Jean Shepherd and American Christmas Tradition

I’m having some trouble giving this post ‘legs’, as they say.  I know exactly what I want to say, but this is try #3 in putting it down in words.  So I’ll just blurt it out – no soft, subtle segue as is my norm, Ha!  I want to say a little something about tradition, especially Christmas tradition, which is appropriate for this time of year, I guess – and then I wanted to share with you one of the few pieces of my own family Christmas tradition that has managed to survive to this time in my life (I’m not much for tradition, myself – but I like the concept.).

America doesn’t have much in the way of cultural tradition.  I can say this because, in order to exist, tradition must have history, and America doesn’t have a whole lot of history yet.  A nation of people needs many hundreds, maybe thousands of years of history before it has any real sense of tradition – Europe has lots of tradition; America doesn’t.  But families don’t need hundreds of years to create tradition – just a generation or two – and family tradition can be strong and ongoing.

But of course, the collective family traditions of any nation will eventually form a national cultural tradition – and this is happening in America, even as we speak.  And if anyone wants to view a snapshot of where we are as a society, in the development of our collective cultural tradition, you could do worse than check the work of Jean Shepherd, one of our nation’s best chroniclers of American family life who ever plied the craft.  And this being the Christmas season, Shepherd’s most famous piece, the film, ‘A Christmas Story’, will once again make its holiday presence known – TBS will once again run its 24 hour marathon of the film – an American Christmas tradition in the making.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.com

Jean Shepherd worked American radio from the 50s thru the 80s, and was arguably our nation’s preeminent storyteller of the time – his venue always was the everyday life of any American family, and Christmas was a familiar theme.  Shepherd grew up in the great melting pot of America’s Midwest, and most of his stories carry a Midwestern flavor.  He made no secret of the fact that he knew exactly what people wanted to hear – they wanted to hear about normal life at home, with all its attendant quirks, glitches, and foibles.  He was both a master of digging up his subject matter – much of it semi-autobiographical – and of masterfully telling it so that every listener could relate it to his/her own family.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.com

Shepherd’s prime years were spent at WOR in New York in the 60s, when he did 5, 45 minute shows each week.  Those who witnessed his work would all state their amazement at how he was able to effortlessly cruise through a session with only a bare minimum -if any- of notes or script.  When later queried on this point, Shepherd would reply that it may have looked like he was winging everything, but that he spent many hours of preparation for each show, and then committed all that prep to his memory.  Apparently, he had amazing mental recall as a tool of the trade.

Each year at Christmas time, and well before the movie’s production, Shepherd would read a condensed version of what would eventually become, A Christmas Story – this was drawn from his book, ‘In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash’, which had also appeared earlier in Playboy magazine.  I’ve included an audio of the December 24th, 1974 WOR show here, in case anyone is not familiar with either A Christmas Story, or Shepherd’s storytelling.  I think it’s interesting just how faithfully the movie later tracked the story line itself in the book and this recorded condensation as well.
Jean Shepherd, 12/24/74: “Duel in the Snow, or Red Ryder nails the Cleveland Street Kid”

###

As to my own family’s Christmas traditions, as I’ve said, they were limited.  Food wise, we most often had either turkey or ham, both of which were semi-luxuries for most lower-middle class American families of the time.  If it was turkey, it would be the only time of the year that we’d have it – other than the required Thanksgiving appearance.  If we had especially enjoyed it on Thanksgiving, we may all have cast votes to have it again at Christmas – but if it wasn’t on sale, my mother may well have vetoed it.  And if that were the case, then ham was up, or maybe even roast fresh ham – always something that made a good visual appearance.

We ate a lot of ham.  Besides being economical, there was the big leftover bone that my mother always used to make soup, which was almost always either split pea or lima bean – the latter, made with the really big limas, was my father’s favorite soup – it probably made a monthly appearance at our house.

At the time I didn’t give this much thought, but in retrospect, I now realize that in our house at any holiday, it was much more important to present an image of excess then it was to have something luxurious but small.  I now see that fact as probably representative of most poor families of the time – and so, our Christmas dinner table was always going to have a BIG roast something.

But there was one Christmas food tradition in our family that was especially strong, and that I have willingly carried forward to this day – and for the life of me, I have never been able to figure out where it came from, or originated.  For whatever reason, my mother would always bake what she simply called, ‘Bacon and Onion Rolls’, and we all loved them – I can never remember a Christmas without them.

