Baby, You Can Fry My Carp
So this year I had my first traditional Polish Christmas Eve. It was in Wales. Due to various circumstances Pani Williams and I sadly weren’t able to get back to Ohio, TG to celebrate with her half of the family. Instead we decided to have the Polish Christmas Eve on the 24th for my family at our house and the traditional British Christmas Day on the 25th at my parents’ house. It would be the best of both worlds. Nothing could go wrong…
In Britain we don’t celebrate on Christmas Eve like they do in Poland. For us there are no real traditions on Christmas Eve - some people may go to church or even Midnight Mass, but for most of the country it is just the-day-before-Christmas-Day. We have our main celebrations on Christmas Day – kids open presents in the morning and the living room carpet is covered with ripped wrapping paper, family come round and we have a big dinner of turkey, lots of vegetables and gravy, then many puddings and then the adults all fall asleep in front of the TV watching films while the kids play with their toys and the day slowly ends. I like it.
It surprised me when I first learnt that Christmas Day is nothing special for Poles and that Christmas Eve is the more important day. It surprised me to hear you open presents on this day and everybody goes to Midnight Mass. It shocked me to hear that you don’t eat turkey… but carp. We have carp in Britain but I’d never heard of anybody eating it. People might catch a carp when they’re fishing as a hobby or sport, but it would be kept alive and thrown back in the water at the end of the day. I had never eaten it but all fish tastes the same to me so eating carp would be no problem.
While I thought I wouldn’t have a problem eating carp I had a massive problem buying a carp. I thought that because we have so many Polish people living in Britain it would be easy to buy a carp somewhere, but it isn’t. I was asking in supermarkets and at fishmongers and they were looking at me like I was asking for elephant meat or something. I thought for sure they would sell lots of carp at Christmas to the Poles living here, but apparently not.
‘What on Earth do you want a carp for?’ one fishmonger said to me.
‘To eat it.’
‘Why would you want to do that?’
‘I don’t know,’ I sighed.
I was very ill throughout November and December, I was rarely even leaving the house, so it was very frustrating that when I did manage to go out I was hitting brick wall after brick wall trying to buy a stupid carp. Weronika wanted one there to keep the tradition alive and I wanted to do all I could to get whatever she wanted but I just couldn’t in these circumstances. We decided organizing the rest of the dinner was more important and we would have to forget about the carp this year.
My last throw of the dice was during a conversation with my mum I mentioned how difficult it was for me to buy a carp and that Weronika and I had now given up on the idea. I have known my mum since I was born and I know that she is a very determined lady. She is half-Polish but was born and raised in Wales and never had a Polish Christmas Eve. She loved the idea of us having a traditional Polish celebration and wanted it to be as authentic as possible. I knew that by telling her I couldn’t find a carp I had secretly given her a mission to go out and do whatever it took to get one. She would be my Indiana Jones and, in this case, the crystal skull would be a weird fish.
Weronika was constantly calling home for recipes, everybody was telling her different ways to cook the same things and what ingredients to use. It soon became clear that a visit would have to be made to ‘The Polish Shop’ in the nearby city of Chester. To visit a ‘Polish shop’ in Britain is a very weird experience. You walk through the door and you are back in Poland. It is like stepping into the wardrobe to go to Narnia, if Narnia sold Bigos spices and Kubus juice. The shops are like big Zabka or like the old Spar next to Golden Gate. The main differences are that they are very expensive and you don’t get things like Kit-Kats or Coca Cola in there because you can get them from any old British shop. I was sent to the Polish shop to buy poppy seeds, barszcz concentrate and powder. I bought myself a couple of bulki too because British bread rolls aren’t as tasty as bułki!
We also bought a lot of cod and had a few other types of fish. Weronika was going to be in charge of cabbage, barszcz, preparing the fish, uszka, makówki and all the cakes and biscuits. I was going to be in charge of potatoes, frying fish and cleaning the house. Brilliant.
On about the 22nd I was cleaning the kitchen in the evening when there was a knock at the front door. I went to answer it and there was my mum with something in her arms.
“I’ve got something for you!” she said happily, looking at me over her glasses.
I could see she was holding a crystal skull. I mean a carp.
She had bought it from a Tesco a few towns away. I knew she’d get one.
“It was the last one. There was a Polish couple looking at it, but I picked it up before they could buy it!” she said.
I apologise to that Polish couple if their Christmas was carp-less.
“So then I asked them how I would cook it!” she continued. Jesus, mother! “ They just pointed at it and said ‘Oil, oil!’”
I’m surprised they didn’t hit her with it.
So our food was pretty much sorted. I got a great deal on some Tyskie for our guests. I wouldn’t be drinking at Christmas Eve but I felt it was only right that I should test a couple of the Tyskies the day before, to make sure they weren’t bad. I was only thinking of my guests!
I needed a Tyskie or two that evening after gutting the carp. I have no problem gutting animals and chopping them up, I am a farmer’s son after all, but this carp just stank! The smell was so horrible and the fish was slimy and disgusting. Why do you people eat this fish?!
