Monday, January 18, 2016

New Year’s Eve on Elm Street

Hello, friends—happy new year! It’s a little belated, but I wanted to write a bit about the process of starting a new year, and bidding adieu to the old. I realize if I don’t post this belatedly, then I’ll never post it at all, because each year, I’m far too busy before Dec. 31 to spend time writing about it.

In our diverse American culture, the phrase “happy holidays” has become the most useful and inclusive way of articulating the joy of our mutual year-end celebrations. Yet whether we observe the winter solstice, Hanukkah, Christmas, or Kwanzaa, nearly all of us do something on December 31 to recognize the night—the instant—that we cross over the bridge spanning the past and the future.

I’ve found an intriguing diversity in the ways people celebrate New Year’s Eve. Some people don’t do more than get out a new wall calendar. Others watch the “ball drop” on TV, or go to parties (private or public). Often, people eat special foods, supposed to bring luck or money, such as black-eyed peas or bean soup, hoppin’ John . . . or black bun, oatcakes, and whiskey (as they do in Scotland).

I’m partial to pickled herring, because everyone knows you need to eat that on New Year’s Eve in order to have some money in your pocket!

My family has a tradition of having a New Year’s Eve party each year. In many ways, it’s a fairly normal party, in that we have an array of snack foods and beverages, and amicable and animated conversations develop and overlap as people move about, mixing, sharing one another’s news and ideas.

By the time New Year’s Eve rolls around, the bulk of the holidays—the decorating, the gift-giving, the churchgoing, the entertaining—is over, and everyone is relaxed and ready to have a good time. But what really distinguishes my family’s New Year’s Eve party from all others is the mützens.

The Thomas/Schroeder family of Elm Street in Jefferson City has been celebrating New Year’s with mützens for at least four generations. My great-grandparents Albert and Wilhelmina Thomas came to Jefferson City from Germany around 1895 and raised their family (a son and four daughters) on West Elm Street, in the little “Germantown” of Muenchberg, or Old Munichburg. In 1930, the youngest of their children, my paternal grandmother, Edna Thomas, married my grandfather Walter A. F. Schroeder, and the couple moved, with Albert and Wilhelmina, into a duplex created for them by Albert. This home—formerly the German Methodist Episcopal church the Thomases had been members of—still stands at the northeast corner of Broadway and West Elm. It’s where I live today.

This house has been the setting for the family’s New Year’s Eve mützen celebrations for about seventy-five years. The tradition apparently started in the 1930s as a gathering for Walter and Edna’s bridge club, which had formed in the 1920s.

As the couple’s children grew and married, and as grandchildren came along, the New Year’s party evolved into a family-and-friends gathering. Serving mützens at midnight has been a part of the celebration all along.

What are mützens? As far as I’ve been able to tell, mützen are a festival food, a kind of fritter or donut, eaten in Germany the same way we in America enjoy funnelcakes. I understand that German mützen are enjoyed particularly at Fastnacht (Mardi Gras) celebrations. I’ve seen similar goodies called Fastnachts, which are sometimes rolled out, then sliced into diamond shapes before frying.

Indeed, there are some basic similarities between mützens and funnelcakes: Both are made with a sweet dough that is fried and served topped with powdered sugar, and both are especially good when they’re hot and fresh. Mützens, however, are made with a much thicker and stickier yeast dough than funnelcakes, and in my family they are flavored with mace and currants.

Some recipes I’ve seen for mützen incorporate raisins, apple chunks, cinnamon, and/or nuts. The mace and currants, however, combine for a unique flavor, which for me powerfully recalls New Year’s Eve celebrations.

Anyway—nudged off a spoon into hot oil, the dough bobs, rises, and puffs out into a ball, but often taking bizarre shapes with odd “appendages.”

Across the German border, in Holland, a similar treat is made called Olie Bollen (“oil balls”; sometimes called Dutch donuts). Edna—again, my Grandma Schroeder—lived under the same roof as her German immigrant parents and therefore learned to prepare their favorite foods. It makes geographical sense that she learned to make this pastry from her mother, who was raised in northwestern Germany, where German and Dutch cultures form a gradient. To our knowledge, Edna never used a written recipe for mützens.

Edna’s reputation for her mützens grew. Albert and Wilhelmina passed away in the 1940s; Walter, my Grandpa Schroeder, passed away in 1966, but Edna’s sisters and their families, her sons and their families, and a number of dear friends continued the New Year’s Eve tradition of getting together and having mützens at midnight.

At some point, the job of applying powdered sugar to the outsides of the freshly made mützens (that is, shaking them in a paper sack with the sugar) became the general responsibility of any grandchildren who were old enough to perform the task. It felt like a great honor to be enlisted to help in the kitchen—especially since kids can get kind of bored with hours of grown-up conversations as the clock ticks toward midnight.

Grandma was an enthusiastic entertainer. In between punching down the dough and, as the evening progressed, frying batches, she would dance through the living room, singing “Here comes a duke a-riding, a-riding, a-riding . . . !” She also circulated among her guests, making sure everyone had enough to eat and drink.

There was always plenty to drink!

At midnight, Grandma would bring out a huge platter full of mützens. By this time, the deliciously sweet mützen smell was all over the house, so getting to finally eat them has always brought a climax to the evening, which is a climax to the year. In a sense, mützens are like a dessert to the year passed, and breakfast for the year to come.

Yes, we continue this tradition—and yes, in my next post I’m gonna tell you how to make mützens yourself!

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