Beware of the Greek Krampus – Kallikantzaros – Before St. Basil Brings Your Gifts

The Greek Kallikantzaros, an evil Krampus-like hobgoblin who roams Greece, Turkey, Serbia, and Bulgaria during the twelve days of Christmas to terrorize children and adults alike.

The Christmas celebration of our Chili Pioneers was and still is very different from the Germanic European traditions that make up the American Christmas. For one, there is no Santa Claus. Even though St. Nicholas of Myrna, the same saint who spawned our Santa Claus, is the Patron Saint of Greece, he does not bring the gifts. It is St. Basil of Caessarea who brings Greek children their gifts on his feast day, which is January 1. Like St. Nick, St. Basil is the patron of children, and gave gifts to the poor – namely embedding coins in sweet cakes which are still given at New Year’s Day, called Vasilopita.

St. Basil, the Greek Santa Claus – brings gifts on January 1.
Vasilopita, St. Basil’s Cake, with a coin embedded.

Before then – during the 12 days of Christmas between Christmas Eve and the Feast of the Epiphany, Greeks are terrorized by little hobgoblins called Kallikantzeros. These little imps live underground and surface to play all sorts of evil tricks on Greeks. They are described as hairy beasts with long tails, horse legs, devil heads, and sharp teeth and claws. Since they are blind (they live underground) they come out at night and can come through the chimney or any other hole in your house. They will jump on your back if you go out at night and scratch, whip and torment you, especially if you are sneaking out to cheat on your spouse or partner. Typical ways to avoid them during the 12 days is to keep a yule log burning in your fireplace, put out a colander on your doorstep, or burn an old shoe in the fireplace.

An 1872 painting of Greek boy carolers.
Greek boy carolers carrying the Karavaki
Greek Christmas cookies given to carolers and enjoyed by families.

Another way of warding off these hairy Greek Krampuses is to go caroling. Typically this is done by young boys in the early morning hours of Christmas Eve, New Year’s Day, and Epiphany. Greek boys carry triangles to play while singing, and carry a lit wooden boat, called the Karavaki. Before King Otto of Bavaria brought the Germanic Christmas tree tradition to Greece in 1833, a lit and decorated Karavaki in the house was the Greek Christmas symbol. Today, both the boat and the tree are decorated alongside each other. Greeks reward the boy carolers by placing Greek Christmas treats – kourabiedes, melamakorona, or baklava – in the boat they carry.

Finally, the end all to rid everyone of the Kallikantzeros is for the Greek local priest to bless the house with holy water, using a sprig of fresh basil, in January. Good riddance until next year!

Christmas in Cumminsville 1883 – The Turners and their Mighty Weihnachtsbaum

My Great Grandparents Theodore and Karolina Woellert, who were recently married and attended the 1883 Cumminsville Turner Christmas Party (grandpa and his brother Harry in center were not born yet)

I inherited the Christmas gene from my Grandfather, who in turn inherited it from his parents. I tend to be over-the-top in my decorations, some of which I inherited from Grandpa. They lived in Cumminsville and were members of the Germanic community, members of the Cumminsville Turnverein and the Apple Street German Evangelical Church. One of the coolest records of Christmas I have of them is two accounts of the 1883 Cumminsville Turner Christmas Party that my great grandparents, my great great uncle and aunt, and my great great grandparents attended. The first account is from the Cincinnati Enquirer, and the other is a translation from the German account by the Cincinnati Frei Presse. It gives me insight into why Grandpa loved Christmas. My father also recalls wonderful childhood Christmas parties at the Bund, a German club in North College Hill thrown by the Topnotchers Club, a club my grandpa belonged to. They had greasy Gordon’s potato chips, boxed hard candy, a visit from Santa and got to watch the March of the Wooden Toy Soldiers with Laurel and Hardy.

Great great grandparents, Theodore and Frieda Woellert, attendees of the 1883 Cumminsville Turner Christmas Party.

The Germans were not to be outdone with the magnificence of their Christmas tree or Weihnachtsbaum. The Enquirer said about it:

Perhaps the largest Christmas tree in the ward (25th) was the one erected at Turner Hall by the engergetic members of the ever popular Cumminsville Turn Verein. The tree reached to the ceiling, and in the way of fruit bore a great number of useful and valuable presents, amounting to over $200. The presents were donated by the friends of the association and were raffled off at ten cents a chance. Kegs of beer (most probably Bruckmann beer, as the founder was president of the Turnverein), boot jacks, bottles of wine and a large variety of gifts were hung upon and piled around the tree. Miss Annie Smith won a keg of beer and donated it to the society to be raffled again; winning it a second time she imagined that it was destined to be hers, and retained it. The imported Irish nightingale, donated by Mr. Fred Spaeth, of Poplar Grove, was quite a curiosity. A great deal of amusement was caused in the distribution, as for instance when a sedate German citizen or demure fraulein would be solemnly presented with a darky baby carved in china. The attendance was larger than for seven years previous, and was a notably quiet and orderly gathering, and ending with a grand ball. The net proceeds were $139. The Cumminsville Turnverein wish to give special credit to Misses Anna and Bertha Smith for their untiring industry in aiding to make the affair a success.

The German account offered more insight into the gifts and the raffle:

The elegant club hall of the (Cumminsville Turn) verein was decorated with flags, wreaths, Turner emblems, garlands, etc., yesterday for the celebration of Christmas Day. The Turners had come in full with their families and faces, especially those of the children shone with joy and wonderment. A mighty tree was emblazoned in the most colorful decorations and numerous gifts, such as albums (for Victorian scrapbooking), needles, wagons, harmonicas, knapsacks, dolls of every size, children’s toys of all sorts, picture and story books, cradles and more. When they gathered for the raffle, the interest waned and if a lot drew a hit, the jubilation would come to an end, mainly when, as luck would have it, an object fell to an owner, who, like a cradle for one bachelor, knew nothing of what to do with it. After the lottery, there was a frenzy of dancing, in which young and old participated, which did not come to an end until Aurora warned them to go home (ie. the sun came up).

Man how I would like to have seen images or photos of this party, but no sketches of the Christmas tree are included in either article. But one can certainly imagine the fun and merriment of that 1883 Turner Christmas Party.

