Tag: Christmas

What do Basques eat during the Holiday Season?

“Make sure to buy good fish and wine because Christmas only happens once a year. And Christmas is for people to enjoy. At least for those who can … Have a good Christmas. I’m planning on spending it with the sheep.”

Part of a letter from a Basque sheepherder back home to the Old Country, quoted in John Bieter and Mark Bieter, An Enduring Legacy: The Story of Basques in Idaho, p. 43.

This poignant letter is, I think, a reminder to all of us about the connection between special times of the year or celebrations and certain food rituals: A Fourth of July barbecue or a Thanksgiving meal including turkey and pumpkin pie, for example. So how do Basques celebrate the holiday season when it comes to food? What’s on the menu in Basque homes? I don’t think there’s any straightforward answer to this question, and I’m even more certain that I’ll miss something somewhere along the line in my attempt to answer it (so apologies beforehand!). First of all, the main meal at which families sit down together to celebrate is dinner on Christmas Eve, rather than a Christmas-day lunch. But from there, the food ritual can go in a number of directions (including even pizza nowadays I guess).

In former times, and maybe still even today, prior to sitting down to the meal, a loaf of bread would be blessed by making the sign of the cross over it with a knife prior to cutting it and sharing slices out among those gathered at the table. Sometimes the first piece, the kurrusko, of this ogi salutadorea (health-giving bread) would be offered to those who had departed, especially any recently deceased family members. Any leftover bread would be kept for a whole year and burned right before the same celebration the following year. In the meantime, this bread was highly regarded for its curative powers and should anyone in the household fall sick, they would be given a piece. “Christmas (Eve) bread” could even be used to ward off the harsh effects of extreme weather conditions.

baked-sea-bream-recipe-750x500

Basque baked sea bream. Image at Javier de la Hoz’s website Basco.

A traditional Basque song includes what was probably once a typical menu for this dinner:  Aza-olioak pil-pil / Bisigua zirt-zart / Gaztaiña erriak pin-pan! / Aia goxo-goxo, epel-epel (in other words, sauteed cabbage (with garlic), sea bream, roasted chestnuts, and a porridge-like desert made from wheat flour). And there would of course have been variations on this: cauliflower instead of cabbage, perhaps, to start; followed by cod, for example, instead of sea bream or, especially in coastal areas, txitxarro (horse-mackerel); and perhaps for dessert intxaursaltsa (a milky walnut-based pudding) or konpota (stewed fruits, especially apples and/or pears) or just roasted apples.

640px-cuisine_of_the_basque_country-intxaursaltsa_001

Intxaursaltsa, a typical Basque dessert of nuts, milk, cinnamon and sugar. Photo by Valdavia, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In Navarre, meanwhile, instead of cabbage families could have opted for braised cardoon stalks, still a great Navarrese delicacy today; while in areas farther away from the coast, fish may well have been replaced by a meat dish such as roast mutton, goat, lamb, chicken, or capon; and for dessert kapoi-salda (capon soup … yes, capon soup … the cooking juices from the capon sweetened with sugar and almonds).

angulas_al_ajillo_en_el_1747_de_palamos_-_by_onnoth

Elvers or baby eels with garlic, parsley, and a little chili pepper. A classic dish that is beyond the budget of most normal homes nowadays. Photo by demi, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Greater urbanization in the 19th century led to increased production of additional sweet favorites such as chocolates and cakes, as well as the omnipresent turrón, which was soon added to the prolonged dessert courses that would invariably extend into post-prandial family conversation.  With time, too (and greater affluence) more appetizer courses were added that included braised snails, elvers or baby eels (a delicacy that only the very well-off can afford nowadays), and more seafood in general, such as shrimp, crab, oysters, lobster, and so on.

640px-cazuela_-_pimientos_del_piquino

Piquillo peppers stuffed with bonito. Photo by Tamorian, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

So what do Basque families sit down to today? As I said at the beginning, I don’t think there’s any one answer. In my experience, appetizers nowadays typically include cold meats plus a selection of Navarrese produce such as asparagus, red piquillo peppers, artichokes, and so on, followed by seafood like jumbo shrimp, and then the big choice–fish or meat, meaning sea bream or txitxarro on the one hand, for example, or lamb or capon on the other–and all this followed by a combination of multiple desserts from the options mentioned above.

