By Ernest Barteldes
After spending almost two decades in New York following a very long spell in Brazil, I can say that I the ultimate multi-cultural person – while I do embrace everything that is American about me, I also refuse to turn my back on my Brazilian side. And more recently, since I met and married my wife Renata (who hails from Chełm, in Southeastern Poland ) I have also learned to love Polish culture and especially their Holiday traditions.
The reason I got interested in her traditions was the fact that growing up I never had any U.S. Holiday customs passed on by anyone in my father’s side of the family – the impression I have is that he simply wasn’t interested – and as for my mother’s side , most of the Holiday dishes were either inherited from colonizers in Portugal or other immigrant cultures – for instance, Brazilians enjoy eating panettone (an Italian fruit cake) during Christmas festivities. Other dishes either have Portuguese, Lebanese or Afro-Brazilian roots. The same goes during Easter festivities, when most (at least on a national level) customs hail from abroad.
The reverse is true about Poland, where cultural and culinary traditions – especially during major holidays – abound. During Easter there is the ritual of preparing all the food on Saturday before Easter Sunday and taking it to Church to get it blessed. Though that isn’t done during Christmas, there is the rule of abstaining from meats that bleed during Vigilia (Christmas Eve), and there are several meat-free dishes enjoyed during that time – many involving seafood.
Like in most American cities with heavy immigrant populations, it isn’t hard to find places to find Ethnic products around New York. There are countless supermarkets and grocery stores where – if you look hard enough – you can find pretty much anything you need. Though Greenpoint, Brooklyn would be the go-to area for Polish products , there are several other locations in the other boroughs.
Though it is true that Amazon.com carries many ethnic products, their prices are considerably marked up comparing to local stores in the different areas of the city.
In Manhattan, I either go to Baczynsky’s East Village Meat Market or Polish G.I. Delicatessen, both located in the East Village (within blocks of each other) and close enough to my path home from my teaching job.
On Staten Island there are a few others – there used to be a Polish store in our North Shore area but its owner retired a few years ago and closed the shop a few years back to the dismay of its faithful clientele. Others remain – a small local mini-chain unfortunately named S&M Polish Deli has several stores around the island, and one is located in the area of Old Town, about 15 minutes by public transit from home. They have a nice selection that includes some hard-to-find items such as Zwiec porter beer and oscypek (smoked sheep’s milk cheese), a delicacy usually found in the southern part of Poland.
As for Brazilian products it’s not that easy – there is a single supermarket in Astoria, Queens and little else – except maybe if one is willing to schlep to Newark, NJ’s Ironbound District, where both Brazilian and Portuguese products are readily available. However, since the food from Brazil is very similar to its Latin American counterparts, it is easy to find similar ingredients in stores that cater to Latino tastes.
Christmas one of the few times that Renata ventures into the kitchen – she likes to prepare a layered cold fish salad involving mayonnaise, marinated herring, shredded potatoes, carrots and pickled cucumbers. There are other traditional dishes we include that day, including a hot borscht broth with uzka (kind of a small pierogi stuffed with mushrooms).
Our dinner usually consists of some international dish – one year, for instance, I found a Portuguese recipe called “Silent Night Codfish” in which you layer the fish with onions, hard boiled eggs and olives and then bake with a nice serving of olive oil. It is quite delicious, and it reheats well for the next day.
“Silent Night” Codfish
(Bacalhau Noite Feliz)
2 lb. salted codfish (soaked in fresh water overnight)
4 lb potatoes, peeled and sliced about 1 inch thick
4 medium sweet onions, sliced
½ dozen hard boiled eggs, sliced
8 oz. Olive oil
After soaking the fish overnight, cut the fish and boil with sliced potatoes until potatoes are tender. Divide the potatoes, mash half and reserve. Layer fish, potatoes, eggs and olives in an oven-proof dish and once done, add olive oil and cover mix with mashed potatoes. Bake at 350 degrees until heated through. (Serves 10)
Directions: Drain jar of marinated herring and discard onions and spices. Dice herring and place in salad bowl. Add 2 c. cold, cooked diced potatoes, 2 peeled, diced apples, 2 chopped onions, 2 chopped dill pickles and/or 10 gherkins and 1 t. chopped fresh parsley. Toss gently and fold in sauce: fork-blend 1-1/2 c. mayonnaise with 1/2 c. sour cream and 1- 2 T. brown prepared mustard. Chill at least 2 hrs before serving.