Saturday, January 2, 2010

New Year, 2010: The Mutzen Report

Though I feel a bit sheepish for not having posted for a while, I have to admit without a bit of guilt that I’ve greatly enjoyed the things I’ve been doing, holiday-wise. We’ve simply been busy—and when we’ve taken time out, it’s been our opportunity to sleep.

We flew to Ohio for Christmas, to be with Sue’s family, and then we had New Year’s Eve here in Jefferson City with my clan. I know that on December 26, a lot of people think to themselves, “Whew! The holiday rush is over! Now I can relax!” But with us it’s not that way, because Sue and I have held the annual New Year’s Eve party at our house as long as we’ve lived here. For us, the holidays aren’t done until we’re completely onto a new page, a new calendar.

Yes, I’ll be writing about some of the Ohio trip, but I wanted to take a little time to reflect on our New Year’s Eve shenanigans, before it seems too far in the past.

It’s hard to know where to begin, because my family has a lot of traditions that, to be truly appreciated, need explanation. Otherwise, they sound just downright weird. Though I guess it’s like that for everyone. I think that’s how most everyone’s beloved family traditions end up: oddly perverse, and beloved for their sheer perversity. One family I know has a tradition of playing the card game “Screw Your Neighbor” every Thanksgiving. Weird! You know?

So in our family, we make these fried donutlike things called mutzens. In German, I believe, the plural doesn’t need the s, so they’re technically called mützen. But as I’ve mentioned before, at the closest point, I represent only the third generation born in North America, so I don’t claim to be “German” at all. I don’t apologize for it, so don’t write me and say that my stuff isn’t “traditional.” Because I’m a German American, and sometimes traditions have to change a little in order to stay alive.

Just be glad I’m not spelling them mootzins, or mootsens, or mootzens, or whatever!

Shall I give you the recipe for mutzens? No, not quite yet. Not publicly. It’s a precious family heirloom, and, well . . . you know. I intend to keep blogging for a while yet, so maybe I’ll get around to sharing it one of these years.

I will tell you, though, that they are a yeast-raised, deep-fried fritter. In Holland they are called Olie Bollen (“oil balls”). The dough is really “gukky” (as my brother described it when he was a kid), not runny but then also not thick enough to “handle,” so when nudged off a spoon, it blobs into the hot Crisco and puffs into rounded orbs with curious little appendages.

I’ve seen recipes that use combinations of things like chopped apples, raisins, nuts, and cinnamon for flavoring, but the recipe as my grandma always made it (and her mom before her) uses currants and mace. (People don’t cook with mace too much anymore. I wonder why that is. Do you think people get it confused with the stuff you spray at attackers? It's like, totally not the same!)

Anyway, this combination of flavors, which permeates the air when the mutzens are frying, absolutely conveys “New Year’s Eve” to our family. It’s as intimate an association as the scent of pine trees with Christmas, vinegar and hardboiled eggs with Easter, and roasting turkey with Thanksgiving.

After the mutzens come out of the frying grease and drain for a few moments, they get tossed into a paper grocery sack with some powdered sugar. It’s traditionally been the job of the youngest person to shake this powdered-sugar sack.

It’s dusty work, but a fringe benefit is getting to lick your fingers between each batch of five or six. It also keeps the younguns from getting bored while they wait until midnight. It gives them an important job to do! And they develop a real sense of pride in their work. (I know this gig well, having been “the youngest” for many years, until my older cousins started having kids.)

My grandma started this tradition in the 1940s as a New Year’s Eve get-together with her bridge club friends. Before my dad and his brothers came along, the bridge club ladies probably took turns hosting at New Year’s Eve, but eventually the unmarried bridge clubbers simply joined my grandma with her family at this house. Grandma would always make mutzens, from her immigrant mother’s recipe, and the tradition was started.

By the time I came along, it was primarily a family gathering, but friends, including many of the original bridge club gang and other cronies of grandma, would come as well.

Sometimes people dropped in unexpectedly—some friend-of-a friend invite, perfectly welcome nonetheless—for example, one year (well before my time) a Missouri State Supreme Court justice arrived, already drunk from having been to another party somewhere else (no, I’m not naming names; they’re all dead now, anyway). But everyone remembers how The Honorable Judge So-and-So staggered around, accidentally spilling powdered sugar on grandma’s carpet.

. . . But then everyone spills powdered sugar from their mutzens. Particularly those who have been enjoying alcohol during the course of the evening. It gets on the floor, it falls on your shirt front and gets on your lap. This light mess is simply part of the fun. This year, my cousins’ spouses Vickie and Patrick showed up wearing black. Ha ha ha! When they arrived, I pointed to their garments and cackled: “Ooh-ha-ha-ha, you have to shake the powdered sugar bag at least once!” To which they responded with good-natured groans, and a perfect willingness to help out.

On January 1, during the Pasadena Rose Parade, the coffee table always needs a thorough cleaning, and although we dusted everything very well before the party, every surface acquires a thin new layer of sweet sugar by the time we ring in the fresh new year. Maybe it’s perverse to take pleasure in such a mess, but it always makes us happy.

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