A frozen New Year’s Eve

By Alice Smelyansky

Amid a spread of pickled vegetables, caviar and salted herring, there lies a dish which closer resembles a jelly-like substance than an age-old tradition. It’s gelatinous, and cold, and it maintains its shape even in the harshest conditions. For years, I avoided this dish, fearing it simply for its wobbly state. But when I finally embraced Kholodets, I learned there was more to the frozen jellied pieces of meat and vegetables than meets the eye.

About 300 years ago, Kholodets came into households everywhere in the northern part of Russia. Before people could cool foods by placing them in a refrigerator for a few minutes, the icy Eastern European air provided a nice alternative. And just like some might argue that pizza tastes better cold, some Russians will argue that there is no better meal than frozen meat stew with a side of horseradish — especially on New Year’s Eve.

To make the dish, my mom boils large pieces of chicken, veal and beef for eight to 10 hours, making sure to add in plenty of bones. Once the stew is done, she takes out the bones and pours the remainder into a saucepan. While its still in its liquid state, she adds in my family’s favorite additions: eggs, parsley and carrots. Then it goes inside the refrigerator for three to four hours until it forms a cool, jelly mass.

Though my family emigrated from the Soviet Union to the United States 23 years ago, ringing in the New Year with an embellished plate of Kholodets on the dinner table is a tradition that remained with them. And thus, for years, I was forced to either stare at it or overcome my fears and cut into the jelly.

Yet, the reason behind Kholodets at the New Year’s Eve table is not merely for taste or convenience’s sake. As my parents grew up in a country where practicing one’s religion was frowned upon, celebrating New Year’s Eve became the main holiday for all people. A table with the most delicious foods and a festive tree, which resembled what other parts of the world recognize as a Christmas tree, became a tradition that united an entire nation. Kholodets, along with many other popular dishes, such as small stuffed meat buns and a salad made from boiled beets, symbolizes a year that is as prosperous as the multitude of delicacies on the table. Not one of my childhood memories about the holiday lack the favorite food or the echoes of a New Year’s Eve concert broadcasted from Russia.

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    And as per tradition, the New Year is rung in by eating, chatting and celebrating all through the wee hours of the night, until the plate containing the Kholodets is cleared without a crumb to spare.

    Alice is a sophomore in Media. She can be reached at [email protected].