American Christmas is Largely Scandinavian in 2020

What we should be leaving out for Santa this year – Scandinavian rice pudding

While many of our Christmas customs, like St. Nicholas, and the Christmas tree, are Germanic in origin, at least the American Commercial Christmas in 2020 is largely Scandinavian.   I don’t know if you noticed, but this year its all about the gnomes.    Gnome decorations are everywhere.   Of course IKEA has an assortment of gnome decorations, but they always have.   American retailers like Target have gnome tree ornaments and decorations.   I was so happy to get out all my gnome and Scandinavian straw ornaments this year to decorate my tree in high Scandinavian style.   I even have several Joulpukki or Christmas Goats in my tree. 

A closeup of my Scandinavian Christmas tree – straw ornamanets, gnomes, Juletomte, and Joulpoukki

Gnomes are actually the nisse or tomte of Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Iceland.   They also spill over into northern Netherlands, where the art of Rien Portvliet of the 1970s immortalized their image into the hearts and minds of youngsters like me.  Scandinavian legends tell of a house gnome who guards over and protects a farmhouse.   On Christmas eve Scandinavians serve a spiced rice porridge called risengrød in Denmark and risgrynsgröt in Sweden,  but also lay one as an offering to the benevolent but temperamental household spirit.   Scandinavian children are not afraid of bumps in the night because they know it’s just their household gnome making the rounds and doing his chores.

A Jultomte or Christmas Elf and Joulpoukki or Yule Goat outside a Swedish house.

While many attribute Palatinate Germanic immigrant Thomas Nast as the creator of our modern image of Santa (based on a composite of Germanic post Reformation gift bringers like Knecht Ruprecht and Pelsnickel) it’s actually a Scandinavian, Haddon Sundblom, who created our modern Santa.    The image of a jolly, rotund, long bearded man in a red suit and floppy red hat updated the old image of Nast with a particularly Tomte looking red hat.    The floppy red cap is reminiscent of the hats the Sami people wear in Northern Norway, Sweden and Finland’s Lapland, above the Artic Circle, where Santa is purported to live.

A Norwegian Juletomte – or Christmas Gnome – with his red floppy hat from the 1930s, about the same time as Haddon Sundblom created the Coca-Cola / American Santa Claus.
An 1870s Thomas Nast Santa who looks more like Pelsnickel or Knecht Ruprecht than our modern Santa

Sundblum was born in Muskegon, Michigan, to a Swedish speaking family.  His father Karl Wilhelm Sundblom came from the Norrgårds in the village of Sonnboda in FöglöÅland Islands, then part of the Russian Grand Duchy of Finland, and his mother Karin Andersson was from Sweden.

Haddon Sundblom, the creator of the Coca-Cola and Worldwide modern Santa
The iconic and ubiquitous Sundblom Coca-Cola Santa

Sundblom created the iconic American Santa in an ad campaign for Coca-Cola in 1937, to help them sell their soda in a typically down season.    He created the 1942 Coca-Cola mascot Sprite Boy, based on the Germanic Father Frost, who appeared in ads during the 1940s and 1950s.     While known mostly as the creator of American Santa, Sundblom also was the father of the American pinup girl and creator of the Quaker Oats Man

Even the recent Elf on a Shelf tradition in America is based on the 13 Yule Lads or Elves of Iceland who come one by one in the 13 days leading up to Christmas, each with a particular duty of mischief – like slamming doors, or milking the cow and stealing the milk – while also bringing a gift to the children.   Then on Christmas, the ugly-witch mother of the Yule Lads, Gryla and her Christmas Cat (both a bit like Krampus) come on Christmas day to punish bad children by disembowling them or leaving even more gifts.    If the Icelandic children are of Swedish descent they would have celebrated St. Lucia’s day on December 13, who sings songs with her angelic chorus and brings cookies and cardamom bread.  They may even celebrate the coming of the Yule Goat, Juulpouki, who also brings gifts to good children.    So it seems the children of Iceland win in the Winter Holiday gift game, with over 13 days of giving.

So, while we may not be eating Potatiskorv (Swedish potato sausage) along with smoked salmon, sweet orange limpa bread, or lingonberries and skyrr yogurt, in a Christmas Eve Smorgasboard, our American Commercial Christmas this year should be greeted with “Glad Jul” or Merry Christmas in Scandinavian.

The Pecan Pie Family Tree and The Shipwreck Tart of Norfolk Coastal England

The Shipwreck Tart of Coastal Norfolk England – a spawn of America’s Pecan Pie.

The top three pies served on American tables during the holidays are probably pumpkin, apple, and pecan pies.     In the last decade or so we’ve seen the American pecan pie spawn two children – the bourbon pecan pie and the chocolate pecan pie.     The grandfather of the pecan pie is England’s treacle tart, and it has recently spawned a great grandson, the Shipwreck Tart, now a fave in the middle east coast of England in Norfolk.    The English do recognize that our pecan is the undisputed father of the Shipwreck tart.

Before we dig into this sordid family tree, we must make some things clear about weird UK food terminology.   In the UK a tart is any type of pie – fruit, transparent pie, or cream pie – baked into a shortcrust.     In America a tart is typically a small, hand-sized fruit pie without a top, or even a small hand pie.      A tart can also be referred to as a pudding in the UK, as a general term for any confectionery that has some sort of pastry or bread in it.   The treacle tart falls into the family tree of what is known in the US as a transparent pie – or one that only uses sugar and no cream or milk, so as to make a transparent rather than an opaque pie. 

Treacle is a thick syrup that is a byproduct of the sugar refining process.   Golden syrup, the commercial form of treacle was invented in the 1880s in England.   There is light treacle or golden syrup, which is an amber color, and black or dark treacle, which is a black color.   Golden syrup or light treacle is a form of inverted sugar syrup made in the process of refining sugar cane or sugar beet juice into sugar, or by treatment of a sugar solution with acid.   In the US golden treacle is analogous to Karo syrup and black treacle is analogous to Black strap molasses.     Black strap molasses is made from what is left over after the extreme caramelization from the repeated boiling of sugar cane at high temperatures.  It’s kind of like a slightly burnt caramel, without the cream added, and has a slightly bitter taste.   The term blackstrap is from the Dutch word ‘stroop’ (think stroopwaffel) which means syrup and the very dark (almost black) color.    

The Pennsylvania Dutch invented another American cousin of the treacle tart – the Shoofly Pie, which is made from blackstrap molasses.

The American Shoofly Pie, invented in 1876 in Philadelphia.