During Christmas Eve day we got the house ready and all was calm. We thought everything would be fine so we were working slowly. Then time went faster and it soon became clear we had a mad rush to get everything ready on time. I decided to call my mother, Indiana Jones, to call round to help us. She said she would be round in half an hour. It was 3pm, we had a million things to do and people would be arriving at 5pm. We were under pressure.
“Mati, can you call a man to visit us?” my wife asked as she made uszka. She wanted to see other men so early in our marriage? “Your mum will be here soon and it’s bad luck if a woman visits us first on Christmas Eve,” she said, “especially if she’s wearing glasses.”
I was not in the mood for this.
“Pani, we’ve got thirteen people coming for dinner so we have enough bad luck anyway!”
Indiana came round and saved the day by ironing some table cloths and helping us set the table. There would be no empty place setting for the unexpected visitor. If an unexpected visitor knocked on the door I’d tell him to go away. Or sit on the stairs. My potatoes were doing well, the house was clean, I just had a mountain of fish to fry. Then people started to arrive.
There were thirteen people in total – mum, dad, brothers, sister, in-laws, nieces and nephews. The most guests we had ever had before was four. It was a big challenge.
Before dinner it was time for a few other traditions. The Bible reading. Something about my family is that we love to make each other look silly. We love to make jokes about each other so you have to have a thick skin. Any time we get together it is like swimming with sharks. And I had to read from The Bible in front of them. My family was raised Catholic but over the years people drifted away from the church and at this point three out of the thirteen people around the table still went to church. I knew it was important to Weronika so secretly hoped that during my reading nobody would make a stupid joke or try to be funny. I told myself that if anybody did that they’d be getting a Bible thrown in their face.
I read from The Bible about the birth of Jesus but didn’t look up at anybody because I thought they’d start laughing. Thankfully they were quiet throughout. My reading ended with Jesus being born. Then it came.
“Wow, what happens next, Matty?” somebody asked sarcastically from down the table.
“He dies in the end,” I said, “but there’s a twist.”
That shut them up. Then we had to explain the giving of wishes and the breaking of bread. We knew it was too much to expect everybody to wish everybody wishes so we said they should give wishes to the people sitting next to them and break their bread. My family were a bit confused and I’m not sure we explained it so well because soon enough everybody was just wishing everybody happiness and it didn’t seem to mean all that much. But at least they weren’t being stupid.
Then we brought out the barszcz. My sister had heard the stories of Duck’s Blood Soup that I had as a child and looked at the soup in horror. She thought it was blood. If I told her the things in her bowl were called ‘ears’ I don’t know what would have happened. Max, my four-year-old nephew, gave the uszka ‘eleven out of ten’ so they were a hit with him. A few at the table didn’t like the soup as well as we would have liked but really, come on, it’s beetroot soup. It is easy to forgive people who might not like it.
Then we brought out the main cause. There was fried fish, carp, mashed potatoes, roasted potatoes, cabbage, peas, carrots, beef burgers….what? Why were there beef burgers? My brother-in-law hates all fish so sadly I had to make some burgers for him. I didn’t want to make too many because I didn’t want my family to just eat beef instead of fish. Within minutes this brother-in-law was asking me for ketchup too. Thankfully everybody seemed to really like the fish. They also really liked the beef burgers but hopefully over time I’ll forget that part. The ketchup was passed around a lot but in the end we were very happy with the results from our meal. Hardly anybody ate the carp but I could understand that – it is disgusting.
Now for pudding. Weronika made lots of tasty biscuits and also made a very nice looking Makówki. We all tried the Makówki but, for me, it tasted like plasticine or Play-Doh that kids would play with and make shapes out of. It was just too heavy to eat. The biscuits were popular, though. But I felt bad about the Makówki. It wasn’t so popular. It was one of the main reasons I went to the Polish shop and Weronika put a lot of effort into making it look nice.
“It’s a shame about the Makówki,” I said to Wera in the kitchen as we sorted out plates.
“Well, I don’t even like it,” she said.
It turns out she doesn’t like bloody carp either.
The family then shared presents. I had spoken to the adults about this before the dinner because this is not how things are done in Britain. They agreed to sharing presents at this time partly because it would help make the Polish party feel more realistic and partly because it meant they’d get their presents earlier. It was a totally new concept to my little nephew Max. He carried his wrapped present around to all the adults he can find.
“Can I open it?”
Then he’d find another adult.
“Can I open it?”
He did open it, we all opened stuff and it was lovely.
Later that evening the three church-goers in our group – Wera, my mum and me – went to Midnight Mass. At 9pm. You see Catholicism isn’t as big in Britain as it is in Poland. I know the White Church in Ohio where I got married has about three priests. My church in Wales has one priest and he is very old so he can’t stay up so late. I was glad. I was so tired and it was a relief that I didn’t have to wait until midnight.
Pani Williams and I came home and reflected on what we think was a very good Polish Christmas Eve. Maybe one day we’ll have one in Poland.