Unique ethnic traditions are often responsible for our New Year’s Eve cuisine. I know this is true of my own, and I did a quick research about other cultures, and found that fact to be true fairly widely.
Numerous references showed me that in general. Many ethnic groups and nationalities eat fish of some kind on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, some eat the fish at the stroke of midnight.
Just to give you a few examples of the fish-eating customs, I learned that the Danish people eat boiled cod, and some Swedes eat raw herring, the Wends in Lusatia, Saxony, eat carp, the Wends in Texas eat creamed or pickled herring, and folks in Russia, Ukraine, Lithuania, Poland, the Czech Republic, all eat herring on New Year’s Eve. Many of these folks believe that if you eat herring at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve, you will be wealthy throughout the New Year.
Creamed or pickled herring seems to be the fish of choice by Jewish folks and by most other Eastern Europeans. Herring are abundant in the North Sea, the Baltic, and the North Atlantic. Carp are abundant in the Spree River and in other rivers in Lusatia.
My Wendish mother’s favorite fish was carp, but we, like other Texas Wends in Lee County, had both pickled and creamed herring for our New Year’s celebrations. In fact, Bage’s Grocery in Giddings (in the 1940’s) used to start getting in a supply of salted herring in kegs in December. It was obvious from how many kegs he ordered that he served a huge Wendish clientele. Naturally we couldn’t wait until New Year’s, so we started eating herring around Christmas time, making them seem more like a Christmas goody than a New Year’s treat!’
The herring were packed in salt, so before you could either pickle them or cream them, you had to wash off most of the salt, — not an easy task. They could not be pickled straight out of the keg. My mother and my grandmother had their favorite pickling recipes, as well as recipes for creamed herring. The only problem today is that the recipes were in their heads and not written down. Both pickled herring and creamed herring are still two of my favorite food items to consume! They are harder and harder to find in area stores, either in kegs or ready-to-eat in jars. They are one of my most prized Christmas gifts, and I would like to eat them all year long!
In New York, they are even available in deli’s, and once my wife and I saw a batch of creamed herring in a deli in Houston. We bought all that they had, sat down at a table and started devouring them with great gusto. Suddenly I noticed a young boy and his mother staring intently at us, and I overheard him ask her, “WHAT is that?” She answered him saying it was a pickled fish certain religious groups ate.
I don’t think there’s anything Lutheran about herring, but there is something fishy about the way some of us celebrate New Year’s Eve!
Ray Spitzenberger is a retired WCJC teacher, a retired LCMS pastor, and author of three books, It Must B the Noodles, Open Prairies, and Tanka Schoen.