September 28, 2011


When I was growing up, I learned about holiday customs. Lithuanians, for example, celebrate Christmas on the night of Christmas Eve ("Kūčios"). The Kūčios meal consists of twelve meatless dishes, one to represent each of the Apostles. All of the foods are cold dishes so that the hostess does not have to cook on such a solemn day. On Christmas Eve, we primarily eat vegetable salads, gefilte fish, and marinated herrings. Lots of herring: herring is served at least four ways.

Enforcement of these traditions is inflexible. During one memorable Christmas Eve, we had a guest who did not eat fish. Cold fish therefore was out of the question. My Mom roasted and served a duck. My Dad spit bullets about the breach of Kūčios protocol. Even now, over thirty years later, my Mom usually says on Kūčios, "Do you remember when I roasted a duck on Kūčios?!!" as if that were a really screwball, Lucille Ball-like, thing to do.

Today, rigid food-pairing rules still affect daily meals. For example, if one is serving meatloaf ("Zuikis"), it's not appropriate to offer peas or carrots alongside it. The traditional side dish for meatloaf is a bowl of hot, shredded beets spiked with vinegar and macerated in sour cream. Roast duck is stuffed with apples and served with hot, braised sauerkraut. Roast turkey is stuffed not with stuffing but with prunes—or as they say today, "dried plums." A sauté of cabbage, bacon, and onions must be served with potatoes; never rice. Cold Beet Soup arrives with a side of a hot, peeled, boiled potato sprinkled with fresh dill.

There are also unbending seasonal rules. A "winter salad" consisting of navy beans and beets would never include a spring or summer ingredient, like peas, carrots, or dill. A "spring salad"—similar to the Italian Insalata Russa or the Russian Salat Olivier—would not feature a winter ingredient, like a dill pickle, an apple, or beans.

Strict food rules make the timing of this photo easy to identify. The food on the table tells me that this is an image of Easter dinner. Cooked young birds, veal, and a "Tree Cake" ("Šakotis" or, in parts of Lithuania, "Baumkuchenas") all say "Spring."

The clock in the photo reads 9:00. It looks like it is dark outside. Can the family be eating late? Or is it morning? Mr. Irene thinks it's a mid-day meal for a family that might have attended a Resurrection Mass. Or is the clock broken?

Whose portrait hangs on the wall?

It must have been a rather warm spring day because a window is open.

Some things in this image are familiar. The curtains mimic the sleeves of Lithuanian folkdress blouses: linen with woven, decorative sashes running in horizontal lines. Even though the photo is black and white, the potted primroses on the table might as well be fuchsia with yellow eyes. I look at the edge of the tablecloth and think that it, too, is certainly linen because it looks like someone had trouble ironing it.

Thanks to my "New" Cousin for making this photo available to me in digital format.

Tauragė, Lithuania, probably about 1935 or so. This is the family of my paternal Grandfather, Jake. Jake sits, in uniform, on the far right. To his right is his mother (my Great-Grandmother, Wanda), and behind him are his brother and sister. Jake's niece and brother-in-law stand next to his sister. Seated on the left are Jake's nephew and his father (my Great-Grandfather, Cody Sr.).

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