One meal, two cultures: Family honors Italian and Slovak roots every Christmas Eve

Ingredients for the writer’s shrimp bisque, along with handwritten notes at the bottom of a well-worn recipe sheet.
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Ingredients for the writer’s shrimp bisque, along with handwritten notes at the bottom of a well-worn recipe sheet.

Categories: Celebrate

“Mary!” “Maria!” “Mariska!” … These are the names I heeded growing up — each a nod to my ancestry but also my identity as an American, an Italian-American (three-quarters) and a Slovak-American (one-quarter). Each one a core piece of who I am and, just as appropriately, who I was raised to be.

With regard to the latter, my mother and father — as well as my Nonny (a toddler’s reimagination of Nonna) and my Grammy — raised us with an appreciation for our heritage, notably the language, the foods and the culture. But especially the traditions, many of which were brought from abroad, and still others which were crafted as an intentional attempt to blend the old world with the new.

That is exactly what Cora Cocivera — aka Grammy — did. She was born in Virginia in 1912 to Sicilian immigrants, then brought up in Allentown, Pennsylvania, where she met her husband, Joseph Hudock, the seventh of nine children born to Slovak immigrants.

While raising their three children in the 1940s and 1950s, Cora ensured that every Christmas dinner, Easter meal and major food-based family event incorporated aspects of both ethnicities.

Every gathering was a celebration of both sides of the family, which meant she had to learn many of the Slovak traditions and recipes, teaching herself some and borrowing others from her mother- and sisters-in-law. It was something I remember her saying she had wanted to do, to ensure her children retained their roots. And, as it turns out, they did.

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So that’s how the Hudock/Cocivera Christmas Eve meal was born, a tradition Cora’s two daughters, Corinne and Carol, have kept alive in the decades since. A custom blend that is all at once precious yet one-of-a-kind, as no one else celebrates quite like we do.

Traditionally, Italian-American households serve the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve, a meatless seafood extravaganza consisting of — you guessed it — seven fish and seafood dishes, plus countless other items. Although Slovak-Americans and those from many of the other eastern and central European nations also go meatless, they keep things far simpler with a peasants’ meal consisting of soup (often mushroom and potato) and bread (cabbage and poppy seed).

Our meal is a hybrid, borrowing from both traditions and satisfying all. It includes a singular “fish” dish — a cream-based shrimp bisque incorporating seafood in honor of the Italian tradition, which is simultaneously a soup in honor of the Slovak tradition — as well as a few other soups, including a chowder and kid-friendly vegetarian option, and a few types of bread, including pagach, or Slovak cabbage bread.

Although my mother, Carol, can’t recall which cookbook her bisque recipe was first pulled from, adaptations and tweaks have been made over the years, along with calculations to double and quadruple the recipe, which includes plenty of butter, mushrooms, half-and-half and a signature substitution of crab for shrimp. Although not a difficult recipe, it’s somewhat sacred in our family as it’s only made once a year, and even then, there are arguments as to who keeps the leftovers.

As for the pagach, it can be made with cabbage or potatoes, and the recipes we’ve used have varied over the decades, with some simplifications winning out. For instance, in recent years Corinne has opted for canned or store-bought pizza dough, which makes pulling this bread together a breeze.

Both are tried-and-true family favorites, eaten together following the Christmas Eve vigil Mass and the breaking of the oplatki. Oplatki, which is an eastern European Catholic tradition common among Polish-Americans as well, is a blessed communion wafer consumed once a year, always before the Christmas Eve meal.

In our family, we pass it around the table, each adding a dollop of honey for taste and then saying grace. It’s yet another nod to another aspect of our identities: our Catholic selves.

Shrimp Bisque

Serves 8

Ingredients

  • 12 tbsp. butter
  • 8 tbsp. finely chopped green peppers
  • 8 tbsp. finely chopped onion
  • 2 scallions, chopped
  • 4 tbsp. chopped parsley
  • 3 cups sliced fresh mushrooms
  • 4 tbsp. flour
  • 2 cups milk
  • 2 tsp. salt
  • 1/4 tsp. white pepper
  • Dash Tabasco pepper sauce
  • 3 cups half-and-half
  • 3 cups cooked deveined shrimp
  • 6 tbsp. dry sherry

Steps

Heat 8 tbsp. butter in a skillet, add green pepper, onion, scallion, parsley, mushrooms and sauté until soft.

In a saucepan, heat remaining 4 tbsp. butter. Stir in flour. Add milk, cook, stirring until thickened and smooth.

Stir in salt, pepper and pepper sauce. Add sautéed vegetables and half-and-half. Bring to boiling, stirring, then reducing heat.

Add shrimp, simmer uncovered for 5 minutes. Just before serving, stir in sherry.

Our Very Easy Cabbage Bread

Ingredients

  • One small head of cabbage, cored and chopped
  • Two cans (or 2 pounds) of pizza dough
  • 8 tbsp. butter
  • Salt and pepper, to taste

Steps

In a frying pan, add butter and cabbage and fry until caramelized. Add salt and pepper to taste, stirring well.

Grease a 10-by-15-inch jelly roll pan. Open one roll of pizza dough (or roll out one pound) and stretch to fit the pan, pulling partway up the sides.

Once cabbage has cooled, spread on top of dough, leaving a half-inch perimeter. Take the second can or pound of dough and place on top of the cabbage, crimping the edges and sealing with milk or water. Prick the top with a fork to release steam.

Bake at 350 degrees on the center rack for approximately 20 to 25 minutes or until lightly brown. Serve room temperature or cold, as desired.

Enjoy! Mangiamo! Dobrú chut!

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