Sunday, November 29, 2009


Trying to enjoy the company of your family and traditional food at least once a year is a common practice throughout the world. How, why and when this is done are specific to where you are. Most of these family reunion feasts are religious in nature, like Christmas dinner in Estonia—a country full of atheists. In America—a country full of believers—Thanksgiving is a secular and federal holiday.

History offers somewhat foggy versions of how Thanksgiving began in the States. Most agree that the Pilgrims held a big banquet with Native Americans to thank them for teaching them to grow corn and catch eel. Basically, for teaching them how to survive in the New World—a decision I’m sure many of the guests sitting on the ground and not at the table later came to regret. The painting here depicts the first Thanksgiving, revealing an unsettling pattern some of you may recognize. Oddly enough, this work of art is less than a century old.

President Lincoln reestablished the dead tradition of Thanksgiving during the Civil War, but it wasn’t until the Great Depression that it became a federal holiday. This is another pattern—war, economic turmoil and martyrdom seem to be the common denominators under modern holidays. As the decade Time magazine refers to as the “Decade from Hell” draws to a close, can we expect a new federal holiday to appear? National We’re Still a Country Day? And as everything has to be bigger and better than before, will home appliance manufacturers experience a boom in sales of maxi-sized ovens so people can cook whole stuffed ostriches?

Well at least eel is no longer the main dish. Turkey is. A food that most Americans openly admit to disliking. That’s probably why not nearly as many people as you’d think still serve the same recipes they did in the twentieth century. A stuffed turkey is often replaced with turkey curry, and mashed potatoes make way for something Tex-Mex. This is based on what hundreds of American friends on the Internet have said they ate this year.

As a foreigner in Estonia, I follow the Thanksgiving tradition to the letter. Our family places great importance on practicing both of our cultures. Some traditions may be odd and old-fashioned, but our children can make up their own minds about which ones to keep when the day comes.

So how is it to prepare a full Thanksgiving meal in Estonia? I don’t know, because I have nothing to compare it to. I didn’t start cooking turkey, pumpkin pie, stuffing and those other tasty delights until I came here. But it tastes authentic, so I must be doing it right. Finding a turkey though is somewhat of a challenge. The largest bird on sale in Tartu is just under eight pounds (three and a half kilos). In North America they average twenty-plus pounds (ten kilos). Another pattern.

Incidentally, turkeys are considered really dumb birds. It’s said they will look up during the rain until they drown, and are really clumsy. There is some truth to this, but it’s most likely just because the birds weren’t supposed to be this monstrously huge when Mother Nature first laid a turkey egg. Or did She make a turkey first?

Of course my highly protected Thanksgiving practices have incorporated some new traditions from Estonia. My mother-in-law brought a bottle of vodka this year, and we did a couple shots while eating and drinking wine. But my favorite newbie is that you cannot buy canned pumpkin purée in Estonia. You have to make it from scratch. And also celebrating Halloween—perhaps even making a bigger deal out of it than is done in the States—means we need a lot of pumpkins. Every year now we go as a family to a local pumpkin farm and buy more than ten of these orange squash. I’m sure I could find a live Gigantor turkey in Estonia too, but I wouldn’t want to make too much of a mess in the bathtub while defeathering it.

Back to talking about practicing both cultures. I instantly fell in love with Christmas dinner in Estonia. It’s important in America as well, and many families do eat turkey again, but there are no real rules about what to eat. Here you eat a pork roast stuffed with garlic, a side of sauerkraut, and my favorite—blood sausage.

The name is not entirely inaccurate, either, but variations in other countries go by different names. Black pudding and blood pudding (even worse name!) are a couple examples. Eaten with something similar to cranberry sauce, bacon and sometimes even sour cream, it’s simply an amazing dish. Luckily nowadays blood sausage is sold everywhere, and all you have to do is shove it in the oven, thus preventing me from cleaning up another red mess.

