You Are What You Eat

by Laura

Often, the story of family is found in our food traditions. I come from a long line of fabulous bakers and cooks who have saved wonderful family recipes (although some of them have needed deciphering! lol!). Christmas and Hanukkah readily come to mind as food-centered holidays at this time of year; latkes and brisket; roast goose and steamed pudding, all have their place within most families’ culinary memories. What you eat, holiday after holiday, can oftimes point you in the direction of where you family hails from, even if the memory is so far in the past, the treasured dish is all you have left.

My eldest Daughter has a good friend who is Jewish. One year, he came to spend Christmas with us. His Hanukkah intersected with our Christmas, so we developed “Happy Chrismakwanzakkah” as a way to celebrate his cultural memory, her university friends with whom we would be celebrating another event, and our family traditions…all in one huge feast of food and fun. As the eldest Daughter, she was put in charge of our menorah (which we still have) as well as the menu for that first night: we learnt about the importance of fried foods, celebrating the miracle of the oil lasting for eight days and nights until more oil could be had. We enjoyed other traditional kosher foods as well, and ate our way through beef brisket, noodle kugel, and spiced applesauce. Steve taught us how to play dreidel with Hanukkah gelt and we drank lots of red wine.

Earlier in the week, I spent days baking my family’s traditional cookies: my Grandmother’s recipe for Kolachkes (which has been handed down for over 100 years), my Mother’s recipe for Toffee Bars, and some recipes we’ve encountered through the years, (known to us as Local Indigenous Foods, due to all the moving around we’ve done). These may vary from year-to-year, but generally include Mince Pies and Christmas Pudding (England), Gingerbread Cookies and Stollen (Germany), Shortbread (Scotland), M&M Cookies (my Mom), and Persimmon Pudding (Brown County, Indiana). The Persimmon Pudding is made from wild Indiana persimmons that has either been 1) harvested from our own persimmon tree or b) bought locally in Indiana. These are not Japanese persimmons, and the recipe won’t work with them… it is, truly, an LIF.

One year, after my Dad had tried the Kolachkes I baked, he asked if I had ever come across an Austrian recipe for Poppyseed Cake. His heritage includes both Austro-Hungarian and English, and he wondered if I could reproduce a cake he remembered from his early childhood. So I tried. I finally found an old recipe, and I baked it for him. I guess it was successful, because he asked for it every Christmas for the rest of his life…

My Mom is also famed amongst us for her Pork Roast with New Potatoes. So some years, we’ll have that. But, in honour of my Grandmother, the Original Nonny™’s German roots, and a family trip we made to Austria and Germany for the holidays, I’ll make a stuffed pork loin along with spätzle, blaukraut, and other accompaniments. H/T to Mimi Sheraton and her excellent German cookbook. The gravy made from this roast is pure ambrosia, as you thicken it with crushed gingersnaps. I kid you not.

One year, in a nod to nostalgia for the Dickensian Christmases we spent in England…truly a delight in every possible way!…we roasted a big, fat, goose. All I can say is, remove your smoke detectors!!! The fat will cause them to chime all at once, and the local fire department will assume the neighbourhood is burning down. But goose is absolutely delicious. And it was so much fun to sit and eat and remember the three years we spent in England; freezing in Ely Cathedral; caroling in Newmarket; crunching along the High Street, shopping, as Father Christmas greeted us at the corner.

Since I roast turkey at Thanksgiving, I rarely do another one for Christmas. My cousins, who took over Christmas in our later years, often had prime rib. A delicious choice, indeed. And it would be a great choice for Christmas Dinner. But my memories of Christmas prime rib are not the same as pork roast and goose…and, for me and mine, Christmas is all about the memories we find in the food we eat; the people we remember, the good times we had, the places we’ve lived, the friends and family we gather in through our choice of eats. Like the year they closed Grand Forks AFB because it was so amazingly cold…-60F cold. Stunning to think about it now, really, how anyone could possibly live in that climate. But survive we did. And we still baked the cookies! But the traditional lefse and lutefisk failed to make its way into our collective food memories. :cringe:

We truly are what we eat. I think everyone is, to one extent or another. So as you slice and bake Pillsbury Sugar Cookies (which we do as well… and sprinkle them with red and green sugars), are you remembering doing this as a child in the 60s? 70s? 80s? It’s truly wondrous how a simple tube of dough can link generations of folk…child-parent-grandparent in our case, even great-grandparent, as I am with my Mom, again, if only for a moment; helping my Grandsons bake and decorate cookies. It’s become our annual event, much looked forward to…

Too soon, another year passes, and the Real Chex Mix (no bagel chips!) is all gone.