Post first published in December 2014, appearing here with minor edits.
We arrived at my Oma’s house somewhere close to noon. She would greet us smilingly at the door, with scents of roasting turkey mingling with the baking ammonia from her cookies and the slightest hint of a gas leak that always met us at her door.
And then we would enter the house, my mother off to help in the kitchen. As the years progressed, mom would prep more and more at home, leaving less and less for my Oma to manage but in the days of my childhood, Oma was still in her own house on Standish Avenue with gumwood trim and rooms to let for lodgers, and she was perfectly capable of putting on a Christmas dinner for twelve almost entirely by herself. Help was offered as a courtesy and as a way to share time together, not as a duty to provide needed assistance.
Not being welcome in the kitchen at that age, I would settle in the living room with my brother and father. We would have brought a pile of presents for my Oma, my aunts and uncles and cousins, and we arranged those nicely under the tree. She usually had a tabletop tree unlike the full size version that took up the greater part of the living room in our own house.
Because Oma needed space for the card table. The table wasn’t there as a matter of course. It showed up on special occasions when extra table space was needed in the living room. It was a thing of simple utility.
But on Christmas, the mundane card table was transformed into a thing of magic and mystery.
The table, we knew, had been set up the night before with empty plates laid on it, one with each of our names — adults and children alike. By the morning, each plate had been filled with treats and a present, and the whole table was covered with a tablecloth. We were not allowed to peak under the tablecloth but we could stare at the lumps under the cloth and speculate. Later on, the tablecloth would be pulled aside with flourish and we would rush forth to claim our plates and nibble on the treats there — candies, nuts, weihnachts peroshki, gruznikje, honigskuchen, and an orange — while we opened presents.
But first there was lunch. There weren’t many items on that Christmas table that were traditionally Mennonite. Turkey, as I have often been told, was not traditional in Mennonite families and I have no idea when my mother’s family switched from their traditional chicken dinner to the North American turkey. But if they compromised their heritage for a larger bird, we always held firm on the stuffing.
Bubbat is a bread-like stuffing made with flour, eggs, milks and lots of dried fruit. Apparently, bubbat is one of the few foods that Mennonites brought with them from Poland/Prussia to Russia and then to North America. I don’t know of a lot of other families that allowed bubbert to migrate from chicken to turkey but for us it was, and remains, essential to the holiday spirit, each of us eagerly snatching it up from the meat platter fighting over the “inside bubbat” that had cooked stuffed in the turkey, rather than the “outside bubbat” that was surplus and cooked in loaf pans alongside the turkey. This is glorious stuff, the only downside of it being that, when cooked in the traditional manner, it requires so long to cook completely that the turkey is ridiculously overcooked. It didn’t matter to us; we knew no different in turkey and would have thought the bubbat worth it anyway. At any rate, the recipe can be adapted for a shorter cooking time.
Bubbat inspires this week’s cocktail, an homage to both the best of all stuffings and the little, teensy glasses of champagne that were passed around in an effort to infuse some merriment into the occasion without allowing any possibility of overindulgence. A religious revival in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century had turned the former distilling and brewing Mennonites into anxious moderate drinkers or teetotalers. Hence, the little glasses in our case and the broad reputation of Mennonites as non-drinkers.
Dessert was another Russian Mennonite oddity that dates all the way back to the sixteenth century when Mennonites in the Vistula delta cooked up some fruit and called it Moos. Variations abound but for us, for Christmas, it was always Plumamoos. We made ours with raisins, and canned and frozen fruit which made it a bit more like a summer moos than the traditional winter one that would traditionally be made entirely with dried fruit. A moos is a slightly thickened fruit soup. Ours was always a beautiful pinkish purple colour from the damsen plums that had been held in the freezer for this purpose since harvest in July. In my mind, it remains the perfect ending to a heavy turkey dinner.
Later — after the dishes — we opened the presents. There weren’t as many in the afternoon for each of us as there had been in the morning where my mother had inflated the size of the pile of gifts by wrapping separately different components of a single gift and by packaging up mundane items that she would have bought for us in any case (ordinary socks and stationary items).
I don’t remember any of the presents from those afternoons in particular. Like so many Christmas memories, they flow together in a general memory of contentedness. There were probably some hits and some misses each year — that’s the way of Christmas giving — but I don’t remember it that way. I could usually count on one or two items from my Christmas “wish list” but my aunts would usually come up with something on their own, something that they imagined I would like, based on their limited knowledge of my likes and dislikes. These gifts were like seeing myself through others’ eyes. But in a good way.
Once all the presents were opened and the wrapping paper carefully folded to be reused another year, my cousins and I ran downstairs to play while the adults remained in the living room to talk, and play rook or crokinole.
I have two younger cousins and we usually played happily together for about ten minutes. At that point, my younger cousin who was four years younger than me, would commit some misdemeanour or another and my other cousin and I would inflict a time-honoured Mennonite method of corrective discipline in accordance with 1 Corinthians 5:11, interpreting the doctrine to include “do not even play dollies with such people.”
She would, in short order, run upstairs and pester the grown-ups. At which point there would be interventions, apologies and reconciliations. Though, even without the intervention, I doubt if we would have extended our shunning to include not eating with the guilty party, as more food was planned for after playtime. This time, it was a faspa supper with a special large kringle baked in the shape of a Christmas Tree. And then we would gather once more in the living room, my aunt at the piano. And we would sing some of the english carols we all knew, and some of the German ones that only the generation older than me knew. O du froliche, Kling, Glöckchen, klingelingeling! and the like.
And then we bundled up our things and headed home again, ready for the lulling car ride and then the comforts of home.
Bubbat Champagne Cocktail
- 1/8 oz fine brandy
- 12 raisins or dried cranberries
- 1.5 oz chilled sparkling wine
Soak the raisins/cranberries in brandy for a few hours. Not too long or it will begin to taste more of fruitcake than of bubbat. Strain infusion, reserving both the brandy and the fruit. Eat the fruit. Pour the infused brandy into the tiniest champagne glasses you can find. Top with sparkling wine. Enjoy.Repeat (seriously – these are really tiny drinks; you’ll want more than one).