There’s another food on the table in Estonia, too. Head cheese. Not to be confused with Christmas Brie, it is not a cheese. You take all the meat from a pig that you normally wouldn’t eat—including head meat—and congeal it to form pork Jell-O. Eaten with vinegar and horseradish. Most foreigners won’t touch it, even though it’s delicious. It’s just a bit too foreign I guess. I personally don’t like it, either, but only due to the texture. Meat and jelly together aren’t my idea of a happy taste experience, as Estonian restaurants wish on their customers.

The only thing I can’t get too excited about with the Estonian holiday is the traditional Christmas mandarin. Yes, mandarins are found on almost every table on December twenty-fourth. Why is that, you might ask? Did they really grow citrus fruit in Estonia hundreds of years ago? No. It’s a Soviet thing. Flush all the old Soviet stuff away, including your Zhiguli cars (based in a city called Tolyatti), but let’s keep the mandarins. But that’s how traditions are started, right? Some weird thing happens, everyone forgets about why, but they keep doing it. That’s why people bring trees into their living rooms every year and a hulk of a rabbit hides a basket full of candy and grass in your house. And a winged midget steals your teeth.

What else is on the Estonian Christmas table? Oh yeah, vodka. I do cherish each Christmas meal with the Mingus-in-laws, and we always, always have a great time. Because of the vodka. At the beginning of this post, I mentioned “trying to enjoy the company of your family”. Millions of Americans fly from coast to coast to see people who stress them out. “I’m thankful Thanksgiving is over”, is a common sentence you’ll hear at the office on Monday morning. Guys, do a few shots of vodka at the dinner table! Before you go to bed, you’ll have business plans with your father-in-law. And your mother-in-law will admit that she actually does like the fact that you’re sleeping with her child.

And the now-traditional Christmas Day Hangover is begun with being frenetically shaken awake by possessed children who want to open their Red Ryder BB guns. All I can think of is getting to the coffee pot, but I’m forced to explain why Santa visits us twice on the same night. Like I said, we practice both cultures. Santa stops by after dinner and passes out presents, and then he breaks into your apartment after you go to bed. Presents from the American family, shipped overseas, are opened in the morning. Last year I told my daughter that Kris Kringle forgot his sunglasses, and that’s why he came back (Mrs. Mingus’s dad dresses up as St. Nick every year, but has to don some shades so he’s not recognized).

Now what in Tarnation, as my mother says, does this have to do with McDonald’s in Tartu? I will tell you.

I studied in France for a year in university. Some Americans got together, rented a room in a restaurant, and gave the chef Thanksgiving recipes and canned pumpkin purée for the pie. The chef decided that the idea of a pumpkin pie was unzeenkable, and instead served a zoroughly disgusting pumpkin-and-stinky-cheese casserole. The turkey hadn’t lost its head, either. And a month later an American friend and I ate Christmas dinner at McDonald’s, just to be able to say we’d done it.

But this blog is about restaurant reviews. McDonald’s in Tartu is much better than in America. And I swear to you they will have at least three Kristiinas on the clock at any given time.


Tart Lane said...

I guess I will never take a pet turkey then...:)

Pene said...

They are clementines, not mandarins which are slightly bigger & have seeds.

Kristopher said...

I know they're tangerine varieties, but I just call them oranges. To me it's like the difference between a kreek and a ploom (they're all plums) or a kirss and a murel (they're all cherries).

Sült is very different from head cheese known in central Europe. Head cheese in Germany is more like Estonian rulaad, where indeed everything is boiled until very soft -- even the cartilage -- and formed into a roll and sliced.

Most of the store-bought varieties of sült these days are just extremely lean meat in aspic. Even the gelatin is added, it's not from cooking the bones or meat.

anna-kristiina said...

Well, maybe Christmas time in Estonia is also clementine season. It is simply the best tasteing fruit in the stores. So you buy that one. The soviet connection may be true, but only if you want to see that like that.