In the spirit of Christmas, here’s an extract from my memoir recalling the thrill of being in three countries in one day for “holiday shopping,” which turned out instead to be “holiday liver consumption.” Plus, somewhat more tastily, a recipe for a Christmas cookie you’ve probably never tried before.
As for the “carp” reference in the post’s title… that will have to wait till you read the whole book! (Or until you Google “carp+Slovakia+Christmas.” If you want to cheat.)
Imagine, if you will, that under the communist regime from which you have recently emerged, you were required to create a “trade union” for the church’s seminary, so State Security could recruit informers and keep an eye on “subversive” activity.
And suppose that, after forty years of starvation of funds and personnel, your seminary has found itself in a borderless world awash in sudden and unaccustomed competition, such that its shoddy facility, lack of reading material, and underpaid, overworked faculty are a poor return on the enthusiasm of the hundreds of new students pouring through your doors.
Now suppose that you have some money left over from that defunct trade union. What will you do with it?
The answer is obvious. You will charter a bus to take the professors and their wives (and in one case, a professor’s daughter) to Austria and Hungary for a day of Christmas shopping.
Christmas shopping in Austria! It sounded so charming, so quaint, so Sound of Music.
At mid-morning the bus pulled into the parking lot of the Church of the Resurrection in Eisenstadt. The church ladies presented us with coffee and cake—an order of magnitude more delicious than ordinary coffee and cake; this was, after all, Austria—and a very dapper gentleman in a Germanically-tailored suit gave us an hour’s church history lecture. In German, of course, which didn’t faze the professors but defeated my mom and, shameful to say, even me. Dad helped out where he could: “There were two early martyrs of the Reformation right here in eastern Austria, one got beheaded… All the Lutherans of Upper Austria were expelled in the 1730s, and a bunch ended up in the U.S., in Georgia, actually… The churches here didn’t get bell towers till much later, either…”
When the lecture drew to a close Mom and I jumped up, assuming we’d finally be unleashed on all the bedecked and beribboned boutiques lining Eisenstadt’s snowy streets. Incorrect. Instead we got a tour of Esterházy Castle just up the street—never mind the Esterházy clan being the notorious Hungarian Catholic villains in the sorrowful tale we’d just heard—and a shivering stroll through the old Jewish ghetto and cemetery. By the time our tourist obligations were fulfilled, we had only forty minutes left to shop. Mom stocked up on candied fruit and cardamom to make peppernuts, our traditional Christmas cookie.
As we boarded the bus again at half past noon, I wondered how long it would take to get to Hungary, not only because it would be my very first time in that country but more importantly because it would mean lunch. As if on cue, though, the professors and their wives withdrew ham sandwiches from their pockets, and boiled eggs and pickles, and commenced with their midday meal.
“Were we supposed to bring our own lunch?” Mom whispered to Anna and Július.
“Well, yes, of course,” they replied, baffled; was that something we needed to be told? How else did we expect to eat?
There you go, culture shock: the things so obvious it never occurs to anyone to tell you. I thought I was ravenous at 12:30 in Austria, but that was nothing compared to 1:45 at another church parking lot in Sopron, Hungary. By then even Dad was willing to cause offense. He and Mom and I defected from the next extended lecture (it was in Hungarian anyway) and found our way to a restaurant.
They say hunger is the best sauce, which may help explain my enthralled inhalation of a lunch of liver. First liver-dumpling soup, an Austro-Hungarian classic, the beige ovals savoring faintly of rust, floating in a golden broth. Then goose livers doused in a brick-red sauce seasoned with a mighty jolt of paprika and laid over a bed of the thinnest of fries.
By the time we pushed back from the table we had all of twenty minutes to take a look at Hungary. The trade union bus waits for no man.
Persons of Germanic heritage and habits may think they know all about peppernuts—but these are not the gingerbready things dusted with powdered sugar that masquerade under the same name as our peppernuts.
As far as we can tell, ours was originally a Danish Christmas cookie, much evolved over the generations and the immigration to America, which we received from my mother’s father’s mother Dorothy. According to Dorothy’s handwritten recipe pictured here, she got it from her own mother—namely, my great-great-grandmother Clara Hanson Lindsteadt, who died the very day I was born at the age of 95. So this is a truly venerable tradition of the (mostly) female line.
My mom has improved them considerably over the years so that they are spicier and not so tooth-crackingly hard (though the tooth-cracking texture was probably correlated to the propensity to eat them soaked in milky coffee). They will keep for weeks in a closed container and survive shipping well, if you have someone far away you’d like to send a sweet gift.
2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
1 c. white sugar
1 c. light brown sugar (packed)
½ tsp. baking soda
½ c. buttermilk
2 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. cardamom
½ tsp. black pepper
zest and juice of 1/2 a lemon
½ c. finely chopped walnuts
½ c. finely chopped candied fruit
4 c. white flour
Cream butter and sugars together with a hand-held mixer till light and fluffy. Add eggs and beat in well. Combine baking soda and buttermilk in a separate bowl, mix well, and beat into butter mixture. Add all the spices, including lemon zest and juice, and beat well. Stir in walnuts and candied fruit. Gradually mix in the flour with a wooden spoon. When it’s too dense to mix anymore, knead by hand, adding in the remaining flour, and keep kneading until dough is smooth and shiny. (Unlike in other cookies, here it’s OK to develop the gluten a bit.) Let the dough rest in the fridge overnight.
Set the dough on the counter awhile to take the chill off. Break off large chunks and roll into ropes about 1” thick. Slice off pieces on the bias “about the size of a shelled walnut” (or 1–1½”) and place on a dark-colored baking sheet, with about 1” between them. Bake at 350° F for about 20 minutes or until just barely browned on top. Let cool completely before storing in a closed container.
Eat at Christmas with plenty of coffee, enjoying the subtlety of a Christmas treat not oozing with chocolate, coconut, or peppermint, and pay honor in your heart to mid-century Nebraskan telephone operator Dorothy Linsteadt.