The Shipwreck Tart is a nut laden,  golden treacle pie made with chestnuts, hazelnuts, and walnuts, brown sugar and boozed up with Somerset Cider Brandy.   It sounds rich as heck and looks like an otherworldly experience.   Unlike in the US, where our nut pies are not typically served with cream, Norfolk’s Shipwreck tart is served with a dollop of their fave clotted cream.    Clotted cream, for those of you uninitiated, like me, is made from full cream cow’s milk that is indirectly steamed or heated and then allowed to cool.  Clots or clouts of cream rise to the top and form a crust.    It originated in the counties of Cornwall and Devon in southwest England.   It’s a very high fat cream lending a flavor of nutty cooked milk.   Devonshire clotted cream is less yellow than Cornish Clotted cream because there is less carotene in the grazing grass the cows use.    It’s use became popular because clotted cream stays longer than regular cream and won’t sour.

Shipwreck Somerset Brandy, used to booze up the Norfolk Shipwreck Tart.

The nut treacle tart – the UK cousin to our pecan pie – came about as a way to use up all those mixed nuts people had on hand for Christmas celebrations – the rowdy ones that the Puritans of America prohibited. Today they wear weird paper crowns and erupt noisemakers they call crackers for Christmas revelry.   It was something typically served on Boxing Day or on St. Stephens Day.

Brits on Christmas Day wearing their funky paper hats and erupting noisemakers they call ‘crackers.’

The Shipwreck Tart was invented by English celebrity chef Mark Hix in London at his fine restaurant.   It was inspired by Julian Temperley’s 10 year old Shipwreck Somerset cider brandy, which is aged in oak barrels washed up on Branscome Beach in Devon, from the shipwrecked Napoli.    Hix’s  head chef, Stuart Tattersall became the chef at Gunton Arms, an upscale pub on a deer preserve -described as a Rock and Roll Hunting Lodge  – in Cromer in North Norfolk, where he serves it alongside his local farm-to-table fare.    It is also popular at the other pubs and restaurants in coastal Norfolk at the holiday.   You can go seal watching at Horsey-next-the-Sea in November and then relax with a good meal and a slice of Shipwreck tart at nearly any of the pubs in the area.

The granddaddy of them all – the treacle tart – is a long time favorite of the British.  It is unbelievably sweet and can be found on any British school lunch menu and is very popular with British kids like school lunch pizza is with American kids.  It is the favorite of the character Harry Potter and supposedly of the author Mark Twain.

There are two types of treacle tarts in the UK – the Yorkshire, which is a fruity treacle tart like the mincemeat pie, and the Norfolk treacle tart, which is more like a rich sweet custard, which doesn’t use any breadcrumbs in the pie as a thickener.   No one is really sure about its origin but it is also sometimes called the Walpole House Treacle Tart because of it’s association with Sir Robert Walpole, the first British Prime Minister. It was supposed to have been invented in Houghton Hall, his home located between King’s Lynn and Fakenham.

My maternal Grandfather’s family came from the Norfolk area of England – a little coastal town called Horsey-next-the-Sea. But sadly, no treacle tart recipes survive from his family. My maternal grandmother tried to revive the mincemeat pie in our family to no avail. But pecan pie is a big fave at the holidays, as are my mother’s bite-sized pecan pie tartlets.

To feel like a Brit you can have the Shipwreck tart along with another Brit pub fave – prawn cocktail served with Marie rose sauce, which is like thousand island without the relish – tomato sauce, mayo, and Worchestershire.    

In Amsterdam 1663 Was Almost the Year Without a Sinterklaas (And Gingerbread)

I am a huge fan of the 1974 Rankin Bass stop motion animated feature “The Year Without a Santa Claus.”   Few know that there actually was almost a year without a Sinterklaas, the Dutch term for Santa or St. Nick.   For as tolerant as Dutch people and the City of Amsterdam are today, there was once a time when they weren’t, or at least the Calvinist governors weren’t.  Up until 2012 one could step into the Grasshopper Café blocks from the main train station and choose from a lazy susan vending machine of any type of cannabis product you can imagine and indulge in the cafe.   There’s even cannabis spiked gingerbread.    But there was a year that Sinterklaas and even gingerbread and other Christmas cookies were banned by the Mayor of Amsterdam, Dr. Nicholaes Tulp.

Dr. Nicholaes Tulp, showing the Guild of Surgeons the arm muscles in a painting by Rembrandt

Dr. Tulp had been a famous physician.    As head of the Guild of Surgeons, he was immortalized in one of artist Rembrant’s paintings, “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp.”   Having commissioned this painting, it was the work that catapulted Rembrandt’s career and got him artistic stardom with the rich and famous of Amsterdam.    Dr. Tulp instituted an inspection program for the over 66 pharmacies of Amsterdam, many who provided whack cures for the plague which ravaged Amsterdam in 1635.     Dr. Tulp even signed the physicals and approved the first Dutch immigrants to settle New Amsterdam colony in Manhattan.

It was December 4, 1663, two days before the annual Sinterklaas parade, one of the most popular days of the year for the children of Amsterdam.    The Protestant Reformation had been in full swing in Northern Europe, since Martin Luther nailed his 95 Thesis to the door of the cathedral at Wittenburg in 1517.     Most of Northern Europe had converted to Lutheranism, although the Dutch provinces of the Low Country, now the Netherlands, were Protestant Calvinists.

The Dutch lowland provinces had allied under the Union of Utrecht in 1579,   After successfully throwing the Catholic Hapsburg King Phillip II of Spain out of the Netherlands in 1581, they formed an independent Dutch Republic.   The Republic officially became a Protestant country and the regents, ministers and clericals prohibited public Catholic Celebrations.

Martin Luther did not like saints and instead suggested the Christ Child or Kristkindl as the new Protestant Gift Giver at Christmastime.    Only Christ could bring gifts and grace, not the saints. All reverence to saints was to be abolished.   Dutch cities responded.   The city of Delft in 1607 forbade the sale of gingerbread men, as did other cities like Arnhem.    Dordrecht banned the Sinterklaas festival altogether in 1657.  That same year Dr. Tulp’s (who had just become mayor of Amsterdam in 1654) city administration banned the sale of special gifts and candies and idolatrous dolls.   The ban named all molded cookies -which included spekuloos, the Dutch gingerbread, and moppen, a popular crispy biscuits not as spicy as gingerbread, as did the city of Arnhem.   Gingerbread men, which had actually been invented in the English court of Elizabeth I, had been taken up by people of the occult who used them like voodoo dolls.   They would bake effigies in them that supposedly had special powers to make people fall in love, become pregnant, more virile, or reek havoc on their enemies.

