Pole Position

Elements of a traditional Polish Christmas Eve supper

My Italian husband balks at food that isn't red or green. When I brought him to his first Polish Christmas Eve supper, he looked at our food and grimaced: "Everything is brown!"

We surveyed the landscape of our table -- a sable sea of black mushroom soup steaming in Grandmom's tureen, an amber knoll of sizzling pierogi, a tawny marsh of kapusta, a russet hill of fried smelts and, on the sideboard, golden pyramids and snow-capped mountains of cookies -- and said, "So?"

Poles, Germans and Italians settled in great numbers here in the Southwest. Ellis Island records locate 70,000 Polish Americans in Arizona, concentrated in Phoenix. Chances are they share the same custom of a meatless Christmas Eve dinner. Poles call it Wigilia, for vigil.

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Vigil has a history that predates Christmas by many centuries. Falling on winter solstice, it honored the Roman god of agriculture, Saturn, whose fairness inspired forgiveness and sharing.

The hostess greets you on Wigilia with Oplatek, a flat bread wafer. You share it with other guests and family, signifying that none of you will let the others go hungry in the coming year. Whether Poles live in Bisbee, Brisbane or Bialystok, they mail the wafer to each other to stay in communion with far-away loved ones.

As if mindful of the snow that blanketed Bethlehem that first night of the Christian era, milky damask covers Polish Wigilia tables. Tucked beneath the cloth, strands of hay symbolize the manger. Icy silverware and crystal stemware spike each place setting. Your senses, rattled perhaps by last-minute shopping and preparations, are assuaged as you run a fingernail across the crisp cloth to release the comforting aroma of boiled starch.

There is always a moment before the meal is laid, as silent and thoughtful as the last swirls of a snowfall.

Supper begins when the youngest children, called the Starwatchers, sight the first star. They begin yelling, "Jest, jest," ("is, is"), and the kitchen bustle goes from simmer to roiling boil.

Dried mushrooms gathered in Poland's birch forests star in this meal. The best, Borowiki Bialy, are white-capped mushrooms far more pungent and meaty tasting than morels. And more dear, too. Running about $100 per pound in the States, it's no wonder Polish travelers hazard smuggling them back. Once, our aunt lined her girdle with plastic sheathing and stuffed two pounds of broken-up mushrooms into it. She flew back to JFK with them poking her ribs. They made the best soup we ever had.

In a train station in Poland's Silesian Mountains this fall, I saw dozens of flannel-shirted, unshaven men disembarking with heavy baskets. They were filled with a treasure of fresh mushrooms to be dried and strung for export or sold by the roadside. For $30, I successfully smuggled in about $100 worth this year, and we will make our soup and sauerkraut with them. I don't know how good they will be. I don't wear a girdle, so I just brought them over in my handbag.

Depending on the region of Poland you come from, the meal must have seven, nine, 11 or even 12 dishes -- the more dishes, the better the year has been to you. If this sounds daunting, you don't have to do the whole thing yourself. Busy working families can make an easy version of this meal with made-ahead soup and smoked fish, pickled herring and homemade pierogi, kapusta and other holiday fixings, purchased from any of the Valley's three Polish grocers. You can also get Oplatek at these shops.

Emilia Stevanowich emigrated from Poland 36 years ago and lived in Chicago before moving to Arizona. She opened Stanley's Homemade Polish Sausage & Delicatessen 11 years ago, and now has two Valley locations. Emilia has authentic Borowiki mushroom caps at $8 an ounce (and worth every penny), and Wigilia golabki -- cabbage stuffed with kasha -- a special treat. Her store will be open the Sunday before Christmas for last-minute shoppers.

Europa Pastry Cafe's owner, Anna Markowski, is a pretty, trim blonde who looks too young to be a grandmother. Several items in her shop would be intriguing to gourmands of any nationality -- a whole smoked eel for $14.88, freshly pickled herring, and little bottles of fine mushroom liquor seasoning for soups, stews and sauerkraut, or red beet concentrate for barsch (the Polish version of borscht). I use nothing else for my Christmas cookies than her fine plum and sour cherry preserves imported from Poland.

Both Emilia's and Anna's Wigilia tables have something red that might please my husband: Czerwona Barsch (beet soup), instead of mushroom soup. Otherwise, their tables are variations of what I've described.

The importance of color is both decorative and subjective. After all, Phoenicians never have a white Christmas and, as I said to my husband, do you really think there's a reindeer with a red nose?

Merilyn Jackson, a dance critic, also writes about food and Eastern European literature. Her interests will blend when she writes a novel about an anorexic Polish ballerina who gives up the stage to write a cookbook.

 
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