Whatever the actual menu, though, the really important thing is sitting down together and talking … mostly about the food itself.

For some further reading, see “Historia de la gastronomía navideña en el País Vasco,” Euskonews no. 514 (Dec. 25, 2009-Jan. 8, 2010) and Ander Manterola, “Christmas bread. ‘Ogi salutadorea’,” at the excellent Basque Ethnography at a Glance website.

For a recipe for baked sea bream Basque-style, take a look at Javier de la Hormaza’s webpage here.

And if you like food, be sure to check out Hasier Etxeberria’s On Basque Cuisine, published by the Etxepare Basque Institute and available free to download here.

 

Some Basque-American traditions during the Holiday Season

With the holiday season here, most of you out there will know that this is a time typically embraced by Basque-Americans to have a good old time, Basque-style, with plenty of eating, drinking, dancing, and general bonhomie. One only need check out Astero to get a flavor of all the events going on during the holiday season, but it’s worth recalling that all these Christmas parties, the lunches and dinners, as well as the New Year’s celebrations, are rooted in a long tradition stretching back many years. This custom–which in academic terms we could say was based on a drive to cement community and cultural ties, to keep those bonds strong, and maintain and pass on traditions, often in the face of adverse wider social conditions–has in recent years changed significantly, but I think it’s interesting to consider how and why these gatherings came about.

bsqaph0001-90-409

For those that could, Christmas was one of the few opportunities for Basque-Americans to let their hair down a little. Picture from the Jon Bilbao Basque Library.

As Bill Douglass and Jon Bilbao point out in Amerikanuak (p. 386), such events were in former times typically less public than they are today. In their words, as regards the winter events (p. 388):

These Basque get-togethers all shared the characteristic of being closed ethnic affairs. With the exception of the Boise Sheepherders’ Ball, they were unheralded, inconspicuous events on the local social calendar. They were often held at some distance from the local population centers. None of this is surprising when we consider that the dates coincide with the periods of tension between the Basques and their neighbors … In such a climate, the Basques were not prone to display their ethnic identity publicly. If the Basque hotel and the private picnic or dance served as an ethnic refuge, where the immigrant could enjoy Basque cuisine, conversation, and company, he attempted in his dealings with the wider society to remain as inconspicuous as possible.

Even the origins of the famed Sheepherders’ Ball, perhaps the most famous of all Basque winter social events, recall an altercation between different Basque insurance groups in the late 1920s. As John and Mark Bieter note in An Enduring Legacy: The Story of Basques in Idaho (p. 100):

Both organizations scheduled Christmas dances for herders in town on the same night. The influential sheepman John Archabal mediated the controversy and convinced the two sides to organize one dance with a lamb auction for charity. Both parties agreed, and the annual Sheepherders’ Ball became a mainstay in Boise and, later, in other southern Idaho towns.

The Sheepherders’ Ball became known as an “apron and overalls” dance, because admission required sheepherder garb or traditional Basque costumes. Sometimes a stand was set up near the door, where any partygoers who arrived inappropriately dressed could buy jeans on the spot. Although it was reserved for Basques and their guests, the Sheepherders’ Ball attracted the attention of the general public. On December 19, 1936, the Boise Capitol News wrote: “Black-eyed sons and daughters of the Pyrenees danced their beloved ‘jota’ with snapping fingers and nimble feet Friday evening at the annual Sheepherders’ Ball held at Danceland, to the music of Benito Arrego’s accordion and pandareen.”

Nowadays, these holiday season get-togethers are more open affairs, with everyone welcome, as noted in our recent post on the Basque Ladies’ Lagunak Christmas Luncheon in Reno. But it’s good to see that this great tradition of holiday season lunches, dinners, and dances continues to bind the Basque-American community together.