But the Dutch and their children loved the Feast of St. Nicholas, a carryover from Catholic days.   What made Sinterklaas so popular with children is that he gave out gifts and sweet treats to good children.   One of the most popular gifts was gingerbread men.   Also, Dutch children were a special part of the Dutch culture.  

The Dutch were creative.   They transformed Sinterklaas from the legendary Catholic Bishop of Myrna to an old wise man from Spain dressed in red clothes that somewhat still looked like a bishop, but was no longer the saint.     So they continued to hold the Sinterklaas parade, hold street markets and fairs, the nights before the saint’s feast day on December 6.

So, December 4, 1663, Dr. Tulp and his cronies instituted the following ban:

“Since the magistrates (of Amsterdam) have learned that in previous years, notwithstanding the publishing of the Bylaws, on Saint Nicholas Eve various persons have been standing on the Dam and other places in the town with candy, eatables, and other merchandise, so that a large crowd from all over town gathered…. The same magistrates, to prevent all such disorders and to take the superstition and fables of the papacy out of the youths’ heads, have ordered, regulated and opined that on Saint Nicholas Eve no persons whoever they may be, are to be allowed on the Dam or any other places and streets within this town with any kind of candy, eatables, or other merchandise (under the penalty of very severe fines – 3 guilder)”

It’s a huge irony that Dr. Nicholaes Tulp was trying to ban his own saint namesake. Tulp could be the inspiration for an evil character from another Rankin Bass Christmas Special – Burgermeister Meisterburger in Santa Claus is Coming to Town (1970), an evil Germanic mayor who also tried to ban the giving of gifts.

Well that didn’t sit well with the children of Amsterdam who were used to getting their sweet treats from Sinterklaas.   What – take away our sweets, our beloved benevolent gift giver, our Christmas joy?   No way!  This was the straw that broke the camel’s back, or more appropriately, the back of Sinterklaas’ white horse, which he rode through the city and rooftops on.  So, encouraged by their parents, a group of enraged activist 11 year old boys stormed the streets of Amsterdam in protest. The children were encouraged by their parents to riot because authorities would never dream of lifting a finger to harm the most precious possession of the Republic – children.    The results of the youthful riot?   Next year Sinterklaas was back in public on the Amsterdam streets and canals handing out presents and everybody had gingerbread and a good time.   The Dutch government would eventually tolerate private family celebrations of St. Nicholas Day.

The Feast of St. Nichoals (1665) by Dutch artist Jan Steen.

Only two years later the Dutch artist Jan Steen, a masterful visual storyteller, painted The Feast of St. Nicholas, immortalizing a Dutch family celebrating the beloved feast.    It’s not known if this was a political statement against the Calvinist regime, but it documents the popularity of the celebration and even gives us a picture of what one of the 11 year old protesters might have looked like that won back Sinterklaas and gingerbread.    The painting now hangs in the Rijksmuseum, named after Rembrandt, who had painted Dr. Tulp, the evil mayor of Amsterdam.

In the center of picture we see a little girl possessively holding a doll clad in fur and halo holding a red cross-shaped staff, representing St. John the Baptist, and a bucket with an orange, a sugar candy stick with a rooster (a symbol seen on many Amsterdam church steeples that Pope Nicholas had instituted in the 9th century as a symbol of Peter’s betrayal of Jesus) and a gingerbread boy – all the items Dr. Tulp’s legislation had tried to ban. The girl’s brother, behind her to the right, is super happy with his gift, a kolf club and ball.  A game analogous to modern hockey, kolf was played on frozen canals in the winter and on level land in summer. Players both young and old enjoyed propelling a small wooden ball toward a goal post using sticks that were curved at the end like the one we see here.  In fact, this popular game often appears in seventeenth-century Dutch winter scenes of other artists.

The infant sister holding a Sinterklaas gingerbread.

The older brother to the left is crying. His sister and little brother laugh at him. The older woman in the background, perhaps his Oma, tries to comfort him by giving a coin, because he found his shoe to be empty (the punishment for being naughty) He is an image of how one of the 11 year old protesters of 1663 might have appeared.  A group of other children on the right are singing “Sinterklaasliedjes” under the chimney. One of those older brothers holds his infant sister who holds a large gingerbread in the shape of the “Goedheiligman” (Good-holy-man) or St. Nicholas.   In the lower left of the painting, Steen tantalizes us with an assortment of treats piled high in a woven basket and strewn across the seat of an ornately carved chair.  He shows us apples, nuts, sugared candies, waffles (not the thick kind Jean-Francois of Taste of Belgium makes) and other baked delights of various shapes and sizes. Particularly impressive is the large, richly decorated diamond-shaped loaf that leans against the chair. This sweet white bread, called a duivekater, was traditionally enjoyed at the Feast of St. Nicholas, as well as at Christmas, and on the Dutch New Year.

A modern Dutch baker surrounded by Duivikater

“Duivekaters” were made from sweetened white bread – which was a luxury – and given as a sort of end-of-the-year bonus. The shape goes back to the pre-Christian era. It was a tradition to sacrifice loaves of bread, shaped like human limbs to the Germanic gods, like Odin, who was the center of the Winter Feast and the legendary Winter Hunt. The name was probably derived from “Duivelkater” (Devil-cake). But there is also a link to the feast of Sinterklaas. In this little folk-rhyme:

“Sinterklaasje van over ‘t water,
Sinterklaas from over the water,
breng me toch een duivekater.”
please bring me a duivekater.

Portrait of Duivikater bakers 1658 by Jan Steen.

The same artist, Jan Steen, also documented this sweet holiday bread in his portrait of  Arend Oostwaert and his wife Catharina Keyzerswaer, painted in 1658, after Dr. Tulp had started his administerial banning of Dutch holiday breads.   Steen painted another portrait later, about 1670-75, of another family enjoying St. Nick’s Day, which hangs in the Catharijneconvent in Utrecht. An interesting aside in both paintings is that the father is in the background of all the action and seems disengaged. And in both paintings the pretty young maidservant is standing right next to the father, a suggestion of hanky panky that happened in many wealthy Dutch homes.

