Pork, Sauerkraut and Why we cut the ham in half

Holidays and celebrations all seem, sooner or later, to center around and come back to food. At least they certainly did in my Polish Catholic family of origin. One of the MAJOR food traditions (and there were many), was that you MUST always eat pork and sauerkraut on New Year’s day – and you must NEVER eat chicken on New Year’s day.

As I was growing up, I thought this was a tradition unique (read idiosyncratic – which is polite for weird) to my own family. Then I found out that it is a widely shared tradition among Polish peoples, and is also common among many Eastern European peoples as well as a Pennsylvania Dutch tradition.

My mom told me that you should eat pork because pigs root forward, and so if you eat pork you will move forward throughout the year, and you will make good progress. But, if you eat chicken, like chickens you will spend the year scratching out subsistence.

As I did some further research on the immensely interesting and important topic (read that as doing a quick google search), I learned that the green cabbage from which sauerkraut is created and the bountiful fat of pigs are taken to symbolize riches and prosperity for the coming year. The pig of course also represents progress for the coming year as a forward thinking and forward moving animal because it roots forward with its snout and all four of its hooves point forward. Also, many people from Slavic countries believe that eating the long threads of sauerkraut will nurture the threads of a long life – and now, modern science joins that belief with research about the probiotic properties of cabbage and of fermented cabbage.

Ah, food. And, all this writing about food reminds me of the addition practice in my family of buying a very large ham for any and every holiday, and then asking the butcher to cut the ham in half before you brought is home. For my father – and through him for my mother, the purchase of the very largest ham available and the cutting it in half by the butcher were as sacrosanct as eating pork and sauerkraut on New Year’s day. So, I had the story for the New Year’s practice, and even as I smiled, I could get my head around it. But why such a large ham? Smaller animals produced more tender meat – or so I thought. And why must it be cut in half? What special blessing did that act by the butcher impart? I just couldn’t puzzle it out. So, I asked my mother. She shrugged and said, “because that’s the way your father likes it done, and I’m not going to get into an argument with him over this on the holiday. So, I just do it his way.”

But, why? I wanted to know. So, I asked my father. And he said, “because that is the way your grandmother did it. She was a wonderful cook. When you find something that works, don’t rock the boat.”

Now, I knew that “don’t rock the boat” was one of my father’s favorite phrases when he did not have an answer and was not about to be dissuaded from his preferred way of thinking and doing things. So, I took a deep breath, put my coat on, and when over the river and through the woods to grandma’s house, and I asked her. Grandma started to laugh when I asked her. She said, “Sweetheart, I had eleven children and a husband to feed. I always bought the biggest of everything that I could afford. I had to if I wanted to feed them all. But, I had a small oven, and I did not have a very big knife, so I had to have the butcher cut it into a size that would fit in the oven. If I didn’t make a big deal over it, those boys of mine would come home with the ham in one piece and then I would have to send them back to the butcher and I would be here waiting while they took their time coming and going. It is about having enough and having it in a manageable size.”

Well, when I heard the reason behind the rule it all made sense. I then I started to laugh along with my grandmother, because there were only 5 of us in the house of my family of origin. A nice small ham would have been plenty.

And, I guess the moral of the story is that rules make sense when they make sense. And, then when they don’t it is time to let go.

Question everything! Keep asking until you understand. When the rule doesn’t fit, when it doesn’t apply, let it go and forge your own path and tradition. Here’s to a new year of understanding past practices and creating new ones of freedom fairness and joy!!

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