The Herring and the Stollen

Letting Go #19

It’s holiday time, and my old nemesis, Tradition, enters by the backdoor on the coattails of Christmas goodies. Let me be clear: I am not a person who swoons over the days of yore. However, I grew up in a home where the ghosts of foodies past ruled. Still do. Not only have my parents set a holiday decorating standard that continues to dictate our lives in all its moth-eaten glory, but we are obliged to acknowledge and execute culinary Christmas rituals that require the skills of a four-star chef, and a good deal of chugging from the fruitcake brandy.

Take my grandmother’s holiday stollen recipe, which was pieced together from ancestral bards and my father’s gourmet taste buds. Every year, instead of the prancing and pawing of each reindeer hoof, I would come out of my sleep coma to hear the sounds of my mother in the kitchen, wrestling with fifty pounds of dough in the middle of the night.

Whether my forebears even had the means to buy that many eggs and slabs of butter is questionable, but the MYTH of the Great Stollen has been risen to a yeasty blob the size of a small child, studded with blanched almonds hand-shelled by peasants (me and my brother) and stuffed with untold quantities of candied fruit. After hours of baking and repeated poking with toothpicks, it looks like some kind of porcupine effigy.

Don’t get me wrong–it is tasty in all its buttery glory. Germans know what to do with their transfats. It’s just that when it came time for ME, as the only girl-child, to carry on the Great Stollen baking tradition, and I looked at the scroll with the hand-written ingredients list (measured in grams, mind you), I felt a sudden urge to undergo a sex-change operation. There was no way I could spend the days necessary kneading the dough and boiling the skins off the almonds I had hand-shelled (having no peasants available for this task), not to mention rounding up all the required food stuffs as rare as myrrh and frankincense.

And then there is the all-encompassing New Year’s Herring Salad, which was my ancestors’ odiferous vehicle for using up the leftover meats served over the holiday, the main idea being that herring will overpower pretty much anything you mix it with (used machine oil, sterno, paint). To this fish-meat mix is added chopped up hard-boiled eggs, apples, sweet pickles, mayo, and the beets which provide a festive pink glow. I am physically capable of making this mythical dish, but my problem is this: whole herrings may have been plentiful in the olden days, but are now a pain in the yuletide tush to find, except in the form of the pickled variety in little jars underneath the fish counter (if your grocery store even HAS a fish counter anymore).

Said salad is used as a rite of passage for new in-laws entering the family fold. My people stare with hawk-like intensity as the hapless newcomer timidly tastes the pile of pink stuff, watching for any warning signs of nose-wrinkling or regurgitation. I have to admit it’s pretty palatable–if you like herring. If you don’t–you might want to revisit that prenup. Trust me, this is only the tip of the iceberg involving tests of digestive fortitude (just ask my husband).

To my knowledge, my parents are the only ones who undertake these legendary food feats. No one else has the culinary cojones to spend hours picking out microscopic herring bones or proof that much yeast. Rest assured that their efforts attract relatives who will travel great distances just to sample these delicacies (and thank their lucky stars that they don’t have to make them).

Unfortunately, if left up to me, these famous family dishes have reached the end of the line, and will disappear into the mists of Avalon. Even as I write, I can feel the disappointment of my ancestors (or maybe annoyance that I can get out of it). Yep, call me the black sheep of the familial empire–or the red herring.

And don’t even get me started on the Plum Pudding from my mother’s side.

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