Besides these events, there is also a tradition of Basque-American participation in Christmas parades, as Nancy Zubiri writes in her invaluable book, A Travel Guide to Basque America:

On Christmas Eve for several years local Basque Children traveled down the usually snow-lined main street of Gardnerville in  hay-wagons, displaying the Nativity scene, signing gabon kantak (Christmas carols) and playing instruments–an Old Country tradition. Their procession would end at the Overland, where they received gifts and [Elvira] Cenoz served them the traditional hot chocolate. But the custom ended when the number of children dwindled.

Nowadays, the Garnerville Basque Club, Mendiko Euskaldun Cluba, usually takes part in the town’s annual festive Parade of Lights.

Christmas was also an occasion for family gatherings of course, as the stories collected in Portraits of Basques in the New World, edited by Richard W. Etulain and Jeronima Echeverria, testify to. For example, Ysidra Juanita “Jay” Arriola Uberuaga Hormaechea, born in Boise in 1908, recalled the holiday season of her youth (pp. 194-95):

We never knew what Christmas was until I was grown up, went to work, and earned some money. I brought in a fresh Christmas tree to our home at 310 Grove, in Boise. It was the first tree that our family ever had. Christmas day for us people was shared big suppers, dancing, and enjoying ourselves, in that way … Maybe, a little package for the kids. That was it … That’s the way it was when I was a girl.

Similarly, and in the Old Country tradition, Marjorie Archabal remembered (p. 91) Christmas Eve meals at which some thirty people gathered, women on one side of the table, men on the other, with the Archabal family patriarch and matriarch at the head. These meals took days to prepare, with the menu consisting of tongue, tripe, and codfish, among many other dishes. Meanwhile, growing up in a Basque home in northeastern Montana in the 1940s and 1950s, Rene Tihista recalled a blend of Basque and American traditions, with turkey making appearance at the family table (p. 121):

When I was a kid all the holiday gatherings with my uncles and cousins were held at our place. Mom raised a huge turkey for Thanksgiving and one for Christmas. Dad played the accordion and violin and sang Basque songs. Of course wine flowed freely during our get-togethers. I would sit on dad’s knee and sing “Uso Zuria,” a song he taught me about a white dove that travels to Spain. It was the only Basque song I knew, but it must have been a hit because the grown-ups made me sing it over and over.

And no doubt many of you out there, if you are part of a Basque-American family, will be enjoying similar kinds of celebrations this holiday season.

If you do have any stories you’d like to share with us about your own Basque-style holiday celebrations, we’d be pleased to hear from you!

 

 

 

Basque Ladies’ Lagunak Christmas Luncheon

 

This past Saturday, December 10, Basque ladies from around Nevada met at Louis’ Basque Corner in Reno for an afternoon of food, drinks, and catching up. Organized by Florence Larraneta Frye, the dining room was packed with women of all ages. As with any Basque gathering, the food was plentiful and the chatter brought the place to life.

This Christmas tradition started years ago as a way to foster the Basque spirit among women. As Frye put it “in the meetings, these women are in their element. No one is shy, we have name tags with American and Basque names, and everything explodes.” These events are open to all: “If you feel Basque, if you want to be Basque, you are Basque,” expressed Florence. That was definitely the feeling on Saturday.

After the delicious food, there were plenty of gifts to purchase for holiday shopping, including beautifully ornamented, antique spoons crafted by Judy and Abel Mendeguia. Lisa Corcostegui exhibited some of her photographs taken in the Basque Country. Ahizpak Basque Design jewelry, made by Maite and Izar Iribarren-Gorrindo, was also available. Finally, the word was spread about the Center for Basque Studies books, which really do make wonderful gifts for your favorite euskalduna.

img_9573

Having attended the event myself, I found it to be a great way to meet people in a lively environment. Everyone welcomed me and made me feel right at home. I look forward to the event next year!

Check out this Euskal Kultura article for more information about the event: http://www.euskalkultura.com/english/news/basque-ladies-take-over-a-group-of-women-coming-from-different-cities-and-states-started-gathering-in-reno-nevada