A Christmas Story


By Irene Butler

Published in The Cloverdale Reporter

scan00021.jpgI kept an eye on my Baba, and ran over to the wood stove each time she opened the oven door. Two blue roasters were side by side; one filled with cabbage rolls bubbling in tomato sauce, the other a nicely browning goose. I breathed in the mingled aromas and looked excitedly around our kitchen where busy hands chopped, peeled and mixed other Christmas Dinner fare. From my earliest memories, my main focus was on the holubtsi (cabbage rolls in Ukrainian). Along with laying our Baby Jesus doll on a bed of straw under the tree, shaking my present wrapped in tissue paper, pats and kisses from aunts and uncles, and giggling with cousins- the cabbage rolls were the best part of Christmas.

Each year my mom insisted I put a variety of food on my plate, but then with all the festive chatter, she never noticed I only ate the cabbage rolls. With each mouthful I closed by eyes while the slight tang of soured leaves and the savoury sticky rice saturated my taste buds. I always wished my stomach was bigger.

I remember well the day I rolled my first cabbage roll, and Baba raving about how I was a natural. I became privy to her recipe of perfectly combined ingredients. As we worked, Baba said, “because they are shaped like a holub or ‘dove’ that they were named holubtsi.”

Although some of the traditions surrounding the holiday season changed when I married a Norwegian fellow, and later an English bloke to accommodate these cultures – the Christmas cabbage rolls remained. In turn my three sons were introduced to these succulent little delicacies, as were my grandchildren.

Just when I thought the significance of the cabbage roll could hold no fuller meaning for me, an unexpected encounter proved me wrong. In my mid-50’s I decided to learn my heritage language. Being born just after WWII, assimilation into Canadian culture was considered paramount, and with the exception of a few Ukrainian words (like holubtsi) only English was spoken in our home.

I pursued a series of courses, and soon knew plenty of words, but became tongue-tied when attempting to speak. Noticing a Ukrainian Hall in Richmond, I entered a back door to a kitchen. I asked Penny, the manager, if she knew anyone who might be interested in giving private lessons. She suggested I join the Thursday cabbage roll production in the hall, as the ladies volunteering their talent chatted mostly in Ukrainian. Why not?

I became a regular ‘roller’. As the months went by, listening to their jovial banter and being encouraged to join in, the nuances of verb tenses and noun genders fell into place like the rows and layers of cabbage rolls.

As nimble fingers worked under Penny’s direction, Nadia kept us howling with her comical remarks. Pauline and Mila were quick to retort. Sophia exuded an aura warmer than a summer day, and Slava’s incredible voice broke out in folksongs. As the others joined in with teary eyes, I didn’t need to understand the words to know each was lost in memories of the old country.

We turned out product for weddings, a monthly hall supper, and for customers to purchase by the dozen; the proceeds used for the hall sponsored cultural events.

Two years have passed since I’ve left Richmond. Penny has retired as manager, but still volunteers each Thursday. Slava has since gone to sing with the angels. Each Christmas, after Baby Jesus with his faded and chipped china face is placed under the tree, and the sizeable plate of cabbage rolls is passed around our family table, my heart swells thinking of these special ladies. As well as the grandest of immersion courses, and the knack to form little doves with such speed even my late Baba would be impressed, they gave me the greatest gift of all – their friendship.

Irene’s Traditional Christmas Cabbage Rolls 300px-Bsarma1.jpg

Basic rice mixture
4 cups water
2 cups long-grain rice
2 medium onions, finely chopped
2 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper
4 tbsp olive oil
¼  lb butter

1 cup of buckwheat, washed well (adds a nutty flavour)
2 cup water
1 tsp salt
pepper to taste

Meat (optional, but at least bacon recommended)
½ lb bacon
And/or ½ lb ground beef
4 tbsp oil
1 tsp salt/pepper to taste.
2 medium heads cabbage
(OR check for cabbage heads fermented like sauerkraut- do not need softening)
1 cup tomato juice
1 can tomato soup
2 tbsp vinegar (omit if you use sour cabbage head)
½ can water

– Cook rice according to package instructions, take off heat slightly underdone. Saute the onions in oil until transparent. Add onions, butter, salt & pepper to hot rice. 
– Bring buckwheat and water to a boil. Turn heat low until water is absorbed. Add salt & pepper. Add to basic rice mix.
– fry & crumble bacon
– fry ground beef. Add salt/pepper.
– Stir into rice/buckwheat mix. Cool.

To prepare cabbage leaves –
(1) ‘New’ BEST method – Remove core from cabbages. Put in plastic bag and freeze for 2 weeks. When ready to make cabbage rolls, remove plastic and place heads in sink filled with water to thaw. When thawed the leaves are limp & separate easily. Trim hard centre part of each leaf, rinse and drain. Leaves are ready to use.
(2) OR use the same-day steam method. Remove core from cabbages. Cover heads with water in pot. Bring to a boil. Simmer until leaves are limp. Do not overcook. When heads are cool enough to handle, separate leaves and trim as above.
Ready to Roll – Place a heaping tablespoon or two of rice on a leaf (depending on leaf size). Roll tightly, closing the ends as you roll each cabbage roll. Place rolls in a 4-quart casserole dish or roaster. Pour mixture of tomato juice, soup, vinegar & water over the cabbage rolls. Bake at 350 degrees for 2 – 2 ½ hours. Makes approx. 30 cabbage rolls.


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