Who eats fish for dessert? I'm inordinately open minded, but sweet syrups and savory crusts do not mix with the pesce. Yet here we are in the small town of Markow, about 2 hours east of Warsaw, and every polite guest's nightmare is staring at me with a succession of cold, dead eyes. There are SIX different fish based desserts piled onto the doily laden candle lit table before me. I hate every dish I see, but feel obligated to try all of them.
Up until this point, I had raved about the culinary prowess of the traditional Polish family. Kielbasa, pierogi, bigos, zurek, the many cheeses and smoked meats...everything amounted to some of the most unexpectedly exciting cuisine I've come across in our extensive travels.
But now we're playing the Polish version of "Go Fish", and what's worse -- I'm still nursing a hangover. It's 4 pm on Christmas eve alright, but a moonshine hangover does not play by house rules. It sticks around as long as it damn well pleases.
It's a Polish tradition not to eat meat on Christmas eve, but it seems like they go about compensating for that in the least appetizing manner imaginable. All of the starters were top notch -- Forest mushroom stuffed pierogis, tangy beet soup, mashed potatoes with a garlic reduction sauce, and a loaf of the best bread in town.
"Maybe some of this is weird for you -- if you don't want to try something, it's no problem" our host Eliza insists. I pride myself on being an open minded traveler, and in many cases it's been my downfall. I consider it a sin to stick to the vaguely familiar or sit out a round when you have the option of courting true culture shock. Isn't that what travel is about? Leveling with the unknown and taking a bite out of ...pike pudding and carp pie??? I stopped asking what the other ones were. This was a battle I was going to fight, but I walked in feeling like the underdog's towel boy.
I dutifully scooped out a reasonable portion of each fishmas offering before me, quietly considering that coal in my stocking would be an upgrade. I made no bones about it and went in for the kill, shoveling an all-or-nothing bite down the hatch. The reality quickly sunk in -- there were almost nothing but bones about it. Thanks for the heads up guys. I was trying to be polite here, not literally choke on a dish I had already choked at the sight and smell of.
"MMMMMM" I belted out with the kind of undue emphasis that belies an obvious fib. "How'd you get the sauce so scaly on this?" I inquired of no one while staring into the abyss of the soulless world I'd been sucked into, fighting a losing battle with the primal urge to vomit up a 7th course. "Scales from the fish of course" came the reply, but I was already tucking into the second order of gastro-masochism doled out on my plate. My efforts to ingratiate myself with my Polish family were entirely in vain -- this bite was real and unabating torture. If the scaly fish sauce bone brigade had been Guantanamo Bay waterboarding, this bite of fishy pudding was HH Holmes with an ice pick and a live wire.
Enough is enough. I enthusiastically pointed towards the window to draw attention away from my herky jerky spit in a napkin maneuver, mumbling that "it looked like an owl" or something stupid along those lines to cover my tracks. It had come far past the time to throw in the towel, but I guess it's better late than never. There was no way in hell I was going to attempt stomaching one more bite of that dark sorcery. I resolved to thank our hosts for the bountiful meal, and play the 'travelers fatigue' card. I got beaten badly by the need to reconcile the traditions of the host with the limitations of my will. I had given it a legitimate go, and in the end it was a spineless gamble. I lost.
Next time I'll ask for a grilled cheese sandwich.