Kal ZoneBlog

Extreme cuisine, an Estonian tradition

December 17, 2010

A recent article in the New York Times, Without Blood Sausage, It Just Wouldn't Be Christmas, lays it out:

Siim Vanaselja, who was in charge of blood-sausage operations [at the New York Estonian House], said that in traditional Estonian village life, verivõrstid [blood sausages] were made immediately after the slaughter each autumn, when the weather turned cold and the cost of keeping animals warm and fed became too high. Bacon, ham and smoked sausages were laid down for the winter, but blood is highly perishable and must be cooked right away. So the fresh blood sausage was boiled, frozen and saved as a treat for Christmas Eve.

Blood sausage was not part of my childhood — have I possibly repressed the memory? — but I do remember other challenging dishes. For example, there was sült — jellied pigs' feet.

Sült is a kind of gruesome, translucent meat Jell-O containing suspended blobs of lard and shreds of questionable pork — the less desirable cuts, shall we say. Unlike commercial Jell-O, which comes in bright, festive hues, sült retains the natural, grayish tones of boiled meat.

I confess I cannot tell you how it tasted. I was absolutely afraid of it. It may have been spiced with bay leaf or black pepper or something. I don't know and don't care to find out. I found the very idea of sült so revolting I used to run from the room whenever it was served. I do remember grownups putting it on their buffet plates — this was at Sunday luncheons following Estonian-language Lutheran services — and threatening to feed it to the children. "Eat, eat," they would say. "You are too thin. You will never grow strong."

The word "sült" still gives me shivers. I understand that among meat-eaters, it is considered good form to use the whole animal. But childhood exposure to sült undoubtedly has led many to consider vegetarianism in later life.

Althouh I have, as an adult, joked that Estonians have the most wretched cuisine on Earth, based mostly on my fear of sült, much of the Sunday luncheon was actually quite appealing.

My favorite was the open-face sandwich on heavy, black pumpernickel — 3/16-inch thick slices from a cubical loaf — with butter and slices of fresh cucumber or tomato from someone's summer garden.

Estonia is at a latitude of 59° north, about the same as Juneau, Alaska. So the traditional food is mostly whatever will keep in root cellars and smokehouses through the long, dark winters. And imports were rare. For example I remember my parents saying that oranges were an exotic treat, available perhaps once a year at Christmas.

Many Estonians fled the country ahead of the Soviet takeover after World War II, and a sizeable number landed in the U.S. and Canada. I was aware that Toronto had a large Estonian community, for example. The part of central Michigan where I grew up — the Tri-Cities of Saginaw, Bay City, and Midland — had perhaps a half-dozen Estonian families who would get together once a month for church and lunch.

The potluck offerings might include vinegary summer salads made with cucumbers and tomatoes, briny pickled herring packed in small wooden kegs that I imagined came from the Baltic, slices of hard-boiled eggs garnished with paprika, baked ham or chicken, a creamy potato casserole, New Era potato chips for the kids. And, of course, the sült. Which, looking back, may have been offered as a kind of litmus test to sort out the true Estonians from the pretenders.

The food was washed down with Chapman's red pop or Vernor's ginger ale for the kids, Pabst Blue Ribbon or Stroh's or Falstaff for the adults, or sometimes a squarish bottle of red wine. Later the kids would run outside to play while the men went on to straight shots of vodka (which they called "schnapps" even though it was ordinary vodka) and loud political arguments around the kitchen table.

Qualms about Estonian cooking aside, I must say that the baked goods were outstanding. My mother would make a kind of pierogi, a semicirular baked dumpling filled with diced ham. I don't remember the Estonian word for these, but everyone was happy to see a fresh platter of them on the kitchen counter. There were sweetish aromatic breads in all shapes and sizes, sometimes folded into giant pretzels, with all kinds of glazes and crumbly toppings. And of course the Christmas cookies were amazing: pfeffernüsse (again, the Estonian word escapes me), gingerbreads, dark spicy glazed cookies with split almonds, pale buttery frosted and sprinkled cookies, merengues, chewy coconut nuggerts, and on and on. Apple or cherry pie. Strawberry shortcake made with back-yard berries and topped with whipped cream. One June evening mother allowed us kids to have strawberry shortcake for dinner — just strawberry shortcake. One of the best dinners of my life.

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