I must confess, I have not tried Christmas carp. Yes in many countries in Eastern Europe the Christmas Eve meal, usually a thirteen course feast, celebrates the prized carp. Now for anyone who may think I have mis-translated the celebratory fish as perhaps salmon or even sol. Nope. Carp.
The winter of 1999 in Europe came in epic proportions of cold, snow and relentless storms. I was living in Kielce, Poland just over an hour north of Krakow in the rolling dales which claim to have the cleanest air in the country as well as being coined the "knife city." Luckily, I rarely saw anything more than men crying in public and pissing while they walked in circles in snowed parks. But what I vividly recall that winter were the women bundled in multiple head scarves, slowly walking from their homes to the city center where a large vat of cold water kept a collection of carp. Not your typical lobster tank with glass, rather more like a large metal garbage container with a step ladder. A man stood with a shovel and a large net, to break the occasional ice that would form a film above the sleepy slow carp, to scoop for pointing bare-fingered babcias.
Most days like others in the city, I walked to work. That week before Christmas it was like a repeated scene, a woman pointing, a man breaking some ice and scooping out a slow fat carp, weighing it and then wrapping it in plastic. The women would lug their wriggling fish back to their home for their annual Christmas Eve clubbing and then eating a celebration of fried fish.
As I confessed, I never had Christmas carp. I went home to Michigan that Christmas. But that last week of school, I finally broke down and asked my students, "so why carp?" They looked at me, all of them from the six to 17 year-olds, as if I had asked them Why Santa? Now, you have to remember, one must be very careful in asking about traditions in a foreign country for you might be asked to defend your own publicly noted "tradtions". Take for instance our gun laws and obesity. All of my students said with blank faces, carp is for luck. "Emilika, fried carp is neeca, really. Ees looki. You know, good fortune. Happy days. Luck in the future."
Now, don't get me wrong I have seen a lot of carp in my days. But nothing that seemed festive or even edible. The carp of my youth were alien fish in the bottom of Lake Michigan gorging on garbage and too often surfaced showing odd bulbous tumors. They seemed like the last fish, perhaps more like a dare really to ingest and perhaps not anything to celebrate, rather to feel sorry for. But really, how would you defend the Thanksgiving turkey when for all that we all know the poor Pilgrims really ate shellfish and nut meats. Hell, maybe they even ate carp?
I've been lucky to have lived in many different countries over the holidays from eating what seems a bit easier to ingest, panatone in Italy, fried cheese in Slovakia and even recall, shrimp on a barbie in Australia. But it is truly the time I spent in Poland, I cherish the most. Because the carp just seem like a metaphor. To search out a carp, kill it in your bathtub and serve it for family and friends seems more about having some kind of faith. Some faith in appreciating what you already might have and not what you hope to get.
So this holiday I tried to make goodies with what I already had around the house. Here's a recipe for Bourbon Pecans. They could be considered a holiday treat. However, when you try these you will be inventing your own private holiday to make more. This recipe is from the Los Angeles Times and feel free to spice it up some more for your own taste.
1/2 cup top-quality bourbon
1 pound pecan halves
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1/2 teaspoon angostura bitters
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon finely ground black pepper
1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
2. Simmer the bourbon in a small saucepan over medium heat until it's reduced by a quarter, just a few minutes.
3. Blanch the pecans in boiling water for one minute, then drain.
4. Combine the bourbon, oil, Worcestershire, bitters and sugar in a large bowl.
5. Add the hot pecans and toss. Let stand for ten minutes.
6. Spread the pecans in a single layer on a large baking sheet.
7. Bake until the nuts are crisp and the liquid has evaporated, 30 to 40 minutes, stirring every ten minutes.
8. Turn the nuts into a clean large bowl.
9. Combine the cumin, cayenne, salt and pepper in a small bowl.
10. Toss with the nuts and serve.
YIELDS: about 4 1/2 cups