Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas Eve Traditions on the Point

Perhaps on no day of the year, are Croatian families from Point Cadet closer to the traditions of their homeland than on Christmas Eve. Back in the day, the air hanging over the Point was thick with fog and redolent of  bakalar, the traditional cod stew served for Christmas Eve dinner, and frying pusharates, the glazed fruit-filled doughnut holes that are the star of all Christmas pastries.

The enduring popularity of bakalar is a bit of a mystery to me. I am not a picky eater, but I could never get past the stinky smell of the cooking cod to actually  taste it (not even when I visited Croatia) though I hear it is quite delicious. It is amazing to me that a fish that originates from the North Sea is so popular along the Adriatic and the Northern Gulf of Mexico, areas both known for their excellent indigenous seafood. Blame it on the Venetians and their trade routes.

The dried salted cod for bakalar must be ordered well in advance of Christmas, soaked for hours and pounded to a pulp to soften it. The fish is cooked down along with potatoes, bay leaves and other seasonings  to make a thick stew.  My grandfather used to put raisins in his bakalar, a touch you'll often find in North African versions of the dish, but no one else I know of on the Point did that. To see photos of bakalar (both cooked and pre-cooked), visit this site.

And then there was the singing.

Midnight Mass at St. Michael's was always packed and afterward, the Croatian men of Point Cadet would begin their rounds of visits, singing a cappella in Croatian at each house and lingering for a shot of whiskey or homemade grappa, freshly fried pusharates, bowties slices of strudel before moving on to the next house.

Aunt Frances' husband, Uncle Frank, was not Croatian but always accompanied the group to hum background harmony. About half-way through their rounds, after a few belts of the hard stuff, he gave up humming and began singing along in Croatian-sounding gibberish. No one seemed to notice or care.

Not surprisingly, many of the singers enjoyed a Christmas breakfast of Alka Seltzer.

I've often wondered if these customs, which traveled to Biloxi with our immigrant ancestors in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, were still alive and well in Dalmatia.

You'll find the answer here and here. I should have known. Traditions this good just never die.

So no matter where your family comes from or where you live now, Sretan Bozic i Nova Godina (Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year) from Mike and Mary's Kitchen.

Christmas Weather

In South Mississippi a "White Christmas" isn't quite the same as a "White Christmas" elsewhere. Here the white stuff is fog, not snow. And we've been getting a lot of it lately.

Actually, Christmas weather rolls in off the Gulf, the rivers and the bayous just before Thanksgiving and stays for the duration.

The wetness drips from the eaves like melting icicles.

It clings to driveways, sidewalks, patios.

It brings clogged sinuses and hacking coughs.

It wreaks havoc on driving conditions. And cooking conditions. Beloved holiday candies -- pralines, divinity fudge, meringues -- turn into icky, sticky messes fit only for the garbage can. You can't even get the glaze to dry on a patch of pusharates.

While you can't make a fog-man or fog-angels or have a fog-ball fight, there's no denying that for all of the problems with fog, it does possess a certain mystical, magical quality worthy of a Christmas story by Dickens

The beckoning glow of Christmas lights takes on a surreal quality when viewed through the opacity of a thick, Christmas Eve fog.

When the swirling mists take on fanciful shapes and touch your cheeks with wet fingers as you're walking down the street, it's easy to believe you're being trailed by the spirits of Christmases past, present and future

And, sometimes, just sometimes, the fog burns off around 10:00 to reveal a Christmas miracle --blue skies and golden sunshine -- a perfect South Mississippi Christmas Day.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Remembering Uncle Raymond

I have a few Christmas posts at the ready, but I am postponing them to remember my uncle, Raymond who passed away last Friday.

Uncle Raymond was a big guy right from the start -- a whopping 12 pounds when he was born. His birth reportedly was a long, difficult one, and when he didn't draw breath, the attending physician (he was born at home as were most babies back then), declared a stillbirth.

My great-grandmother refused to believe that this big, beautiful much-longed-for baby boy, didn't have a shot at life. She dunked him back and forth between tubs of hot and cold water, rubbing him vigorously between dunks until he started screaming and flailing.

His uncles called the solemn little boy with coal-black hair and big dark eyes "the kid with the million dollar smile." When they called him that, he just frowned all the harder.

That's not to say he didn't have a sense of humor. He loved to tease his four older sisters, and they loved to tease him back. When he was real little they convinced him that he really wasn't their brother and that their mama and daddy decided he would have to go back where he came from.
Wiping away tears, he packed a few treasured toys into a box and went out to Old Biloxi bridge to hitchhike his way to his new home. Nona, who had been shopping downtown, stepped off the bus, to see her son climbing into stranger's car, while her daughters, who realized the prank had gone a little too far, ran out from behind the bush where they had been hiding waving their arms to ward the car off. That was the last time they ever tried give him away.

He grew up to be a handsome young man who somewhat resembled a young singer from Memphis (by way of Tupelo).

Although he would spend most of his life in Pascagoula, Uncle Raymond was a true Point Cadet boy. From the very start, he loved the water and spent most of his life on it. He learned to throw a cast net before he learned to read. He grew to be a commercial shrimper. I remember vividly the picnics our family held on his boats.

At his service, he was remembered as a man who enjoyed the simple pleasures in life: the water, his family and food.

Not too bad for a boy who wasn't supposed to have a life at all.