Patpinki and Grandfather

Remembering Holy Supper in a Carpatho-Russian Home in Central Pennsylvania, 1948

by Mary Buchosky Toda

Anticipation of the Nativity each year began early in my family, not with the appearance of Santa figures or Christmas-in-July sales, but with Grandfather's announcement one fine day each October that the mushrooms had popped in the fields and would soon be ready for picking. Grandfather had been a forester in the Carpathian Mountains and though he worked in the coal mines in this country, he was still a forester at heart. Each year he cut the wood for the whole family, and so was the first to see the patpinki (mushrooms) come up.

Dad and my uncles did the picking, and my sister and I went along, watching them pick the fragrant mushrooms and place them in gathering baskets lined with white towels made from feed sacks. When the baskets were full, we took them to Grandma's in Dad's gray Plymouth. Grandma spread them in a single layer on her kitchen table and carefully separated them into two containers: those with plump stems and rounded, unopened caps that would be strung and dried behind the kitchen stove; and the others - larger, opened ones or buttons - to be canned or pickled.

My sister, Susan, and I helped Grandma make the strings of mushrooms and hung them from the drying pegs that were on the wall behind the wood stove. The herbs - parsley, dill, mint - were all dried by that time, and already stored in Mason jars on the shelves in the cellar with the pots of wild honey my uncles gathered.

In the cellar, too, were two barrels of sauerkraut that Grandma made from the cabbage we had grown that summer and the grape wine Grandfather made. Jars of dried lima beans and peas were also there, from the summer garden.

These foods, along with onions and garlic (braided into ropes and hung on the back porch) would become our Holy Supper meal come January 6th. The twelve foods we ate included mashed lima beans and sautéed onions, flavored with slivers of garlic; peas and sauerkraut; vinegar and mushroom soup; dried cherries and other fruits; bulbalki (small breads, brushed with melted honey and sprinkled with poppyseed); salt and raw garlic cloves for health; and sweet, red wine.

Grandma said the twelve foods were all special for the holy day - reminders that life was both bitter and sweet - and that the work of each day the whole year long was required to truly celebrate Christ's Coming.

Now, though the foods served for Holy Supper are the same, the preparation is not as 'labor intensive'. Supermarkets sell both dried beans and peas, as well as canned and frozen, and many kinds of mushrooms are available without early-morning picking. Easiest of all, sauerkraut can be purchased in cans or plastic bags by the pound!

We can no longer go into the woods to find wild bees and gather honey - bees are protected by law from unscrupulous hunters who would destroy their hives - but markets carry many domesticated varieties, including buckwheat: my dad's favorite.

So the menu for Holy Supper is nearly the same today in my daughter's house on December 24th, as the traditions are now followed in her home.

The feeding of the cows and chickens and other barn animals - now embodied by the household pets - was completed, and the last meal of the Nativity Fast was eaten at sunset, around 4 o'clock at that time of the year. A small pile of grain and straw - for Christ's manger, and abundance in the Coming - was made on the dining room table, and covered with a specially-em-broidered table cloth. A candle was placed on the table, too - on top of the pile of grain and straw - for the Star.The meal started with Grandfather's saying the blessing, and offering a solemn toast for our health and salvation, and peace. Each dish was passed, garlic first… and when the meal was done, the candle was blown out, and the dishes left on the table. Our family hurried to Church for the Nativity Vigil: Christ is Born! Glorify Him! 

Additional Notes

The preparation of Holy Supper is not well known outside the Slavic tradition, but it is rich in conveying meaning and creating memories. The traditional foods mentioned above are the ones I grew up with, and I still firmly believe that no Holy Supper is complete without bulbalki and limas (yum!), but the actual foods served from family to family will depend on the family's village tradition and what foods they grew and preserved for winter.

In my home, we have also started playing with the combinations of the ingredients - like making a mushroom and pea-pod stir fry, or a split-pea and onion soup - and adding other Lenten dishes to the menu. Anything 'fasting' is fair game!

If you have never had a traditional Holy Supper, go ahead and invite yourself to the home of friends that prepare one every year (they won't mind, really), or be adventurous and start your own Holy Supper tradition. - Niki Krause

Savvy Substitutions

Other Slavic/ethnic dishes that may be included in a "traditional" Holy Supper include:
borscht (red beet soup)
stuffed cabbage rolls (made with millet
instead of meat)
cooked dried fruit
kutya (cooked whole wheat with honey)
keselitsa (oatmeal soup, Uncle Basil's favorite)

The monks of St. Theodore House, Galion, Ohio, have used the following dishes as part of their "alternate menu" Holy Supper:
garlic & honey
split pea soup
assorted breads
halvah (made with cream-of-wheat, oil, and sugar)
fruit compote
cabbage & potatoes
kasha & bow-tie pasta
onions & portabello mushrooms
koliva (boiled wheat) with apricots
pickled peppers
currant squares

The following dishes might appeal to the "American palate" and the children of the house:
applesauce with cinnamon
vegetable soup
fruit cocktail
gelatin (kosher, if you're really picky)
pasta or rice
noodles & cabbage
sautéed onions, mushrooms and squash
Greek olives
and, of course, PB&J on plain bread

© 1999 by Orthodox Family Life and the original author(s).
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