A later portait by Steen of another family enjoying the Feast of St. Nickolas

I’m sort of thankful to the Dr. Tulp and his Calvinist cronies who discriminated against Dutch Catholics in the province of Brabant and elsewhere in the Netherlands.   That’s the reason my fourth great Grandparents Rainier and Grada Reinzen immigrated to Newport, Kentucky via New Orleans in the 1850s, after Sinterklaas had received his now infamous mischievous helper, Schwarte Piet, or Black Piet, dressed as a Spanish Moor black servant.    It’s this combo Dutch and Germanic ancestry that I grew up with celebrating both St. Nick’s Day with small gifts and treats and Christmas Day with larger Santa-given gifts.

My friend Debby, who was raised in Amsterdam by a baker, sends me her father’s recipe moppen biscuits for Christmas.   While she doesn’t stamp any papist effigies into her cookies, they do make me feel better as I dunk the crunchy biscuits in my coffee over the Christmas holiday.   They are kind of the Dutch biscotti.   It’s very cool to think that I am dipping a once banned Christmas cookie that created a riot of 11 years olds.   It’s a dunkable testament to youthful will and joy.   

Dr. Tulp, the evil mayor of Amsterdam who tried to ban Sinterklaas and gingerbread.

By signing the physicals of the first Dutch immigrants to Manhattan, who took their traditions of Sinterklaas with them to the colonies, Dr. Tulp, in effect, is responsible for spreading the tradition that would become our beloved American Santa Claus. And, in true karma, Dr. Tulp’s legacy is that he has a valve in the sphincter named after him, the Tulp Valve, because any man who would think and institute a ban on children’s Christmas joy is a true you-know-what-hole!

A Seven Course Italian Fishy Christmas Eve

If you’re Italian American you’re probably already knee deep in the preparation for the glorious Feast of the Seven Fishes meal on Christmas Eve (La Vigilia or Festa dei sette pesci in Italian).  Maybe Dominick the Christmas Donkey is soundtracking your kids rolling out struffoli  – those golden deep fried honey drizzled balls of dough, dusted with rainbow sprinkles.   Or you’ve got baccala (salt cod) rehydrating in vats of water for an elegant fish salad.      If you haven’t already you’re probably grating dried bread for breadcrumbs or hard cheese to top the seafood linguini.      Maybe your scungilli (North American Atlantic Conch)  – pronounced skungeel –  is still on order from NYC.   Or perhaps you’re making the three cake layers for chocolate dipped tri-color cookies.

Whatever you’re doing at the moment to prepare for this feast, you’re in the midst of one of the greatest immigrant American Christmas feasts.    The Feast of the Seven Fishes was brought to the US with Southern Italian Catholic immigrants.   The number 7 is contentiously either derived from the seven sacraments or the seven days of creation.     Most modern Italians have never heard of the feast of the seven fishes, so it’s truly something Italian Americans have adopted wholeheartedly from a small hyper regional Italian feast.

My family has traditionally had Italian on Christmas Eve – but it hasn’t been fish, it’s been meat lasagna or spinach ravioli from the Sacred Heart Italian Dinner.    The reason my Germanic family has a tradition of Italian food is that my maternal Grandfather’s family is from the hilly area of Newport known institutionally as Clifton, but colloquially as Spaghetti Nob, because of the Italian Catholics who lived there.     Grandpa’s father and grandfather moved from the farm country of Carthage to Clifton to work for the Louisville and Nashville Railroad – who owned what is now the Purple People Bridge at the Levy.   Clifton is the neighborhood that spawned the iconic Pompilio’s Restaurant and Peluso’s Italian Market – as well as many Italian families who governed Newport.    Even though there were actually more Germanic families in Clifton – and it should have been called Sauerkraut Nob – Germans were everywhere in Newport, so a part that had even a small enclave of other ethnicity got notice.

An overview of Newport’s Italian American neighborhood, Spaghetti Nob. Photo by Margo Warminski

There are hundreds of fish dishes that make it to the Italian American table for the feast of seven fishes.   A typical one goes something like this – fried calamari, baked clams or oysters, shrimp cocktail, shrimp scampi, baccalla salt cod salad, and linguini with shellfish sauce.       Lots of good artisan Italian bread, desserts, Christmas cookies and accoutrements, like an antipasta plate, lots of wine and sambuca – accompany this meal that lasts into the night – typically after midnight mass.

The iconic stuffed calimari dish.

If you’re from the East Coast, you probably, like the Real Housewives of New Jersey, have scungilli salad, which is American Atlantic Conch, that no one outside of the bridges and tunnels of NYC really know.     You might be fancy and have the iconic stuffed calamari or the fried pickled eel dishes that take a lot of prep work and have fallen out of favor with semi-homemaders.       If you’ve planned ahead you have found a supplier for the beloved Guanciale, a cured hog jowl bacon that like its less expensive cousin pancetta, is used to flavor sauces and pastas.

More importantly you look forward to the bonding and the remembrance of heritage that this feast brings to your family – the time to share stories, reminisce, and visit with beloved friends and relatives.

This year two local restaurants are doing Feast of the Seven Fishes.   The Governor in Milford is doing a la carte Feast of the Seven Fishes entrees for carryout in 4-6 people sized portions.   It consists of smoked trout dip, lobster bisque, lobster mac and cheese, crabcakes, pastrami smoked salmon, shrimp cocktail and oysters Rockefeller.   Washington Platform is also doing their annual eat-in Feast of the Seven Fishes the day before and Christmas eve.   Their feast consists of oysters, shrimp Louise, seafood bisque, calamari Caesar salad, sole almondine, seafood linguini, crab stuffed salmon and cannoli.

A Taste of Five Ohio Holiday Nogs – And One Boozy Nog

The five Ohio holiday nogs I tasted

It’s getting harder and harder to find locally made holiday eggnogs.     There’s really two reasons.  The biggest is that the fluid milk industry has been on a downward spiral since 2014 when price of milk fell from 26 to 16 dollars a 100 weight.     The American milk taste has shifted to nut milks, and grocers have waged price wars on milk as a lost leader for feet-in-store.  The second is that it’s really hard to make in large batches.   Tempering the egg yolks has to be done carefully so as not to make a large batch of scrambled eggs.   For that reason many eggnogs are now technically holiday spices nogs or really flavored milk because they contain no eggs.    Some use whey solids to thicken the nog or even pudding mix when not using eggs.  One of the nogs I tasted had apparently run into the tempering problem. We all like chunky peanut butter, bug not chunky eggnog.

