Bigos

“In the pots warmed the bigos; mere words cannot tell
Of its wondrous taste, colour and marvellous smell.
One can hear the words buzz, and the rhymes ebb and flow,
But its content no city digestion can know.
To appreciate the Lithuanian folksong and folk food,
You need health, [to] live on land, and be back from the wood.

Without these, still a dish of no mediocre worth
Is bigos, made from legumes, best grown in the earth;
Pickled cabbage comes foremost, and properly chopped,
Which itself, is the saying, will in ones mouth hop;
In the boiler enclosed, with its moist bosom shields
Choicest morsels of meat raised on greenest of fields;
Then it simmers, till fire has extracted each drop
Of live juice, and the liquid boils over the top,
And the heady aroma wafts gently afar.”

Adam Mickiewicz, the nineteenth century national poet of Poland.

I don’t know any recipe for bigos that calls for legumes, but otherwise it seems like Mickiewicz got it right. This is a traditional Christmas Eve dish in my family, with a recipe that my mother (who is not Polish) got from my great-grandmother (her grandmother-in-law) who emigrated from Poland in 1920 or so. Great-grandma Viola made the dish without a written recipe or without measuring anything, but my mother watched her and took notes. My brother and I now make it nearly every year.

A coworker who is Polish tells me that it’s not traditional for Christmas Eve, but often eaten on the second day of Christmas — as well as other times, outside the holiday season. I got the impression that he didn’t consider it anything special. It’s basically a simple stew of sauerkraut, meats, mushrooms, and kielbasa. Bay leaves, allspice, and perhaps juniper berries are the essential seasonings. It doesn’t look very pretty, so I’m not posting a photo. But after a day or two of stewing it gets really, really tasty. It’s especially good with rye bread.

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