Normally, peas are healthy vegetables. They’re green and perky, and your mom probably forced you to eat them when you were a kid. I like peas and would eat them more often… except for the fact they’re good for your health. That takes all the fun out of them.
So it takes a rare stroke of genius to turn healthy, perky peas into a fun, greasy, fatty, delicious holiday dish. Luckily, the Baltic nation of Latvia seems to have no shortage of kitchen geniuses: Latvians use a pea called a marrowfat pea—which, by itself, is awesome, since it contains the word “fat,” and fat almost always tastes good. And then they top the marrowfat pea with bacon. A fat pea with bacon? I love this country.
I’ll admit that I’ve been internet-stalking the NYC Latvian community for the past few months, hoping to find a food-friendly event, preferably featuring bacon-topped marrowfat peas. And I lucked out: every winter, the NYC Latvians host a Christmas market at the Daugavas Vanagi House (DV House) in the Bronx. On the ground floor, friendly Latvian vendors offer an array of imported Latvian chocolate, Latvian baked goods, homemade Latvian sauerkraut, Latvian Christmas CDs, and some absolutely stunning handicrafts made by Latvian artisans. Downstairs, the DV House’s cozy bar hosts a traditional Christmas meal. You know, the kind that gives you a jolly, happy, Santa Claus belly.
Like Latvia itself, the DV House food table was relatively small, but definitely mighty. There were four varieties of pig, including three types of sausage and some diced bacon, intended as a topping for the marrowfat peas. The blood sausage—barley and herbs, mixed with pig’s blood and stuffed into a sausage casing—was particularly delicious, and resembled a hearty, not-very-fried version of Puerto Rican morcilla.
You can never really go wrong with pig, but the non-pig side dishes were equally stellar. Our Latvian friends served two different potato dishes, some homemade Latvian sauerkraut, and a fantastic dark rye bread, similar to the stuff served in our favorite Estonian
drunk tank social club. Even the cranberry sauce—spiked with orange rind and orange liqueur—was outstanding. And the peas, of course, were phenomenal: pleasantly firm grey peas, topped with enough bacon to make me squeal like a happy pig. And the whole plate cost a mere $15.
And just in case the sausage and potatoes and marrowfat peas didn’t already add enough fat to our proverbial marrow… there was an amazing dessert table, featuring $1 slices of a gently sweetened apple cake, which reminded me of the stuff my Ukrainian grandmother (and Russian-Ukrainian-American mother) used to make. The cranberry strudel was also spectacular: unusually doughy and not overly sweet, with a gentle dusting of powdered sugar. And Latvian beer also helps put a little bit of extra fat on your marrow; a jumbo bottle of Aldaris—one of Latvia’s many world-class beers—was a steal for $3.
And I mean no disrespect to any other nationality, but the NYC Latvians are pretty awesome—and that’s not just the beer talking. The small bar area at DV House comfortably fits only a few dozen patrons… and nearly every one approached our table at some point to introduce themselves and offer holiday greetings to our motley group of non-Latvians. The best line of the day was delivered by a friendly Latvian gentleman who stopped by to say hello: “This is heavy food, just for special occasions. You really can’t eat like this every day, or you’ll make your cardiologist mad. Merry Christmas, everybody!”
And just to make my cardiologist even angrier, I went straight to another holiday feeding festival immediately after leaving the DV House. As luck would have it, the Finnish Lutheran Church in the West Village was having its Christmas bazaar on the exact same afternoon as the Latvian Christmas event. They weren’t serving a full meal, but they did offer traditional Finnish rice pudding, made from rice and milk, stewed forever with a little bit of salt, and then topped with a drizzle of thin raspberry juice. Cinnamon and extra sugar were optional.
And for the first time in recent memory, I left a bowl of food unfinished, and that makes a little piece of my porky soul cry. The Finnish rice pudding had been burnt, and had a charred-milk taste that I couldn’t fight my way through… though my (non-Finnish) pal Rene happily slurped down an entire bowl in about 30 seconds. He’s cooler than I am.
Despite the rice pudding disappointment, all was not lost. I went upstairs to the Finnish bake sale, and bought a massive kääretorttu roll—a thick log of mildly chocolaty dough, stuffed with raspberry jam. And I ate the whole thing. That should put some extra fat in my marrow, right?
DV House Latvian Christmas Market
Held December 3, 2011
115 West 183rd Street, Bronx
Subway: 183rd Street (4 train)
Finnish Lutheran Church Christmas Bazaar
Held December 3, 2011
81-83 Christopher Street, Manhattan
Subway: Christopher Street-Sheridan Sq. (1, 2 trains)