Traditions may shift, but the joy of eating good food with good people is universal.
I don’t know anyone who celebrates Christmas the exact way as they did when they were a kid. Traditions are one of the most treasured parts of Christmas, but I’ve found that you also have to be prepared to toss or at least adjust them when life and geography take you someplace unexpected. My husband and I alternate Christmas celebrations with our families, spending one year toasting my family’s time-honored meal of Beef Wellington. It's followed by Plum Pudding with Hard Sauce eaten as we pop Christmas crackers, don the paper crowns inside and read groan-inducing jokes. When we celebrate the season with Jay’s family, we sip wine outside as we ogle the massive beef tenderloin my brother-in-law decides to grill, the perfect ending to a day that starts with a walk down San Diego’s Ocean Beach Pier. The meals don’t have a ton in common until you drill down to what’s important: family and loved ones gathered together with good wine, good food and much laughter.
We’ve written about many such shifting traditions in Food & Wine over the years. Nicholas Dawidoff shared the story of how his Austrian grandparents, after moving to Massachusetts, hosted Christmas Eve wiener schnitzel dinners each year. Those nights created deep memories for Dawidoff who lovingly describes how confusing it was that his grandmother, normally a terrible cook, prepared the perfect crispy cutlets each time.
Paola Briseño González recounted for us that she did not eat tamales at Christmas while growing up in Mexico, but once she moved to Los Angeles, they became a beloved seasonal staple. She embraced the Mexican American tradition of tamal parties, recounting how, “friends and family would gather and spend the day spreading masa into corn husks while snacking, drinking, and eating,” adding that she loved sharing “just how broad the world of the tamal is.”
Susan Spicer may be known for the famous garlic soup she serves at Bayona, but like many New Orleans chefs, she calls on ingredients and cuisines from around the world. Spicer spent part of her childhood in Holland, where her Danish mother hosted epic meals melding Danish and Dutch holiday dishes with Indonesian satay and bami goreng. Spicer went on to train as a chef in France, and after returning to New Orleans to cook, fully embraced the city’s love of combining culinary traditions with holiday meals that included a standing pork roast with pear chutney. “It's pretty much a melting pot," she told writer Mimi Read, "but it's not really fused. I try not to mix things up too much. You have to respect the traditions you're going to mess with."
Another New Orleans chef, Rebecca Wilcomb, approaches her holiday menu with similar intent to pay respect to both family favorites and the ingredients in season around her. For Wilcomb, it’s not Christmas without her grandmother’s tortellini in brodo, the traditional first course in northern Italian holiday feasts, as writer Julia Reed explained in her profile of the chef. Wilcomb notes that Italy and Louisiana share the same citrus season; she honors both places with a Chocolate-and-Citrus Cassata, a stunning Sicilian cake featuring a liqueur-soaked sponge cake layered with sweetened ricotta and topped with candied clementines, blood oranges, orange peel twists, and kumquats.
For Patrice Yursik, even an icy Chicago Christmas can’t freeze her memories of growing up in Trinidad and Tobago and the parties her family hosted there she describes as “an extended gluttonous bender.” She sips sorel and ginger beer, cuts into the ham her father glazes and bakes for hours, and takes a slice of the black cake for which her mother soaks prunes, currants, and raisins in a jar of rum months in advance.
One of my favorite holiday mash-ups is the meal San Francisco chefs Brandon Jew and Evan Bloom prepare each year to take the art of Jews eating Chinese food on Christmas to a new level. They pick elements from both cultures and from San Francisco itself, snacking on smoked trout toasts and scallion potato pancakes and then crowning the meal with an epic Black Sesame Banana Cake Trifle that is equal parts Chinese sweets and banana pudding. It's a dessert that proves you can remake the holiday into whatever new traditions suit your life, and it can still be delicious.
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