FISCHTUNKE AIN’T GOT NO FISCH
I’m German on my mother’s side, or more precisely, Silesian, a province which was turned over to Poland at the end of World War II. The majority of German Silesians, including my family, were expelled.
My Oma told a story about a long, slow train ride she took with her young daughters and sister at some point during the final, chaotic days of the war. My Opa, along with every other breathing German male who wasn’t targeted by the Nazis, had been forced to join the army at this point.
Told to leave their homes, without their husbands, the women and children of their local village had been riding on a cargo train all day. It was moving slower than walking pace, and no one had any idea where they were going. My mom, who was around two years old, was starting to complain she needed to pee. My grandmother told her to wait. I can only imagine how miserable the whole situation was.
After some time, an American soldier volunteered to take my mother out. My grandmother, exhausted, agreed. The moment my mom and the soldier left the train, there were gun shots and the train sped off.
My grandmother said she had no idea how long the shooting went on for. One minute without your child in a situation like that would be an eternity.
Eventually the shooting stopped. The train slowed down. And the soldier entered the cargo train, carrying my mother. For the whole time, he had clung onto the train, holding my mom in one arm and shooting with the other, like a real live super hero.
My mom’s family came to Canada in 1951.
As good Germans, we celebrated Christmas on the eve of the 24th with presents, carol singing, sweets and fischtunke, a beer sauce we poured over sausages, potatoes, red cabbage and sauerkraut. Growing up, it seemed as though fischtunke was our family’s invention, and our Oma was the only one in the world who could make it for Christmas Eve dinner.
Our distant relatives in Germany and California had long replaced the meal with turkey or carp. But our family were the only ones who had left Germany and been expelled from Silesia. In Canada, like so many immigrants, they clung to the old traditions from the home they were forced to leave.
When I was 12 and my sister 10, my Oma taught us the recipe. She had us take notes, type them up, and then read them to her later so she knew they were correct. The recipe has 30 steps, though two of them are ‘wash vegetables’ and ‘cut vegetables.’ Number 30 — written by my sister — is ‘Do not let Meri help!!’
I don’t know what incident sparked that.
In my mom’s old recipe box I found a fischtunke recipe written in my Oma’s handwriting, a precious surprise. These days you can find fischtunke recipes online, proving the dish does exist outside of my family.
My grandparents lived in Hamilton, where you can find all of the ingredients for fischtunke at Denninger’s. Today, you can still go into a Denninger’s and speak German to almost any of the staff. And you haven’t had sausage until you’ve had Denninger’s sausage.
My last minute decision to make fischtunke coupled with a lot of freezing rain this week meant a trip to Deninger’s didn’t seem worth the risk. I was forced to improvise.
I used molasses, instead of beet root sauce. I had little hope for smoked pork neck. And worse, the crucial honey cake was no where to be found. (Once, years ago, I randomly found it at No Frills.)
I got cocky when Loblaw’s had both parsley and celery root – key, authentic vegetables for the sauce. I got even cockier when their butcher had the smoked pork neck replacement recommended by my Oma, smoked back bacon. So much so that as I waited for the butcher to slice the meat, all four lbs. of it which totalled a shocking $60, and then was handed four packages of incredibly expensive bacon slices, that I remembered I was supposed to ask for a hunk of meat, not slices. Oops.
Fischtunke does not look right with floating pieces of bacon in it.
In the end, I found something called a ‘spice cake’. After soaking it in the broth left over from boiling the meat, it smelled totally nasty.
The 30 instructions made by my 12-year-old self via my Oma’s watchful (controlling) eye were the easiest recipe from all of my choices to follow, especially since most of the online recipes are in German. At one point I had two pots going on, and I’m pretty sure I was only supposed to have one. The floating pieces of bacon in the pot are just so terribly wrong, but otherwise it looks and smells like fischtunke. The sauce needs to sit for at least a day before it tastes like fischtunke, so we’ll have to see if instruction #30 has any validity.
My sister lives in Hamilton and makes a mean fischtunke with ingredients from Denninger’s but this year, for a variety of reasons, she didn’t.
So I’m going to call my dinner ‘Toronto fischtunke.’ I could probably find some of the ingredients here if I really spent time looking — smoked pork neck is likely to be found somewhere in St. Lawrence Market, right? Maybe next year I’ll make the time. Or I’ll go to Denninger’s. Or, I’ll do what I normally do — rely on my sister.
And if you haven’t guessed it, this is the first time I’ve made my Oma’s dish since I was 12. I think of how my mom and her whole family have passed, and I understand even more so why my Oma wanted us to carry on the tradition. The Silesian tradition.
Besides, fischtunke tastes seriously awesome. I know this is controversial, but: way better than turkey.
Meri Perra lives in Toronto with her partner, two daughters, tiny cat and massive cargo bike.