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Food History

April 5, 2006

Latvia gives proof of a small world

Poet John Donne said it best: &

No man is an island, entire of itself.&

We live in a small, interlinked world. This is an example.

In November, I published a column on Latvia&

s national anthem. I sent a copy to my friend Professor Maruya at Kita Sato University, Japan. Maruya-san passed it along to his daughter, Wakkana, a research librarian in Tokyo. She contacted the Latvian Institute, and in February I received a seven page document from the institute on Latvian traditions and folk customs. Some are so warm and human that they should be shared.

Latvia was primarily agricultural until a few decades ago. Bread holds a special place in their society. The first loaf baked from the new harvest has special powers. It must be sliced from the larger end. The first piece is called &

the farmer&

s son,&

and is given to the eldest daughter so that she will be the first to marry &

and that her husband will be a farmer&

s son, someone who can offer her the security of a farm and home.

Salt is another food with special meaning. If the soup is too salty, the cook is in love. This leads to many humorous comments. It is bad luck if salt is spilled. There will be a quarrel on the family. The Latvians probably adopted this tradition from the Romans, but the Romans had an antidote. To avoid this evil, toss a few grains over your left shoulder.

There are special messages in the silverware. If you accidentally drop a knife, you will have a male visitor. Drop a spoon or fork, the visitor is a female.

Weddings were usually held in the autumn. The long hours of work to grow and harvest the crops were over. Now they had time for feasting and dancing. The bride&

s father would kill a pig for the wedding feast, and to make &

piragi,&

a bacon stuffed turnover. The piragi could also be stuffed with fruit. Then, at midnight, they served the traditional &

New Wife&

s Torte&

to wish the newlyweds a long and happy life together.

Christmas was the biggest festival. Centuries ago, the traditional Christmas dish was a boiled pig&

s head but, mercifully, this tradition has almost disappeared. From their German neighbors, the Latvians adopted gingerbread as a Christmas favorite.

Another folk custom still observed is to serve baked carp at the Yuletide feast. When cleaning the fish the housewife collects a handful of the scales. She slips a few of the scales into the pockets or purses of her family and guests. This guarantees that the new year will bring lots of money for that person.

But the most popular Christmas dish is pea soup. And this tradition carries a warning. All the pea soup must be eaten by the next morning. If any is left, the new year will be filled with tears and sorrow. Families stuff themselves, racing against that midnight deadline, while restaurants urge their customers to have seconds ... or thirds.

Since it is such an important Latvian Christmas dish, I am repeating the recipe for Baltic Split Pea Soup.

Baltic Split Pea Soup

— 1/2 cups dry split peas

2 quarts water

1/2 pound lean salt pork

1/2 pound stewing beef

— large onion, chopped

Salt and thyme to taste

Wash peas and soak overnight. Bring to boil in same water. Cut meat into cubes and add to soup. Add onion and seasoning. Cover and simmer until peas are tender, about 80 to 90 minutes. Serve warm.