This winter packs holidays in like I pack extra holiday pounds in my “trunk” – Christmas on Dec. 25 and the first nights of Hanukkah and Kwanzaa on Dec. 25 and 26, respectively. Pretty crazy.
So this year, I was trying to avoid clues that the holiday season is nearby. If not, I lose concentration and find myself drawing evergreen trees everywhere. I unpacked a box of sweaters and found a Christmas cookbook.
Then it was all over. Against my better judgment there is now one (singular) strand of non-blinking colored lights in my bedroom, two plastic snowmen cups in the kitchen and that huge collection of photographs of drool-provoking culinary delights. I digress.
Aside from religious and cultural aspects of holidays, there are other parts that make them just plain fun. Like getting those somewhat frightening gifts from extended family that think you would wear a fuzzy “Limited Too Girl” sweater. My favorite part of these holidays is definitely the food. We give cookies, breads and candy as gifts to neighbors. Maybe you’re heartless and hand out fruitcakes. Scrooge.
Families spend hours in the kitchen roasting meats and stirring veggies, and if you are Irish like me, probably spiking the eggnog. Twice. Food brings everyone into the kitchen, whether to help or to get your hand smacked as you snatch a piece of fudge. Cookbooks are fine, but I would rather a live person in front of me telling me how they make great fried okra. There’s a story behind every recipe, some that involve other family members calling the fire department or roasting the meat over a spit in a cave.
One of my Christmas favorites is my mother’s recipe for German anisplatzchen cookies. The recipe flavors the round cookies with aniseed, or licorice flavoring. I have been known to fool around with my grandmother’s recipe for lebkuchen, (gingerbread) decking out the little angels in bikinis. One of the most fun activities our family does before Christmas is build a gingerbread house.
I’m usually in charge of the icing while the rest of my crazy family builds windows out of striped gum and tries to stop the roof from sliding off and taking out the miniature snowman in the ‘front yard.’
We always give cookies (the ones I haven’t horded) to our Jewish neighbors. I would be lying if I said this was just a gesture of good will. We are rewarded with their sweet potato latkes for Hanukkah. The crispy outside keeps the moisture from the sweet potatoes inside melting with butter and cinnamon.
I know that they also make a mean brisket, because I can smell it on the last night of Hanukkah if I pretend to check the mail at 7 p.m. I’ve contemplated camping out in their backyard. If you have never tasted a homemade jelly doughnut, look for a Jewish bakery and indulge in a few. Those melt-in-your-mouth extra calories are entirely worth it, I promise.
I was invited to celebrate the last night of Kwanzaa, Karamu, with a family friend a few years ago. His family laid out a huge buffet, from a white bean and sausage gumbo to my favorite, a nutty coconut and banana cake.
They explained how important it was for them to cook foods that reflected their African heritage and how it influenced American culture. An example was his dad’s okra, bacon and pepper salad. Okra is a vegetable that was introduced to the United States by Africans more than two centuries ago.
Food brings together elements of the past in its recipes and elements of the present with who prepares them. Branch out of your comfort zone of holiday foods and try some from different cultures this holiday. Feel free to e-mail ideas or recipes anytime – I love trying out new ones (insert exclamation points here). Hope you all have a safe and wonderful holiday season.
Brianna Barry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.