Finding Tradition at Christmas

There’s nothing like coming home. Especially at Christmas time. Before packing my bags I wrote a list of all the foods I missed — almond butter, puff pastry tart, sweet potatoes, homemade corn tortillas, gado gado– and all the items I wanted to bring home with me: champagne vinegar, pomegranate molasses, raw cacao powder, cheddar cheese, pecans and maple syrup. Flying from Italy I made sure my suitcase was practically empty.

Chestnuts, mozzarella di bufala and prosciutto for hors d'oeuvres

Even though I have access to some of the finest ingredients in the world, and I know many people dream of the cheeses, dried meats, olive oil and fresh produce I can find at the markets, I still find myself yearning for foods I associate with home. Especially around the holidays. On Thanksgiving, I missed the stuffed turkey and pumpkin and pecan pies (and I don’t even like turkey–just the stuffing!). I couldn’t imagine missing our Christmas feast.

My grandmother's stollen

As for many people, Christmas is the one time a year our extended family gets together, and food is at the center of that gathering. Everyone has their specialty to contribute — my aunt makes the bouillabaisse for Christmas Eve; my uncle does the standing rib roast; my mom makes the most incredible squash and hazelnut lasagne for the vegetarians; my other uncle does the wine pairings; my mom, sister and I make the five types of Christmas cookies (this year we had a few new additions including a fabulous recipe for pinenut and rosemary brittle over on Food52) except for the double-bourbon balls which are my dad’s specialty; my grandmother makes the breakfast stollen and my great–grandmother’s famous Irish fruit cake; another aunt makes the plum pudding and hard sauce; and my cousin’s girlfriend brought her homemade Baileys and her mother’s killer cinnamon rolls. It certainly is a feast, and we all feel rather queasy when it’s over.

Dessert spread

When I described this feast to my boyfriend, he was awestruck. His family in Sicily went out for Christmas dinner for a seafood feast. Despite their deep culinary heritage, they don’t have traditional Christmas foods they eat every year like we do (Easter is their big feast). One of the first questions Italians ask me is what typical dishes come from Vermont. I always feel myself scrambling to come up with an answer. I have no trouble thinking of typical products or ingredients, but the assembly of them varies from family to family. After all, we come from so many cultural traditions — Pizza? Irish stew? Spring rolls? It all depends… Around the holidays, though, I have no trouble coming up with my family’s favorite dishes and am proud of these traditions. So this must be how the bolognesi feel about their tortellini in brodo and tagliatelle al ragù. Or the veneziani about their sarde in saor and baccalà. Or my boyfriend’s Sicilian family about their charcoal roasted carciofi and eggplant parmigiana.

I enjoy that feeling of having a culinary heritage, even though it is just my family’s and not my region’s and lasts only for a few days, not all year round. But I feel blessed to have both — to live in a culture with deep culinary traditions and to have come from one with multicultural influences. That way I get the best of both worlds.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Categories: Culture, kitchen, Musing, recipes, Seasons

2 Comments on “Finding Tradition at Christmas”

  1. barbara t. ganley (BG the Grandmother--as in BG's mother)
    December 27, 2011 at 5:49 pm #

    Liz, you captured our feasting tradition well and we do feast very well indeed. However we have been practicing for years and isn’t it amazing how we have settled into our own specialties and holiday memories to share. Thank you for this post.

  2. December 29, 2011 at 12:59 pm #

    I’m glad you enjoyed it — it certainly was fun to stop and reflect on the holiday traditions that mean so much to our family!

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