture, fuel  cells, desiccant dehumidification — these were components of my work vocabulary. I’m not good at other things, and I can’t stand on these arthritic  knees long enough to work at a grocery store where cashiers  stand all day.  Add seasonal affective disorder, SAD, to this mix, and I get a powerful urge to burrow underground and spend the next three months in hibernation.

Winter holidays

People struggling with the cold and darkness turn to our winter holidays, our solstice, our Christmas, our Hanukkah, for whatever cheering up they provide.  The bright lights may affect our retinas and boost the production of mood-lifting hormones in our bodies. Cookies and eggnog supply the carbohydrates we crave. Those who find winter holidays comforting and cheering are very fortunate, because in some cases the holiday season makes people sadder. Those who are alone, those who are ill, those who are far from loved ones, or homeless, or friendless or penniless, may suffer more, especially when they compare their current situation to holidays past.

I have mixed feelings about holidays past. I was raised in the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church, which was sometimes pretty effective at teaching guilt. One didn’t deserve Christmas unless one did certain things like being good, helping one’s parents, doing chores.  Another thing we needed to do was to memorize Christmas poems and recite them at the local Estonian community’s yearly Christmas party.

Now, I am a shy person by nature, like author and radio star Garrison Keillor, another ex-Lutheran. It went against everything in my nature to stand up in front of all those forbidding old Estonians and our pastor, and to speak aloud.  But Estonian kids are expected to recite.

I was tongue-tied. I forgot everything. I raced back to my seat, face red, mortified. It didn’t help that my mother scolded me a great deal after those Christmas parties. Why, oh why couldn’t I just stand up and recite like all the other children?  Did I really expect anything from Jõuluvana (Old Yule, aka Santa Claus) after my pitiful performance?  I deserved a bundle of birch branches, the better to beat me with.  (Birch branches were what Jõuluvana delivered, instead of lumps of coal,  to naughty Estonian children.) But  Jõuluvana was merciful to me in spite of everything.

It wasn’t as though reciting in Estonian was the problem. I had the same problem in English.  There was a fourth-grade play in which my only line was “A dish! A dish for the king!”  Naturally, I blew it.

Those holiday parties were supposed to be fun. They were torment for me, year after year, from the time I was 4 years old. I was very glad when I was old enough to be excused from them. When I was a little older, I tried to redeem myself by making cookies for the Christmas Eve service, but it wasn’t the same at all.

Estonian Christmas Eve

Christmas Eve service at the little church in Paterson was my favorite part of the entire holiday season. Like many Lutheran churches, it was fairly plain inside. White walls, dark pews and altar, simple crucifix.  When the place was decorated with evergreen branches and lit with white candles, and filled with the sound of familiar Christmas carols, and with the pastor reading the story of Christ’s birth in his resonant voice, it took on a magic all its own. We were redeemed, even though we  might not be deserving of it.

After the service, we stood outside in the frosty air, greeting friends, and looking for the first star, which signaled that Christmas had arrived.  Then we drove home for the traditional dinner of roast pork, potatoes, sauerkraut and blood sausage. The year I found out what blood sausage was made from, was the year I stopped eating it.  After dinner, we opened the presents that Jõuluvana left while we were singing in church.

One of the hymns we always sang on Christmas Eve (which IS the holiday for Estonians, not Christmas Day) was “Üks Roosike on Tõusnud,” known in the original German as “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen,” and in one English translation as “Lo, how a rose e’er blooming.” The Estonian name means “One little rose has arisen.” It was one of the ones I liked best, and perhaps explains my fondness for the Unitarian Universalist hymn mentioned above.  I love roses. This is not the time of year for roses, and so the image of a rose blooming in winter seems almost miraculous to those of us living in the northern temperate zone.

Inventory of the garden

The other day I did a little inventory of our dead and dying garden. I found a solitary dandelion blooming close to the ground. Two small stems of hyssop, with tiny flowers of a vivid bluish purple.  A couple of star-like blue periwinkle flowers.  And then I turned the corner, and saw the Cape Cod rose. It bravely displayed a few pale pink, five-petaled roses among its thorns and scarlet hips.  Cape Cod is a tough rose, and it has a long season of blooming, though the flowers are small and modest.

Nearby stands the camellia shrub I planted several years ago, full  of  gorgeous rose-pink  blossoms. This is the first autumn it has bloomed extensively — last fall it produced one small flower.  The pine needles I mulched it with over the past year seem to have given the shrub just what it needed to flourish.  It is a fairly hardy variety chosen for our Maryland climate. Camellias thrive in the South, but are relatively unknown in northern states because most varieties can’t tolerate frost.  The one I planted, oddly enough, is called Cape Cod, like the rosebush.

A few things still manage to bloom on cold, dark days in the final weeks of fall. I want to take them as a sign of hope, and not as a sign of climate change.  Soon enough there will be a brief January thaw, and a few daffodils will poke their green noses out of the half-frozen ground, another sign of better days to come.

Lynn, our minister, said in her sermon today that prayer helps when one feels hopeless, prayer spoken or silent, directed to a deity, or to nature, or to the web of life that connects us all, or to the silence within.

Hope is a green thing. It doesn’t matter whether one deserves it or not. It grows deep where you can’t see it, but given the opportunity, it rises again.

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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.

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!