By Christina Stock
The week leading to Christmas is — for those of Christian faith — a time to rejoice, celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. And of course, Hanukkah starts today at sunset. Hanukkah means “dedication” and is a Hebrew word. It is the Festival of Lights for those of Jewish faith. I grew up with many traditions that were based on the Jewish believe. Per example, to always crack an egg in a bowl to check for blood. One part of my family is Jewish, ever since my Great Aunt Käthe fell in love with a Jewish boy in the midst of World War II. The family smuggled the two lovebirds out of the country in 1941. Here in New Mexico, we have Catholic families whose ancestors fled from Spain in the 15th century because of being Jewish. They had to hide their faith; and with time, the families forgot about their origins. For more information, visit jewishnewmexico.org.
Throughout the world, it’s a time to visit loved ones, go to church, bake cookies and tell stories. Each country and each family has traditions either passed down from one generation to the next, or newly started when a couple marries.
Today, I am sharing with you, the reader, some of my favorite ones:
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This first one is actually pre-Christmas tradition that my German grandmother (Oma Else — Oma means grandmother) invented. To appreciate the holiday feast, cookies and cakes, we would only eat what was in the fridge and freezer, cleaning it out the week before Christmas. The less was left, the more creative and weirder the dishes got. That triggered quite a competition. I won one year with a baked Alfredo sauce, pea, potato, salami and cheese casserole. I still honor this tradition today.
When I first moved from my hometown of Wiesbaden, Germany, to Roswell in 1999, I was asked by a new friend about the origin of the “German” tradition of putting a pickle on the Christmas tree. I was baffled. I had never heard about that tradition and had no answer. It would take many years until I learned where it originated.
Early December in 2011, I was on the road driving throughout Southeast New Mexico when I stopped at Lea County Museum in Lovington. I was chatting with Cindy Gates who volunteered at the museum. For some reason, we talked about weird traditions and when I brought up the Christmas pickle, she told me it was connected to her family. What a coincidence. We published her entire story in the holiday edition of the Vision Magazine that year. Gates wrote that the story was connected to her great grandfather John Lower, who was born in Germany in 1841 and emigrated with his wife to America. As many emigrants are, he was grateful for his new home country and, when the Civil War started, he enlisted in the federal army. According to Gates’ family story, he served in eight battles until he was taken prisoner on April 20, 1864 and sent to Andersonville Prison in Georgia. It was a horrific prisoner of war camp, compared to hell itself. Of 45,000 men entering, 13,000 never left. Food was scarce and rancid and most prisoners perished because of bad water and starvation. Lower was a Christian, Gates wrote and though his faith was strong, at a certain point in time he thought he would die. “John, who loved dill pickles, walked up to a prison guard and said, ‘I don’t think I’m going to make it through the night, but if I could just have one dill pickle before I die, I’ll die a happy man.’ The guard, taking pity on John, snuck him a pickle through the gate. John ate it and to his surprise, he lived. John would always say that pickle gave him the spiritual and mental strength to live and go on.
“John Lower, who helped raise my grandmother told that story to her one night while she was sitting on his lap. She cursed the Confederate soldiers who treated her grandpa so inhumanely. John reprimanded my grandmother telling her we were not to judge people, for God puts angels among our enemies,” Gates wrote. From there the tradition spread throughout the country from one family to the other. Its original story got lost in time, with only the “German” part remaining.
Next is everyone’s favorite tradition: holiday food.
In my travels, and living in different countries, I encountered a few delicious edible traditions. When I lived in Trouville, Normandy, France, families would walk out at low tide the day before Christmas. Everybody had a bucket and a little shovel. While walking, you could see sand bubbles pop — that was where you would dig for the heart-shaped nordic clams. To clean them, they were put in large buckets filled with drinking water. Overnight, the clams would spit out all the sand they had inside. The next day — Christmas day — they would get boiled in broth and served with fresh French baguette and lemons. Any clam that didn’t open was tossed — it was a sign that it was spoiled. That, by the way, is the rule for all mussels and clams. While these rules are for fresh mussels and clams, even frozen mussels and clams that don’t open after cooking should be tossed, because they were already dead and spoiled before getting flash-frozen.
Those living at the sea know the fisherman’s rule: You only ate mussels and clams in months that had an “r” in it, which is October to April. The rest of the months the chances to get bad mussels and clams are higher. These fishermen knew what they were talking about and today, we know the science behind it. Clams and mussels live on seaweed, which has traces of toxins that rise in warm summer months. The human stomach reacts quite violently when encountering these toxins.
I remember my German Aunt Evi introducing one Christmas Camarón con Salsa Rosa — shrimps in pink sauce — to the family. It was originally a Spanish recipe that became popular in Germany. That was in the late 1970s. At that time, we could only get the tiny shrimp from the North Sea. My German grandfather, Opa Manfred (Opa means Pops), did not trust “exotic” food. He was our Grinch, but we still loved him dearly. He never ate shrimps in his long life, calling them “Engerlinge,” which translates to grubs. We didn’t complain, that way we had more for us while he ate his favorite liverwurst. It’s funny, when I met my husband’s uncle who had served in World War II, he had the dislike of shrimps in common with my grandfather. He called them “fish bait” and didn’t eat them either.
Of course, I have the recipe for this flavorful shrimp dish, which works well either for an elegant dinner as an appetizer or — for the shrimp-fan — as a full meal.
This recipe is easy to make, even for beginners.
Camarón con Salsa Rosa
1 pound cooked and thawed out shrimp (remove the tail for bigger shrimp)
4 Tbsp real mayonnaise
2 Tbsp plain yogurt
1 tsp tomato paste
1 tsp sugar
Hot sauce or cayenne pepper
salt and white pepper
1 Tbsp good brandy (I prefer French Cognac)
Mix all sauce ingredients in a large bowl until smooth. Add the sugar and season with the hot sauce or cayenne pepper, salt, white pepper and brandy. Stir until all ingredients are well-mixed and taste if it is to your liking. Out of necessity, I have replaced the tomato paste and sugar with ketchup — mostly because I forgot to buy it.
With a large wooden spoon, add the shrimp and carefully mix until the shrimp are fully coated.
Put into the fridge for an hour.
Serving suggestion: If you have red wine glasses, serve the shrimp in them — see photo.
If you only have plates, use the entire leaf of an iceberg lettuce as a bowl.
Other variations: In Germany, many restaurants would add to this dish cooked cold asparagus, mandarins and/or walnuts.
Serve with fresh French baguette, or slices of toasted and buttered Ciabatta bread.
In case your shrimp is still frozen, thaw them out in a large pot with cold running water — yes, that happened to me, too — and when thawed out, pat the shrimp dry with paper towels.
From our family to yours,
Merry Christmas and happy holidays !