Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Eating Lucy's Eyeballs

St. Lucy Queen of Lights

As Catholics (especially cradle Catholics) we are admittedly macabre.  I do not say "perceived to be" or "seemingly" macabre.  You cannot be a true Catholic if you are not authentically macabre.  The fact the most people have a purely negative association with the term only serves to demonstrate that most people are not Catholic, or, at the very least, that we have relinquished any level of Catholic vocabulary.  The word "macabre" is itself macabre.  It stems from Old French and is derived from the originary meaning 'dance of death', a miracle play depicting the slaughter of the Maccabee Brothers.  This hidden origin of the word is a perfect example of the traditional Catholic acquaintance with the gruesome.  We have churches composed of bones (Sedlec Ossuary in the Czech Republic or Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini in Rome for instance) statues of saints proudly bearing their own murder/torture implements (my favorite perhaps being St. Bartholomew with his flayed skin) and of course the stories are endless (think St. Lawrence: "Turn me over I'm done on this side"-patron saint of Barbeques).  Most obviously, we Catholics proudly bear the death instrument  which mangled Our Lord as our most evident symbol.  Indeed, we refuse to tidy this image up by removing Christ from the cross.  Give us a chance and we will likely try to paint on a bit more blood.   We are macabre, and I do not think this fact should be lost upon us.  Of course we wish to instigate a culture of life, but always, in defending life we find ourselves defending the potential beauty and meaning within suffering.  Truly, our celebration of the macabre is always a dance of hope.

December 13 is St. Lucy's day, a macabre celebration, second in some ways only to Dia de Muertos.  Lucy was martyred during the reign of Emperor Diocletion.  A Sicilian, she is yet another example of a beautiful Christian virgin who is set on causing trouble for her suitors.  In one version of the story a suitor complimented her on her beautiful eyes.  Never a timid creature, Lucy cut her own eyeballs out and sent them to the suave fellow so he would kindly leave her be.  The tamer version has Diocletion's soldiers doing the deed, but either way she has consequently become the patron saint of eye diseases and blindness.  She is portrayed happily toting her eyeballs, sometimes on a plate or other times (such as in the image above) between her fingers.

Lucy is especially popular in Scandinavia and Italy, where her feast day is celebrated with torchlight processions and bonfires. Italians make and eat cakes or biscotti shaped like eyeballs to honor St. Lucy's memory. Sicilians abstain from anything made with wheat flour on her feast day and eat potatoes or rice instead. This practice is in honor one of Lucy's many miracles. In 1582, during a severe famine, Lucy made a fleet of grain-bearing ships appear in the harbor.  The people promptly ate the grain without preparing it in the normal fashion. In Palermo, a dessert called cuccia is made out of whole-wheat berries and ricotta.

The Scandinavian celebration of St. Lucy's day revolves primarily around the meaning of her name, which makes sense considering the country's dreadful, dark winters. As parents, we particularly appreciate this custom: According to tradition, the oldest or youngest daughter wakes up before sunrise to serve her family a delicious feast of treats like lussekatter (Lucy cats), saffron-flavored buns, ginger biscuits and cross shaped pastries, as well coffee or, even better, hot spiced wine with aquavit. She dresses in a long white gown with a red sash and wears a crown of greens topped with anywhere from four to nine lighted candles.


Yield. Makes about five 750 ml bottles
Preparation time. About 90 minutes
1.5 liter bottle inexpensive dry red wine
1.5 liter bottle inexpensive American port
750 ml bottle inexpensive brandy
10 inches cinnamon stick
15 cardamom seed pods or 1 teaspoon whole cardamom seeds
2 dozen whole cloves
1 orange peel, whole and washed
1/2 cup dark raisins
1 cup blanched almonds
2 cups sugar
Garnish with the peel of another orange


1) Crack the cardamom seed pods open by placing a pod on the counter and laying a butter knife on top of it. With the palm of your hand, press on the knife. They will crack it open so the flavors of the seeds can escape.
2) Pour the red wine and port into a stainless steel or porcelain kettle. Do not use an aluminum or copper pot since these metals interact with the wine and brandy to impart a metallic taste. Add the cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, orange peel, raisins, and almonds. Cover and simmer.
3) Put the sugar in a pan and soak it with half the brandy. Warm over a medium-low flame and stir occasionally until it becomes a clear, golden syrup and all the sugar is dissolved. Let it simmer for about 15 minutes until the little tiny bubbles become large burbles. This starts caramelizing the sugar and adds a layer of flavor.
4) Add the sugar syrup to the spiced wine mix. Cover and let it simmer over a low heat for an hour.
5) Taste. If you wish, add more sugar or brandy to suit your taste. If you do, go easy, 1/4 cup at the most. 
6) Just before serving, strain to remove the spices, almonds, and raisins. You can serve your glögg immediately or bottle it and age it. A month or two of aging really enhances the flavors. A year is even better. If you are going to age glögg, use wine or whiskey bottles and make sure they are clean. Bottle glögg while it is still warm. Fill the bottles as high as possible and seal them tight. You don't have to lie them down to age, and if you use used corks, they might leak where the corkscrew entered if you lie them down.
7) Fringe benefits. Do not discard the raisins and almonds when you are done, they are impregnated with flavor! I put the raisins in a jar in the refrigerator to use in pannetone or other desserts, or toast the almonds in a 225F oven for about 90 minutes and eat them as snacks.
8) Serving. To serve glögg, warm it gently in a saucepan over a low flame or, better still, in a crockpot. Serve it in a mug and, don't skip this, garnish it with a strip of fresh orange peel, twisted over the mug to release the oils. 

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