I found five Ohio made ‘nogs’ that really exhibit all the different levels of supply in our local dairy industry.  The eggnog industry is a lot like the wine industry.   There are estate wines made with grapes grown on site.   There are winemakers who source grapes and make their own wine.  And then there are retailers who make contract manufactured wine at someone else’s facility with their recipe. I found four local nogs made within under a two hour drive from Cincinnati, 3 estate nogs made with milk made on the farm, one very small local producer who sources their milk and makes their own, and one that basically contract sources their eggnog with their legacy recipe.  What started as a quest for my grandfather’s homemade Northern German Eierlikor, turned out to be a lesson in the challenging plight of our local and American dairy industry.   

When my Grandpa stopped making his secret non-pasteurized holiday boozy eggnog, he bought and served boozy United Diary Farmers (UDF).    He made it with the milk from the local Ruther and  Coors dairies on the delivery route to their North College Hill cottage.  My Grandparents alternated daily delivery of a quart from the two dairies because both were an insurance customer of my grandfather.  And he would have made it with local farm eggs, as his family, like many others in Cincinnati did before in-home electric refrigeration, had their own backyard chicken coop in Cumminsville.

My Grandpa Woellert and brother. Tom – maker and afficianado of good eggnog
Great Grandpa and Grandma Woellert in front of their Cumminsville henhouse – second generation German American eggnog makers
Great Great Grandpa Theodore Ernst Woellert – brought the North German Holiday Eierlikor (eggnog) recipe to Cincy from Mecklenburg Germany.

Many mix their eggnog with rum, rye, bourbon or brandy.   So, depending on your boozy mixer, you may want to choose a nog that doesn’t compete with the aspect of the alcohol you want to feature.    Therefore you may want an eggnog is less spicy, less sweet or not as caramelly a traditional nog.    My family’s standard has always been a bourbon mixer married with UDF’s super caramelly eggnog.      This year, I’ve tried my nogs as a cocktail called the Fluffy Duck – which mixes Bayou brand satsuma orange rum liqueur from New Orleans and Orange bitters with a good spicy nog. 

But now UDF isn’t really even made with local milk and is probably not made in a UDF owned plant, but outsourced with their recipe.  That’s because these days with the decreasing number of Ohio dairy farmers – there are no dairy farmers left in Hamilton County – and the conglomeration of dairies that happened in the 50s, 60s, and 70s – all milk flows south.    The cow milk we buy in the grocery came from Michigan and Wisconsin.   In turn, Ohio milk flows south to West Virginia, Kentucky, and as far south as the Carolinas.

The non egg containing Holiday Nog version of UDF.

But UDF is still the local benchmark for good eggnog.   Happy Cows Creamery at New Horizon Farms in New Vienna, Ohio, told me they make theirs to the UDF flavor standard.    That flavor standard is a rich, sweet, silky texture, well-spiced eggnog (with cinnamon, nutmeg and clove)with a caramelly finish.     The finish is more caramelly than eggy or custardy.    And the texture is thicker than milk, but not like drinking a pudding or a smoothy.     That’s hard to make and also, as I found out hard to find.   I wanted to find a local nog that beat UDF’s and I did, but it’s the only non-local one – about a four and a half hour drive from Cincinnati.    UDF makes both a traditional eggnog and a Holiday Nog, without eggs.

The first eggnog I tried was the one made by head baristo Fernando, at newly opened Mom ‘N Em Coffeehouse in Camp Washington.      He told me he makes it with whole milk, sugar, local eggs from Just Egging It, tempers it and the eggs with nutmeg, cinnamon, and star anise, and then finishes with local honey and vanilla.   When I opened the container I was excited to see the bits of dark spices dispersed in the nog, and I was happy with the thick-enough consistency.      But I didn’t get that caramelly aftertaste like I expect with an eggnog.     It also tasted very eggy and more like a custard.  It’s probably more similar to a horchata or one of the many Latin holiday drinks like coquito from Puerto Rico, Rompope from Mexico, or Crema de Vie from Cuba.      It is a good eggnog if you like a more custardy nog and it’s a good mixing nog, especially if you mix it with a fine bourbon.    The low caramel taste won’t compete with a spicy rye or a deep flavored bourbon.     Fernando recommends his eggnog to be mixed with a shot of Four Roses Bourbon.

Images from the New Horizons/Happy Cow Creamery Farm store in New VIenna, Ohio

Next I tried the eggnog at New Horizon Farms in New Vienna, Ohio, about 20 minutes southeast of Wilmington.      Their story shows the plight of the local dairy industry.   They’ve been at their farm since 1969, and at their height in the 80s milked 140 cows instead of just 50.    They belong to the Scioto Milk Producer’s Co-op, which is made up of about 35 Ohio dairy farmers who combine their milk to the wholesale fluid milk market.     They saved about a dozen northern Kentucky dairy farmers last year during the Dean Foods bankruptcy debacle which shuttered a lot of small dairies.     Happy Cow Creamery’s eggnog is made from milk they get twice a day from their herd of 50 Holstein cows.   New Horizon opened their Happy Cow Creamery to sell flavored milk and cheese products like flavored curds into the retail and farm markets to supplement the decreasing profits from wholesale milk.    Because they don’t use eggs, theirs can be called a Holiday Spiced Nog, or more really a flavored milk, like the other flavored milks they make – chocolate, strawberry, mocha, peanut butter, pumpkin spice, and cookies and cream.    They also make a fantastic Buffalo spiced cheese curd that you must try.

I also had high hopes from the next local eggnog I tasted, which was from Snowville Creamery in Pomeroy, Ohio, south of Athens on the Ohio River .  I found it – in very small quanties, I might add – at Whole Foods Marketi in Kenwood (they were out at the store in Rookwood.) Snowville doesn’t use eggs, so is considered a spiced nog, and it contains organic mace, cardamom and turmeric.     It has a medium thick and deep yellow tinge due to the turmeric.   It uses A2 milk, which is considered more digestible by humans than the typical A1 milk in retail milk.      The nog had a different spice taste, and didn’t have the caramelly aftertaste I expected.    It had a decent thickness, but unfortunately had little chunks that seemed like cooked egg, but were probably coagulated whey solids or pudding.     It’s probably the healthiest of all of the nogs I tasted and most digestible.

