The Sticky Subject of Kutia a.k.a. Ukrainian “Porridge”

This morning Neil Gaiman was in a NY cab and tweeted about his Ukrainian cab driver, who picked up Neil because he was a man and “if 1st fare is a woman is bad luck all day.”

I replied by explaining that this tradition is likely related to the Ukrainian superstition that a man should be the first one to enter a house (or even call a house) on New Year’s Day. I also shared the tradition of throwing kutia (porridge) onto the ceiling on Christmas Eve. If it sticks, it means good luck for the household, and the more kernels that stick, the greater the luck.

After tweeting:

What I have learned this morning: 1) Ukrainian Taxi drivers are superstitious 2) Ukrainians throw porridge at the ceiling for luck.

Neil apparently received quite a few tweets from Ukrainians in Ukraine who had not heard of this tradition. Some had not heard of the porridge.

After a few tweets redirected my way (thanks, Neil 😉 ), I decided to quickly write this post with a few highlights.

  • The Ukrainian “porridge” to which I was referring is kutia. Some people describe it is as a flummery. Neither is quite right, but they’re close.
  • Kutia is an ancient dish that was once eaten at the solstice and is now the first of the twelve dishes to be eaten on Christmas Eve dinner (called Sviata Vecheria)
  • A nice essay about the variation in Sviat Vechir traditions can be found here, by Orysia Tracz, who has written extensively about Ukrainian traditions.
  • There are several recipes online, and as many variations as there are for Irish oatmeal. Everyone has their own particular way of making it. Google “kutia recipe” for some ideas.
  • The basic recipe we use is to first sort & rinse the bulgur wheat, soak it overnight (6-8 hours), boil it for an hour or so (depends on how long you soaked it and how firm you like it), then rinse again. Add poppyseeds, raisins, crushed walnuts, and honey to taste. In my opinion, the key is in the honey. (Ukrainians have been beekeepers for generations, and Ukrainian honey was prized. Here’s a link for more information from Medyana Rosa.)
  • There is a tradition of throwing the kutia up to the ceiling on Sviat Vechir. My grandparents did this when my father was young, and it continued into my childhood. Our Ukrainian friends and family did this and exchanged stories about it.

The things that I find fascinating about this exchange is that many Ukrainians in Ukraine have not heard of the traditions, while Ukrainians in Diaspora (Canada, US, Australia, Argentina) have likely heard of it from parents or grandparents, even if they don’t still celebrate in the traditional ways.

A few weeks ago I was part of Zlukacamp, a conference with Ukrainian students studying in the US, and the subject of traditions came up. When I was growing up, I was taught (from my parents, grandparents, Ukrainian dancing and school, church) that because Ukraine was not free, it was up to us to learn the language, study the history and traditions, and keep them alive.

My grandparents came from Ukraine (via Germany and the Displaced Persons Camps) in the 1940s. The Ukraine I learned about was very much the Ukraine of the 1930s and 40s, the language of that time, the traditions of that time.

Now Ukraine is an Independent country, but some things have been lost, and other things have changed over time. Like any country and people, they have grown a great deal in the last several decades.

So I’m not really surprised that the tradition is lost, but I’m happy to have been able to share it with some people on Twitter, and I’m glad that I had the opportunity to learn about it as a child, to celebrate it as an adult, and even to write about it in my novel, The Silence of Trees (kutia and Sviat Vechir are a part of the story).

I look forward to someday seeing Ukraine of the 21st century, and I hope to be able to share with them and others some of the treasures from an older Ukraine, a Ukraine rich in folklore, fairy tales, and folk arts.