Ah, New Year’s Eve is nearly upon us. This evening, well after the winter sun sets, will find me dining and dancing at a club–a very different New Year’s Eve to come my way. I’m the kind of gal who often prefers spending more than a few precious holiday evenings at home with a toasty fire. Whether with friends, family, or a mixture of the two, cuddling up on a frosty winter evening with a backdrop of warm serenity and a mug of steamy tea is a rare and wonderful treat. Last year, my home filled with fun-loving New Year’s Eve party guests, was a departure from the quietly intimate evenings I’d known in years past, yet all was well, for home had surrounded me.
As I meander through my thoughts, I realize that the seed of my preference for familiar surroundings on this night of all nights seems to have been planted in my childhood. The ninth child in a family of ten, my memories of holidays are filled with tinsel, stockings, and Pennsylvania snows. After boisterous holiday bustle, mountains of gifts, and the day-long visiting adventures to homes of aunts and uncles, our clan of twelve had always made New Year’s Eve a focus on home, family, and tradition. Blending the rich duality of our Italian and Russian heritage, New Year’s Eve offered a wealth of foods and rituals that reminded us of our bonds to each other and our ancestors. Thirteen dishes–some of Italian origin and others passed down from my mother’s Russian parents–filled the table. I can envision the platters and serving bowls as if they were before me now. Closing my eyes, I can almost taste the piroshki sauteed in butter and onions, some filled with potatoes, others stuffed with sauerkraut, and others filled with dark, sweet prunes. The latter were usually easy to avoid, for the purplish hue of the prunes could be made out through the soft, translucent dough casing. Bowls of handmade gnocchi were doused in my mother’s coveted sauce. To my dear mum’s dismay, many fingers and spoons dwindled the supplies of this coveted dish before dinner began. Even as a child, I favored fruits and vegetables, so it remains strange to me that I always craved a salted fish concoction known as Bakala. Laced with strands of sweet red peppers and fresh onions, this once-a-year delicacy was also one of my father’s favorites. A mushroom and lima bean dish, fancied only my mother, was always dutifully placed among the other china platters. I recall poking holes in the bottom of the small pies filled with either spinach, cheese, or meat to craftily ferret out the spinach-stuffed pies I craved. Platters and bowls covered every kitchen surface as dinnertime neared. My mother’s exquisite, silver-rimmed china overflowed with a richly bountiful display that nourished my heart and my senses.
Yet, more than the abundance of enticing food, I remember the most special bowls set out each New Year’s Eve. First, a small china bowl filled with water and pennies and next to it a fresh linen towel to dry your hands. By washing your hands in the pennies, it was guaranteed that wealth would come to you in the year ahead. Next–my least favorite as a child–was the bowl filled with peeled garlic cloves. The smell and the taste made me wince. To the right of the garlic was a bowl filled with sweet, amber honey. It was the bowl of honey that I fancied. Tradition held that young and old alike would dip the clove of garlic in the honey and eat it in good health. Symbolically, it was the taking of the bitter and the sweet of life together, to accept them both as part of a healthy, fruitful life. I did not savor this portion of the prelude to dinner, for the malodorous garlic seemed an unnecessary penalty. As a child, I dipped the smallest bit of garlic I could find in gooey dollops of honey and downed it all at once. There was no tasting of the bitter, for I swallowed the garlic whole; I was left with only a coating of sweet, delicious honey in my mouth. Oh, I recall how proud I was of myself for seeming to have achieved the remarkable feat of guaranteeing a future of health, wealth, and an acceptance of life’s bitterness and sweetness…all without tasting the garlic. Yet, in my mind’s eye, I see my mother as clearly as if she is in the room with me now. Hazel eyes aglow, she stoically chewed her garlic lightly dipped in honey. She knew, well before I could understand, that it is the bitter in life that makes they honeyed moments so very, very sweet. It is the contrast of the light and the dark, the heartfelt laughter and the pained tears, that brings us to our knees in gratitude for our blessings. It is in knowing love so well, and loving with utter abandon, that we learn to take the bitter of relationships along with the wondrous delights. The bitter and the sweet offer us such rich history, the divinely extraordinary present, and a future filled with promise.
There is no clinging to the old if one is to welcome in the new, and the contrast between past years and the night ahead became especially apparent as I selected sleek evening attire before sitting down to write. I won’t be welcoming the coming year clad in familiar yoga togs or comfy home attire. I won’t be surrounded by family or dozens of dear friends. Instead, I will be wearing a silky dress, black heels, and sparkling jewelry. There will be no piroshki on my plate, and I fear the menu will not offer a homemade gnocchi with a sauce even approaching the incomparable richness of my mother’s. Bakala, tonight, will be tasted only as a memory. Yes, tonight’s dinner won’t be a familiar repast, and there will be few familiar faces in the crowd, but the evening ahead beckons me with tones of newness and unfamiliar delights. I hear Elvin Bishop is playing, and my feet are aching to dance. Besides, I know where to find a bowlful of pennies and a tidy linen towel. I’ve plenty of honey in the kitchen, and garlic is at hand.
And so, before my doorbell rings, I’ve an outfit to change into, some copper coins to run through my fingers, and a clove of garlic to dip in a dollop of honey. I’ll chew and savor every last bit in gratitude and inquisitive acceptance…