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Ethnic traditions remain prominent in Mon Valley Christmas Eve dinners

| Wednesday, Dec. 24, 2014, 3:31 a.m.
Jennifer R. Vertullo | Trib Total Media
Tony DeCarlo pulls a piece of salted cod, known as baccala to Italian families, from a box at DeCarlo's Market in Elizabeth.
Jennifer R. Vertullo | Trib Total Media
Jan and Rick Kugler inventory their supply of fresh and smoked sausages, catering to various ethnicities at Lampert's Fine Meats and Deli in McKeesport.

As local families gather around holiday tables to enjoy Christmas Eve spreads of rich, savory dishes and sweet desserts, there's more to many of their menus than meets the eye.

What looks like any hearty holiday meal — never-ending courses of soups, smoked meats or fish, elegant roasts and more cookie varieties than a Pittsburgh wedding — often is a cultural custom that pays homage to a family's heritage with holiday traditions passed down through generations.

Eleanor Mitrik, 91, of West Mifflin has stayed true to her traditions for decades, even when they blended with others by having nearly 40 extended family members together for holiday meals.

“My husband was Hungarian, I'm Slovak and my niece's husband is Italian,” Mitrik said. “We tasted a lot of different foods over the years, but at Christmastime I still make the things I learned from my mother.”

Mitrik spent the early part of this week baking Slovak bread balls called bobalki.

“We used to make our own bread dough, but now we cheat and use the frozen bread,” she said. “We roll it out, cut it into pieces and bake them.”

The bread, with a cracker-like consistency, doesn't seem particularly ethnic until it's prepared, topped and served. The baked dough balls are popped into a pot of boiling water until they are moist. Then they are topped with honey and poppy seeds or butter and fried sauerkraut.

Mitrik also makes traditional Slovak Christmas Eve soup with dried mushrooms, sauerkraut juice and onions.

“My daughter asked me for the recipe once, and I didn't know what to say,” she said. “I'm a dumper. I put a little of this and a little of that until it tastes the way I like it.”

Today, Mitrik gets her mushrooms from markets in Pittsburgh's Strip District. She remembers her father picking them fresh when she was a child.

“He would string a needle through the fresh mushrooms and hang them over the furnace where they would dry,” she recalled.

Jan and Rick Kugler, who own Lampert's Fresh Meats and Deli in McKeesport, said dried mushrooms are a holiday staple for Slovak and other Eastern European families in the Mon Valley.

Lampert's caters to families that celebrate a gamut of European traditions, offering everything from standing rib roasts and hams to smoked and fresh sausages for Polish and Hungarian palates. They have German bratwurst, Swedish potatis korv and Lithuanian sausage.

“Most people come in asking if we carry holiday kielbasa, and we have to laugh because we make it fresh and carry it all year round,” Jan Kugler said. “The Lithuanian is the only one we don't stock regularly outside the holiday season, but we will make it to order at any time.”

For many families, holiday recipes help to keep good memories alive, and the Kuglers said that's what Christmas is all about.

“It's an odd time of year when it comes to food,” Rick Kugler said. “People want to make their families happy, and money isn't an object. People will drop a couple hundred dollars for two whole fillets of beef on top of the sausages and everything else they need.”

And while certain traditions remain popular, others are falling by the wayside or evolving to modern tastes.

At DeCarlo's Market in Elizabeth, generations of the DeCarlo family have watched fellow Italians adapt the traditional Feast of Seven Fishes for contemporary palates.

People still buy anise oil for baking, Torrone nougat candy and sweet Panettone bread; but they're steering away from the strong fishy taste of dishes like baccala (salted cod), fried smelts, zeppoli (fried dough) with anchovies, pasta with clam sauce, or scungilli (sea snail) salad. Many have abandoned traditional seafoods for fresh cod, fried calamari (squid), baked scallops, and a variety of shrimp dishes.

“As time progresses, a lot of traditions go down the chute,” Tony DeCarlo said. “We still stock everything, but not as much of it as we did before. We have customers who continue to come here every year for products they can't find in other places.”

Jennifer R. Vertullo is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.