Grinding

The Boy always likes helping in the kitchen. He likes helping anywhere, but especially in the kitchen. These days of Advent, that’s always a good thing: K can use all the help she can get in the kitchen.

Tonight: filling for the Christmas Eve dinner dumplings — the uszka (for the barszcz) filled with mushrooms and the pierogi stuffed with a sauerkraut-mushroom mixture. There’s lots of sauteing and grinding. We probably go through two sticks of butter in the process.

“We’re Polish, so that means we use butter for everything,” the Boy exclaims as we cook.

Tonight, we try out our new grinder attachment for the silver Beast, which usually sits on one of the racks in the basement but has spent Advent on the counter top upstairs. We finally have enough counter space to do it, why not?

We have definitely moved past the “It’s so new — don’t touch anything” phase of our new kitchen. It’s like the old one never existed. Certainly makes the pictures look better.

Waiting

It’s now Advent, a time of waiting. In many ways, I guess we’re waiting all our lives. There’s always something in the near future that we’ve trained our attention on, even if we’re the type to live in the present. E, for example, is waiting to be able to cook, really cook.

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He plays at it a lot, but that’s often just messy play, he thinks. “I’ll never learn to cook,” he lamented tonight, but explaining to him that playing as he does — and indeed, helping as he often does, with stirring and such — really is learning to cook. “And you’ll be learning your whole life,” K explained. Still, it didn’t do much to help him. He’s waiting to cook for real.

The Girl has been waiting for the Advent calendar to make its appearance. This year, E and L both have their own, but E had completely forgotten about it. Truth be told, L probably had too until K mentioned it today.

We got the calendars out, but E had to wait a while: he still hadn’t finished his dinner, so we walked around with a chipmunk-cheek of pierogi as L opened her calendar and jotted her name on it. When he was done eating, he got to do what he’s always waiting to do during dinner: crawl into K’s lap.

After dinner, it’s my long-anticipated event: chess with my son. L started learning chess, but she never really grew to love it. Too much to think about, and sitting still and concentrating — not something she’s fond of doing after a long day at school. The Boy enjoys the game, though, and he’s patient. He can wait. For a little bit. So we work on pawns only.

“When can we play with the other pieces?” he asked tonight.

“As soon as you can play well with the pawns,” I explained. By that, I meant simply that he could make legal moves and could see opportunities to capture an opponent’s pieces consistently.

“You have to wait for a little while,” I said.

“Okay,” he said, and captured a piece incorrectly.

Forwarding Address

We’re a 3/4 Polish family, and so we have to be a little difficult and do things differently. Like celebrate Saint Nicholas’s day, which is on the sixth of December. Which means our kids get two Christmases. Which means the Girl, with her mid-month birthday, get three gift days. Which makes the other kids at school jealous. Hence the difficulty.

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L has become more of a critical thinker regarding the whole process, though. She no longer blindly accepts the seeming omnipotence and omniscience of Santa. Clearly, there are things he might not know. Like the fact that she has changed rooms since last year. Or that her bed is different now, more narrow, with less room for presents. (Mikołaj doesn’t have a Christmas tree yet to put presents under, so I guess he improvises.)

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“I’m sure he can figure it out,” K explained last night, calming L’s worries. But later in the night, I suggested that we that perhaps we ought to put L’s gift in the Boy’s room, just to see if she figured out what happened. It was when K and I were downstairs, K wrapping newly-arrived presents and I cleaning up what will certainly be the only artifact of humanity a hundred thousand years from now — dried Play-doh. And doing something likely less useful. Like thinking of further Christmas jokes to play on our children.

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Transformations

Today was a day of transformations. We put an entire chicken, a bit of beef with the bone, two stalks of celery, a few carrots, some fresh parsley, sage, and thyme into a pot with water and let heat and time transform it into a deceptively clear stock. It had a yellowish tint to it, and there were globules of grease floating on the time, but by the time we’d poured it through a fine sieve several times, it looked like it should have little to no taste. Warmed water. And yet…

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In the afternoon, we took a plain Fraser fir and transformed it into the magic of the season. Lights, baubles, ornaments, angels.

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Babcia, L, and K put on some carols — Frank Sinatra to begin with — and hung gingerbread houses and hearts, beads, and lights, and I piddled about the yard. Sort of sad: it’s always a highlight for me to decorate the tree, and I regret missing out on it. I always feel like a kid hanging the ornaments, sipping on something warm.

VIV_0878And in a way, I am a kid at it: only in the last few years could I stop saying, “I’ve celebrated Christmas so few times I could count them on my fingers.” Yet not having participated in the holiday growing up makes it all the more meaningful for me now.

Yet early celebrations with K always lacked a little something. For me as a non-believer, Christmas was a season of pleasantries and friends, but little else. “If only people would be this nice to each other throughout the entire year,” I would say, and that was about the extent of the spirituality of Christmas for me: a longing for a kind of utopia that I thought briefly and imperfectly existed during the Christmas season.

Having converted to Catholicism, though, adds a new meaning to Christmas. Properly speaking and on a most basic level, it adds new vocabulary: Advent, St. Stephen’s Day, Vigil Mass. Of course there’s more to it than just vocabulary, but I’m still a bit ill-at-ease to discuss it further. Old faithless comforts (or in this case, lack of comfort) disappear slowly.

So that particular transformation is still incomplete. The water is still boiling around me, still drawing out the essences, purifying. It’s one more thing I’m waiting on in Advent.

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Preparation

Advent is a time of preparation, and if there happens to be any Polish genes in your immediate family, that’s likely a domestic and culinary as well as spiritual process. There’s all the cleaning that should be done — not quite spring cleaning, but awfully close — but it pales compared to the amount of cooking.

We’ve taken to starting early as a result. So early that it’s almost an exaggeration. Until you think about the other preparation that awaits. Add to it the coming baptism for the Boy — itself an event for Poles — and it’s no wonder that we’ve begun cooking Christmas Eve dinner already.

Dough, Dear

The dumplings for the barszcz and the second-course pierogi are ready. They’ll sit in the freezer for the next few weeks while we begin fermenting the beets for barszcz, smoking the tenderloin for Christmas-season gifts and treats, cleaning this, washing that — at least in the old days. With a six-month-old, who knows how much of the scrubbing will get done. But there are non-negotiables, and the food is among them.