The author of Lobster! reflects on the evolution of tradition and the roots that still anchor her family’s holiday meal.
My husband’s Polish-American history runs along the same lines as that of many immigrant families. When all four of his grandparents arrived from “the Old Country” to work in mills and factories in New England, they spoke no English and had no knowledge of American culture and customs, so they cooked what they knew and continued to observe holidays as they had in Poland. Their children, on the other hand, became ardent Americans, embracing everything that was new and shedding most of the Old World traditions.
Enter my husband’s generation. These kids, who had been raised on meatloaf, macaroni and cheese, and Birds Eye® frozen vegetables, began to recall holiday dinners spent around their grandmothers’ tables, in particular the Christmas Eve Wiglia (Vigil), an elaborate meatless meal of wild mushroom soup, pickled herring, tender dumplings (pierogi) filled with cheese, potato, and sauerkraut, root vegetable salad, poppy seed pastry, and sweet fried dough dusted with powdered sugar. They remembered that the candle-lit table was set with an extra place for the “unexpected visitor,” and was adorned with straw, a manger scene, and a symbolic offering of coins. A communion wafer (the oplatek) was passed from hand to hand before the meal, along with good wishes, hugs, and kisses.
When we had our own family, my husband and I decided to revive the Wiglia so that our half-Polish children could store up similar memories. I read and talked to my mother-in-law and other relatives, gathering their recollections and recipes, found an old Polish cookbook, and cooked my heart out. The meal the first year was underwhelming — I made the pierogi dough all wrong — but it did get better and better over time, and we celebrated this Polish Wiglia for many years. Indeed, we continue it now with our grandchildren, albeit in a modified way.
We’ve changed the food. I never could get those pierogi quite right, the kids never did like the mushroom soup, and the pickled herring never seemed to leave its bowl. The meatless supper remains in place, but now it’s a selection of ripe cheeses and olives, a beautiful seafood pasta dish, crusty Italian bread, a composed green and red salad, and a platter of all-American Christmas cookies for dessert. But we still make a place for the unexpected visitor, strew the table with straw, a crèche, and coins, and, most special of all, pass around the oplatek, along with all those same loving good wishes for the coming year.
This year, since lobster is plentiful in Maine and can be had at a pretty good price, I’m doing this scrumptious pasta dish.
Lobster Pasta with Tomato-Caper Cream Sauce
Makes 4–5 servings
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 3 garlic cloves, minced
- 2 (28-ounce) cans imported plum tomatoes, drained and chopped (see Note)
- ½ cup white wine
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon
- ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 3 cups diced cooked lobster meat (1 pound) (see Note)
- 1 pound bucatini or other strand pasta
- ½ cup thinly sliced scallions, white and green parts
- 3 tablespoons drained capers
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Heat the oil in a large deep skillet. Add the garlic and cook over medium heat for 2 minutes. Add the tomatoes, wine, and ½ teaspoon salt, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and simmer, covered, for 15 minutes.
- Add the cream, tarragon, and cayenne, and return to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium and cook, uncovered, until slightly reduced and thickened, about 5 minutes. Stir in the lobster meat and remove from the heat. (Can be made up to a day ahead and refrigerated.)
- Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook the pasta until al dente, about 10 minutes.
- Meanwhile, if necessary, reheat the sauce over low heat.
- In a large serving bowl, toss the pasta with the sauce, scallions, and capers. Season with additional salt and pepper to taste, and serve.
1. Use top-quality Italian plum tomatoes such as San Marzano, which are now readily available in supermarkets.
2. Cook three 1¼-pound hard-shell lobsters or four 1-pound soft-shells and remove the meat or buy picked-out meat.