My mother’s Bacon and Onion Rolls were visually like small calzones, although at the time, I had never seen a calzone, so to us, they were uniquely identifiable.  Having no clue as to their ethnic origin -I knew they were not related to either my my Irish or English heritage – I have done a lot of internet investigation, and now can pretty much identify the most logical source of their origin – Latvia or Lithuania, where a bacon/onion roll called, piragi, or speka-rausi, plays a key role in the Christmas celebration.

But where would my mother have gotten this recipe?  My mother was a private person, and avoided social situations – so the source was not a neighbor or friend.  And certainly not a relative either.  I never got a chance to ask her about this, mostly because as a young guy, it just never occurred to me that it was a significant issue – Such is youth.

But there is no doubt that her Bacon, Onion Rolls were delicious – and that they were reserved as a Christmas treat.  The fact that my most recent research suggests that the Latvian/Lithuanian versions also have a Christmas relationship provide a strong clue that we’re probably looking at the same roll, whatever the mysterious origin in my mother’s life.  If you are at all interested in learning more about these rolls, check here, and here – Apparently, these rolls have achieved a Baltic cult status, as they also now have their own Facebook page, which I understand only happens when a given subject area has a 1000 fans or more!

I’m going to share with you one of the Latvian versions of Piragi, if only because this one has a few variations from my mother’s more simplistic version – and I must admit to you that, as of today, I have not baked this exact recipe – but I am in the process of doing so – and I promise to immediately return here at the conclusion of my bake, and share my opinion and baking notes  (see My Baking Notes below).  So, here ’tis.

Latvian Christmas Piragi (Bacon, Onion Rolls)

Dough:

  • 2 1/2 cups whole milk scalded
  • 1/2 cup oil, butter (1 stick), or cooled excess bacon fat at room temp
  • 2 eggs, slightly beaten
  • 1/2 cup sour cream
  • 3 Tbs sugar
  • 1 tsp ground cardamom
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 2 envelopes dry instant yeast (2 Tbs)
  • About 5 1/2 – 6 cups all purpose flour

Filling:

  • 1 lb good bacon, diced medium fine
  • 1 large onion, chopped medium fine
  • 1-2 Tbs ground pepper
  • Salt to taste

Process:
* Dough-  If you are not using instant yeast (which is added directly to the flour), you will need to proof your yeast – get instant yeast, it’s much easier!

Scald the milk – add the oil, butter or bacon fat to hot milk – stir and allow to cool to lukewarm.

Using the paddle of a stand mixture throughout the mixing/kneading (or manually with a big bowl and strong arms), mix the 2 eggs with the sour cream until well combined – now add the cooled milk mixture, again mixing well – Using the mixer’s  lowest speed, add 2 cups of flour and mix well – now add sugar, cardamom, salt, and the yeast – mix well.

Continuing to use the lowest speed, begin adding the rest of the flour up to all but the last 1/2 cup.  If the dough has begun to pull away from the sides and bottom of the bowl, do not add any additional flour, otherwise slowly add additional flour (up to full 6 cups) until dough pulls away from bowl – turn mixer speed to 2 and continue kneading for an additional 4-5 minutes until dough is quite stretchy – it should be tacky, but not sticky.  Resist adding any more flour – if it appears too wet and sticky after all flour has been added, stop mixing, cover with a towel, and walk away for 15 minutes.  When you return, turn out the dough to a floured board, and knead for a minute or so to get a feel for the dough – it should now be easy to handle.  If you still think it needs a little more flour, sprinkle a little on as you continue to knead and the dough comes to a workable state.  Do not add any more flour than you absolutely have to.

If you are not using a mixer, do all of this in your bowl, and knead on a board for 10 minutes or more.

Oil another bowl (or use the mixing bowl) and add the dough ball – roll it around to cover the dough ball with oil – cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a towel and allow to rise for about an hour and a half, or until it’s double in size.

* Filling-  While your dough is rising, make the filling – chop the bacon and the onion up to a fairly fine dice.  My experience is that the bacon is easier to do when cold, or even partially frozen – I’ve seen some notes about using a food processor for this, but my own experience is not good – it either results in uneven cutting, or makes mush out of everything – be forewarned.  I even think the onion tastes better when chopped with a sharp knife.

The usual way to finish off the filling is to use a large saute pan and quickly cook it over high heat, stirring all the while – you don’t want to brown the bacon, or even cook all the fat away, but I think it all can be cooked together if your pan is big enough – definitely, do not brown the onion, just soften it.  Use a liberal amount of ground pepper, and don’t skimp on the salt either.

