A Lithuanian Christmas

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Every morning Mary Lepsis would ask her sons what they would like for dinner. They had a lot to choose from—Mary was an expert in the kitchen preparing dishes from her Lithuanian heritage and she also cooked for a Jewish family. One popular dish was potato bologna—it looks like a sausage but is stuffed with potatoes and onion.

Food was always important in the Lepsis household and the Christmas feast was the best.

Tony Lepsis (left) and his brother Richard put the potato bologna in the oven to bake.

“You waited a whole year for Christmas Eve,” says Westbury’s Tony Lepsis, Mary’s youngest son, whose grandparents (on both his mother and father’s side) arrived in the U.S. from Lithuania around the turn of the 20th century. On average there were 18 people at the table and the family dressed up. The dining room was extended with bridge tables and everyone, including the children, sat down together. Everyone that is, except for Mary, who stood by the stove wearing an apron and sweat band, turning out hoards of food. “She would never sit down,” said Tony.

Tony grew up just five blocks from his grandparents, they in Elmont and he in Franklin Square with his parents. Mary was five-foot-two and her husband Al was six-foot-four and they produced four sons, all over six feet tall. Grandmother Lepsis employed Tony as her gardener, paying him five cents an hour to work pruning roses and fertilizing the azaleas, awakening a passion for gardening. Tony went on to major in horticulture in high school and studied ornamental horticulture at SUNY Farmingdale. While attending school he worked part time at Old Westbury Gardens, starting with raking leaves and moving on to become Superintendent of Horticulture. In 1985 he and his life partner, Brian Whitney, established their own business, North Hill Garden Design in Westbury, in the little house on the northern side of Hicks Nurseries. Now it’s time for a new phase in life; in January Tony and Brian—who have been together 44 years and got married three years ago—are moving upstate to Youngsville.

So I was just in time to catch these two long-time Westbury residents, plus Tony’s brother Richard (who lives in West Babylon), before they head upstate.

Following Lithuanian tradition, there is no meat or fowl at the Christmas dinner. The meal began with the sacramental bread similar to communion wafer, which had been blessed by the priest. The eldest was the first to break off a piece and then the rest followed. Pickled herring and creamed herring were served next. Mid-sized plates came out for the salads: potato salad, green salad, two kinds of carrot salads (one with raisins and one without) and macaroni. Then came the larger plates for everything else: pierogi, fried flounder, shrimp and scallops, burnt sauerkraut (sauerkraut that has been cooked until all the water was removed). The pierogi were served with red sauce or white sauce with butter, sour cream and onions; in later years, mom made ravioli, a favorite of the little children. Tony and Brian introduced another dish to the feast—lox served on Lithuanian black bread.

The brothers don’t have much of a memory for dessert, probably because of their eagerness to open the gifts. But first came clean up. This was the job for the children. “Presents couldn’t be opened until the dishes were done,” said Richard. During the night, the gifts from Santa had arrived, to be opened in the morning.

The next day was another feast and this time the goose, which had been a family pet until it was dispatched in the basement by Mary, was the main dish. ‘She was ‘no nonsense Mary,’” said Tony.

I asked Tony what dinner he would request of his mother when she asked what he would like to eat that evening. “Steak,” he would reply, like a typical American kid.

 

Al Lepsis’ Potato Bologna (Vedarai)

Makes 10 portions

5 pounds potatoes, peeled
10 feet of pork casings from the butcher, thoroughly washed
String to tie end of casing
3 Tbl oil
1 large onion, grated
salt and pepper
1 egg, lightly beaten

Equipment: Cookie sheet to bake on. Funnel to pour potatoes into casing.

1. Wash casing by letting water run through the faucet.

2. Fry onion in oil, allow to cool.

3. Grate potatoes in bowl.

4. Add salt and pepper.

5. Add beaten egg. Stir well.

6. Tie one end of casing. Put funnel on untied end. Pour potatoes into casing; make sure not too much air gets in. Tie the end.

7. Put on oiled cookie sheet.

8. Bake at 375 degrees for one hour.

9. Serve sliced with sour cream.

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