The last nog that I tasted was from the Hartzler Family Dairy in northern Wooster, Ohio.     Harold Hartzler and wife Patricia founded the farm in 1953, and although they made their own milk they formed the dairy much later in 1990, with their free-range Holstein cows.   Harold’s organic farm methods have been studied internationally and have had him flown to Italy as a dignitary to consult with the Italian government’s agriculture department.    Three of my Cincinnati friends gushingly recommended this nog.   And while it is the least local, it is my favorite of all the of the nogs I tasted.    It even surpasses the UDF standard in my opinion.    It has a brilliant, medium thick silky smoothness and a rich, deeply spiced, caramelly aftertaste.    My father, our family eggnog afficianado, agrees.    The Hartzler family recommends mixing it with ginger ale or flavoring your coffee, but offers no guidance on how to booze it up.    In Cincinnati it can be found at Madisons, Remke Markets, Pipkins and Jungle Jim’s.

UPDATE 12/15/2020 – I found a sixth eggnog – what might be Ohio’s only bottled boozed- up eggnog . Its made in house at Adesso Coffeehouse in downtown Mason, Ohio. The owner, Chuck Pfahler, crafts this nog with Jersey cow milk from Indian Creek Creamery in De Graff OH, local eggs from Lebanon’s Marvin Organic Farms, fresh grated nutmeg, and boozes it with VS Brandy and dark rum. It’s not too thick, mildly spiced and mildly caramelly, but very boozy and makes a great balanced cocktail, kinda like a Tom and Jerry – get em quick they have a limited supply and they’re going fast!

So I’ve found my new go-to Ohio Estate Holiday Eggnog for all my mixing and drinking, and I’ve risked my cholesterol and blood sugar so Merry Christmas and you’re welcome!

The 1950s Santa Mug that Took Us Away from the Cup-And-Saucer

The 1959 Holt Howard Winking Santa Mug that converted Americans from the cup-and-saucer

Believe it or not the coffee mugs that we use today were not popular as late as the 1950s.   The snarky-saying work coffee mug we all have was not yet even a figment of anyone’s imagination.   Postwar it was still convention for Americans to drink their coffee like they did their tea – in a cup and saucer.     

That was until two mid century brothers John and Robert Howard and their partner Grant Holt started a    holidawares company out of their 35th street New York apartment in 1949.    If you are a fan or a student of mid century design, you can recognize the Holt Howard Santa out of a lineup.    Robert Howard was the talented artist who developed the super popular Holt Howard midcentury Santa image.    He came in cups, pitchers, cookie jars, relish trays, napkin holders, nut platters, candle holders, planters, and candle climbers to name a few.   The Holt Howard  Santa took on some other characters too – as an astronaut, a ship captain, and a Rembrandt for example.

Robert Howard, the man who created the Holt Howard Santa and the mug that changed American coffee drinking habits

The first products the company made were candle powered Angel-abras.   The company quickly moved into Christmas kitchenware products and the company’s line took off.   Even though  the company considered Santa “North Pole’s First Citizen,” they also produced holiday ware featuring angels, pixies (what they called Holly Elves), snowmen, choir boys and reindeer.    There are hundreds of varieties of their noel candle holders that are in huge demand with collectors.   I myself am on the lookout for the Wee Wise Men candle holders and the Captain Santa and Frosty boat salt and pepper shakers.   What was once a bargain at thrift shops can now be found for hundreds of dollars on ebay.   Walter Dworkin, considered the world’s foremost expert on Holt Howard collectables, has written several books on their extensive product line.    He’s a fellow member of the Golden Glow of Christmas Past, who held their national convention in Cincinnati in 2018.     At the sellers’ convention there were hundreds of examples of Holt Howard products for sale.

Growing up my family had a set of Holt Howard “Winking Santa” mugs that my grandmother had bought in the 1950s, probably at one of the many department stores in downtown Cincinnati.     We used them for hot chocolate or eggnog around the Christmas season.    Hot chocolate seemed to taste better in these fun mugs that were only brought out for Christmas.   And they were always accompanied by a plate of delicious homemade cookies like springerle, Mexican wedding cookies, or pfeffernusse, for the dipping.

My family’s 1950s Holt Howard Winking Santa beverage set and the Winking Santa mug that changed our coffee drinking habits

The Howard brothers convinced department store buyers that tablewares departments could be more than just utilitarian pots and pans, but a major source of revenue.    As Americans entertained more post war, tablewares like seasonal relish trays, nut platters, candle holders, and cute salt and peppers shakers became in high demand.    Some might consider these items in the realm of tchotchkes.   But Holt Howard created the space for casual, fun table ware, and Americans adopted them in their homes wholeheartedly in the company’s heyday into the 1960s.

The iconic tall Santa mug was one of the first kitchenware items that the company created in the mid 1950s. According to John Howard, it is considered to be the mug that converted coffee drinking Americans from the stuffy English cup-and-saucer – “from convention to convenience”, as he said. After the War, coffee was in high demand, as Americans had to deal with bad versions, fake coffee or even no coffee during wartime shortages.   We quickly became one caffeinated nation under God as the shortages ceased and life got back to normal.      The casual American dining space was enhanced by changes coming in our foodways after the war.     Pizza and hamburgers, portable convenience foods, were part of this casual revolution.

I found one of those 1959 Holt Howard coffee mugs at a local Goodwill store for fifty cents a few years ago, not knowing its significance to the American food story.     But now I can casually sip coffee out of it knowing thanks to the Holt Howard Santa, I don’t have to balance around a cup-and-saucer every time I need a caffeine fix.

The Season’s Most Popular Food Trend is a Sweet Take on Chinese Flowering Tea

An assortment of hot chocolate bombs.

Before Halloween I sort of predicted the food trend that has literally become the season’s hottest – the hot chocolate bomb.   I’d seen an obscure video online of these chocolate spheres that when dropped into a cup of hot chocolate would melt and explode forth their confectionery content.   They revealed things like mint chocolate bits, marshmallows, cookies and cream bits, peppermint crumbles – and a variety of other fun ingredients.    I thought – this is it – my nieces and nephews would love this.   This is going to be big.