I’ve seen a recipe where this is all done in the microwave in three stages of 2-3 minutes each , draining off the accumulated fat in between.  I have not used this process, but it sounds interesting.  I’ve even seen a few mentions of using a raw mixture of bacon and onion – however, I’d be leery of that one.

After cooking the filling, drain off the fat, and cool the filling.

* Assembly-  Prepare several sheet pans by either greasing them, or using baker’s parchment.  Move the risen dough to a work counter or bench – divide it in half, and roll it into a ‘rope’ about 20 inches long – do the same with the other half.  Now cut each rope into about 20 inch long pieces (you’ll have 40 pieces of 1.5 ozs each).  Cover them with a towel while you are filling your rolls.

Bring your cooled filling to your work area – take a piece of your cut dough and with your hand, flatten it into a small round about 1/4 inch thick – place about 1 tsp of filling in the middle of your flattened dough piece – fold one side over the filling to make a half moon shape – use the tines of a fork to seal the edges of the half moon, and move the filled roll to a sheet pan, seam side down (press it down so it sits flat).  Place them about 1.5 inches apart.  When filled, cover the sheet pan with a towel and move to a warm area for final proofing (about 45-60 minutes).

While rolls are rising, turn oven on to 375 F, and give it a good 30 minutes to heat up – once rolls have risen well, beat an egg with 1 tsp of milk well, and brush on the tops of each roll – give each roll a quick poke with a sharp pointed knife to release steam as they bake.

*  Bake for about 8-10 minutes, and turn/move pans for consistent browning – bake for another 8-10 minutes longer, or until well browned (you may need a few more minutes).

My Baking Notes: OK, I’ve now baked this recipe, and I’ve gone ahead and changed a few instructions – no need to switch from the paddle to the dough hook (if you’re using a mixer), this is a very soft and tender dough, and the dough hook would just tear it as it worked – OTOH, the paddle develops the gluten nicely, and at the end, the dough pulls away from the paddle with no problem – a very nice dough.

These were far lighter and softer than were my first batch – after years of trying many different doughs for this roll, this is the one I’ll always use from now on – these are the best I’ve ever done!

Most Latvian recipes call for removing them immediately after baking to a towel, and wrapping them in the towel until cool – apparently it’s a tradition.

And may you and yours carry on the traditions of your family this Christmas with abundant joy and good will – Enjoy and share.

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About drfugawe

I'm a guy with enough time to do as I please, and that my resources allow. The problem(s) are: I have 100s of interests; I have a short attention span; I have instant expectations; I'm lazy; and I'm broke. But I'm OK with all that, 'cause otherwise I'd be so busy, I'd be dead in a year.
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7 Responses to Jean Shepherd and American Christmas Tradition

  1. It must be Christmas – those rolls look wonderful – Do you think it might be acceptable to make them for Boxing Day? They have some of our favourite things in them, sour cream, cardamon, bacon and onion? What’s not to like, in fact adore 🙂

    We spent yesterday making english sausage rolls which are a family tradition of Brian’s side. His father was a butcher before he worked for British Rail as a signalman. English sausage rolls are a simple puff or flaky pastry affair, with sausage meat through the middle cut into rectangles and baked in the oven. We also make mince pies, again in the English tradition.

    Neither of my parents ever baked anything with yeast. I am making up for it now. I’ve just pulled an unravelling Stollen from the oven, fragrant with lemon and rum and spice. Making traditions anew each year here.

    Have a wonderful peace filled Christmas! It’s been good reading your blog this year. Thankyou!

    • drfugawe says:

      Ahh, the wonderful British traditions – we envy all those – and labor to create some of our own, some day. And Boxing Day remains a complete mystery to most Americans, including myself (sounds a bit like a holiday that might have been created by a New York Irish street gang in the mid 1800s – if in fact we had a Boxing Day!). Yes, if I were you, I’d create these for any holiday – whose to complain?

      I’ll bet you folks are tiring of the snow – so I’ll wish you and all the birds a sunny Christmas.

  2. Doc, those rolls sound superb! Thank you for sharing a little of your Christmas traditions with us. Merry Christmas and all the very best for a fabulous, bread-filled 2011! 🙂

    • drfugawe says:

      Celia,
      Thanks for your Christmas greetings and for all your blogging ‘gifts’ you’ve given all of us this year. Here’s hoping that you can slow down just a little for a day or so, and enjoy all the great foods and goodies you’ve been making recently – wishing you and the whole clan + friends, a simply wonderful holiday season.

      Enjoy and share.

  3. If you are going for best contents like me, only pay a visit this site all the time because
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  4. somi says:

    very sweet recipe

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