By Celia Barbour
One Christmas when I was a kid, I received a book called Cross Your Fingers, Spit in Your Hat. I devoured it. The author, Alvin Schwartz, was a collector of American folklore, and he filled the book’s pages with eccentric, curious superstitions like this one: “If you manage to sprinkle salt on the tail of a bird, you will have good luck.”
I don’t remember who gave me this particular gift, but I do know that it came into my life at the best and worst possible time: during my impressionable pre-tween years. (Though we didn’t use “tween” back then. We just said a person was “10” or “11.”)
As you may recall, this is the age when you emerge from the cradling hills of childhood onto the vast Great Plains of proto-life. And, at the exact moment when you become aware of the world’s wild, unknowable dangers, you also realize that your parents are not omnipotent, nor even especially potent – in fact, they can hardly help you diagram a sentence. You’re on your own. So you may decide, as I did, that you need to take up a daily practice of preventative wish-making. It gives you a feeling of control in the face of life’s uncertainties.
All these years later, I still reflexively knock on wood and wish on stars, though I know better than to think it will have any effect on life’s uncertainties. And I still have the book. I pulled it out recently, because the changing of the years seemed to warrant it. This is what I read:
“New Year’s Day is the most important day of the year. It affects all the other days to come. Therefore, it is sensible to take these steps: At 12:01 a.m. … eat a dish of pickled herring; then make sure a man walks all the way through your house … Also, get somebody to kiss you. Otherwise, no one will for another year, which is a long time to wait.”
All good! I happen to have an ambulatory man on hand plus a house for him to walk through, and, as luck would have it, he also doubles as a person I am happy to kiss. As for the pickled herring, it is a dish I adore. In fact, I prefer it to black-eyed peas and collard greens, which I first tried at 17 in Tennessee. The subsequent year was no luckier than the ones before it, and I have never again felt compelled to eat this combination of foods, unless it is very delicious.
But pickled herring is another matter. My mother grew up in Finland where it’s as common as potato chips. When she came to Indiana at 26, she discovered that it was one of the few Scandinavian foods available in the local grocery stores. I recall sitting with her at our kitchen table and polishing off a whole jar, just the two of us.
People eat collard greens on New Year’s Day because the vegetable is leafy and green like money, and therefore thought to bring wealth. The silvery glint of herring has a similar connotation. But herring will bestow good fortune on you even if you don’t eat it at a key moment of 2014. It is one of the fishes highest in omega-3s, and since herring are small, they are also lower in mercury than their comrades up the food chain.
Scandinavians will serve pickled herring with nothing but buttered rye bread and a shot of vodka or aquavit. But such stark meals are not for novices. My mom makes a dish called sillisalaati (“silly sa-LAH-tee”), which is a chopped salad of herring, beet, potato, tart apple, and red onion. I have loved it for as long as I can remember, but I cannot vouch for it if you are unaccustomed to such flavors. I can say only this: You know by reading the list of ingredients whether you would like it or not. If you do, consider yourself lucky indeed.
Lucky Silli Salad
“Silli” is Finnish for “herring.” My mother would mix in the sour cream just before serving so the whole thing turned a lovely, creamy pink. I prefer it on top.
½ small red onion, minced
2-3 tablespoons white wine vinegar, plus more as needed
3 medium boiling potatoes (about 1½ pounds)
3-4 carrots (about ½ pound), peeled
2-3 beets (about ½ pound)
½ tart green apple
1 8-ounce jar herring in wine sauce
1 tablespoon finely chopped pickle (either sweet or dill is OK)
2-3 tablespoons sour cream, plus more for serving
- Place the minced red onion into a small dish or cup and add just enough vinegar to cover. Set aside.
- Peel the potatoes and cut into halves or quarters, making roughly equal-size pieces. Place in a pot of cold, salted water. Bring the pot to a boil over high heat and cook until the potatoes are just soft enough to pierce through, about 12-15 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside to drain and cool. Add the peeled carrots to the same pot of boiling water and cook until barely soft, about 6-10 minutes, depending on thickness. Remove and set aside with the potatoes.
- Add the whole beets to the water and boil until just soft enough to pierce through, about 15 minutes. Drain, cool, and peel beets.
- Chop the vegetables and apple into a small dice. Cut the herring into ¼ to ½ inch pieces. Combine everything in a bowl. (You can add the beets at the last minute if you don’t want everything to turn pink.) Add the chopped pickle and the minced onion, along with a splash of the vinegar the onion was soaking in. Toss gently to combine. Taste; add salt and pepper and more vinegar, if needed. Serve chilled, with sour cream either mixed in or dolloped on top, and ice-cold vodka on the side, if you like.