It reminded me something my brother brought back from China a few years ago when he had been travelling there regularly.   The Chinese have for centuries made flowering tea, or blooming tea.    It consists of a bundle of dried tea leaves wrapped around one or more dried flowers.   Typically it comes from the Hunan Province of China.    When dropped in a hot cup of tea, the leaves unfurl and release a the blossom inside, which grows as it becomes hydrated with the tea.   The flowers bundled include globe amaranth, chrysanthemum, jasmine, lily, hibiscus, and Osmanthus.    Not only does the unbundling in hot tea create a dramatic affect, but the blossoms add a fragrance and flavor to the tea.      It was just like these hot chocolate bombs I’d seen.

An unfurled Jasmine blossom tea.

While I couldn’t find them anywhere a few weeks ago, now they’re seemingly everywhere!   I saw a chocolate snowman shaped one at Walgreens yesterday and now everyone is posting them in action on social media.   My sister’s friend bought a chocolate mold to make them herself and in 24 hours sold 30 of them to family and friends for $4 a pop.

I’m thinking the flavor combos for these genius bombs are endless.   There’s chocolate raspberry, orange-chocolate, s’mores, salted caramel, eggnog.   There could be a chai-flavored bomb, a gingerbread flavored bomb.   There could be ones that explode marshmallow and butterscotch chips.    There could be others that explode coconut and caramel like a girl scout Samoa.   Wow you could really get creative with these.   And that’s just for the kids.   Then there could be adult boozy versions with Irish cream, crème de menthe, kahlua, Fireball – the list goes on.   This could even give the Jaeger bomb a new life.

The key with formulation of a hot chocolate bomb is to make the shell thin enough that it melts quickly in a cup of liquid, but not too thin that it risks being shattered before dumped.   And the contents should be either easily absorbed into the liquid, fast melting, or float so that they can be seen and not choked on.    

I think we are in for a world of amazing hot chocolate bombs this winter and in many years to come.

The affect of hot chocolate bombs on kids.

Hog Maw – A Pennsylvania Dutch Pork Stomach-Stuffed Holiday Treat

In the Pennsylvania Dutch counties of Berks and Lancaster, there is what some might consider a particularly frightening dish served around the Christmas holidays that is a cousin to goetta.   It’s called Hog Maw or Seimaage in Pennsylvania German.     It descends from the dish Saumagen native to the Rhineland-Pfalz or Palatinate area of Southwestern Germany.    I like it’s other slang names –  Susquehanna Turkey, after the river that runs through Berks and Lancaster Counties, and Pennsylvania Dutch Goose.    But Hog Maw contains no fowl.

Hog Maw is basically the outer muscular part of a pork stomach (with the fatty inner lining removed) stuffed with a hash of potatoes, onions, cabbage, loose pork sausage and herbs, and then either boiled or baked.   Some recipes include carrots and celery or other veggies.   It’s kind of one of those kitchen sink meals, where you throw whatever leftover meat and veggies you have around.    It is usually sliced and maybe browned a bit and served warm, topped with horseradish or stewed tomatoes, or cold on a sandwich.     There are no jelly or syrup toppers of Hog Maw, like there are in the Goetta-verse.

In Berks and Lancaster counties, finding a maw or stomach for stuffing is not so hard, as most butcher shops carry them for the dish. But we’d be hard pressed to find a pork stomach at Eckerlin or Avril-Bleh’s downtown.

I saw a demonstration of one being made over the weekend at the online Christmas at the Farm, presented by the Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, by Chef Terry Berger.    While stuffed pork stomach doesn’t incite warm feelings of “Yum – Pig Stomach!” to most, once you get past the gnarliness of stuffing a pork innard it doesn’t seem so weird.       People not familiar with grain sausages like goetta made at the time of pig slaughter in the Fall, which is when Hog Maw is made, would probably say the same thing.

Hog Maw was a frugal way of extending meat, just like goetta and considered in Germany as one of those ‘arme leute essen’ or poor people’s foods.    It came to Pennsylvania with the early Germanic religious Anabaptist refugees of the Palatinate, where it is still served today alongside sauerkraut and with local Rhine wine.     It’s also spiced a bit more – with marjoram, nutmeg and white pepper – in the Palatinate.   It remains a traditional New Year’s Day dinner with Pennsylvania Germans, and is considered back luck in the New Year if it’s not eaten.

Former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who was from the Palatinate, loved his native dish, and served it to visiting dignitaries at his ‘second living room,’ the restaurant Deidesheimer Hof.      Kohl force-fed saumagen to the likes of Margaret Thatcher, Jacques Chirac, and Boris Yeltsin, along with another weird meaty strudel of blood sausage and liverwurst.

No this is not a scene from the Haunted Dent Schoolhouse – it’s some prepped saumagen ready to be cooked.

Although saumagen may be delicious, a love for it in Germany doesn’t lead to being taken seriously.  Kohl’s embrace of regional cuisine led to criticism. In the early 1990s, journalists portrayed Kohl as a provincial yokel, losing his head over fattening local dishes and failing to present an appropriate image of power in affairs of state. The literary critic Karl Heinz Bohrer was particularly bitchy  when he claimed that “Kohl represented the rule of the belly over the head.”

Hog Maw may have also travelled to America with the Alsatian portion of Germanic immigrants who came to Berks and Lancaster Counties.   The French make a similar stuffed pork stomach at Boucherie or time of hog slaughter called chaudin.    The Cajuns /Arcadians of Louisiana, descendants of French Hugonauts make a similar dish, called ponce, which is more like an oversized sausage.    The cajun version uses rice instead of potatoes and adds onions and peppers and tends to be spicer than the Pennsylvania Dutch version.

The good thing about stuffing pig stomach, unlike stuffing pork chitlins, is there’s not a laborious and stinky cleaning process.    Butchers remove the fatty inner lining, so think of the maw as a pork casing with just a little bit of muscle meat on it.   The trick as I learned from Chef Berger is to stuff the stomach as full as you can, because like our own stomachs, they were meant to expand with quantity.    If you don’t stuff it enough, it won’t be dense enough to make good slices.   Some recipes call for egg and bread crumbs in the stuffing to ensure it stays together, but if you stuff it good enough and use a sausage with enough fat content, that’s not necessary.   Any leftover filling can be used to make into a soup.

I think Hog Maw is on my near horizon to make, although I think I will tend toward the spicier Cajun version of ponce.