What would the holidays be without friends, family members you enjoy, food and a good few glugs of eggnog?
Except, in my book, you can keep the eggnog unless it’s home made. And even then, given the choice, I’d probably opt instead for a crisp and delicious chilled bubbly or a glass or three of a warming and luscious red wine.
Come to think of it, if the food is the obligatory turkey and ham, or anything made because it’s “the tradition” and not “your, my or our” tradition, you can keep that, too.
And family. If you have family you enjoy and who enjoy you, that’s reason to celebrate all year!
In my experience, plus looking at the experiences of most of my friends and acquaintances — and talking with some of the folk who contributed to this Delicious Life column during 2012 and whom I managed to pin down to share holiday memories and recipes — the picture-postcard vision of what the holidays are meant to be is, well, a bit like ice cream left in the sun. Or overcooked risotto. Or champagne that had its cork popped a week before you pour it.
The number I know, united by blood and marriage, who gather around the table, snug and happy and enjoying each other, exists in some adaptation of this image in one or two cases. But honestly, it’s close on zero.
Whew. So that’s the truth.
And to acknowledge it is, I think, a good thing.
It takes a load off holiday expectations.
It gives scope to honor the importance of friends.
It allows for gratitude for those who have their version of the ideal — and gives scope for the rest of us to create our own new delicious ideals without feeling guilty or deprived.
Doesn’t that make sense?
Creating Memories of Peas and Other Traditions
Jennifer Moseley, the London-born, Toronto-raised daughter of a mother from St. Lucia in the Caribbean and a Cuban dad, took her French-flavored cooking skills and daughter, Victoria (now 19), to Portugal ten years ago.
“A favorite memory? When Victoria was four or so, she wanted her room to have a jungle theme. On Christmas Eve when she fell asleep I moved her into my bed. What happened next was like a reality show. I had everything absolutely prepared: new zebra print duvet covers for the bunk beds, animal print pillows, a mosquito net, new curtains and a fuzzy area rug.
“But first I had to paint the room pea green and create a huge jungle mural on one wall in shades of green, white and gold.
“Nine hours later at 5 am I gently moved her back into her bed and climbed into my own.
“A few minutes later I heard the excited cry of a four-year-old: ‘Mommy! Santa redecorated my room!!!”
When it comes to holidays in Portugal, Moseley forgoes Portuguese tradition and sticks with her own.
For readers keen to see typical Portuguese holiday ideas, she offered these two links:
But to get back to Moseley’s recipes for good holiday memories,“The meal is usually anything but turkey. Last year I did a rack of New Zealand lamb with chipotle-cumin crust.
But going back to a memory that created a tradition...
“My parents emigrated from London to Canada in 1967 to a small town called Sault (pronounced “Soo”) Ste Marie in Northern Ontario. We were one of two black families residing in the city at the time. The average snowfall that first winter was 3 metres.
“Both my parents loved to cook and our traditional Christmas Eve dinner was simply called ‘Fish Stew’, which was really a ‘West Indian’ fiery mishmash of assorted fresh and frozen fish (including heads, bones and eyes) and seafood in a thick tomato base."
“As time passed and I was on my own, the tradition was lost until my passion for food developed and I discovered bouillabaisse (traditional Provençal fish stew originating from the port city of Marseille) on a trip to France. My rendition is a combination of the authentic Provençal version with a little old-school Julia Child, the sophistication of Thomas Keller — and of course, my own creativity.”
For Jennifer Moseley’s Bouillabaisse recipe in the Chef’s Corner, click here.
If You Don’t Like a Holiday Tradition, Adapt!
We introduced Cuisine Noir readers to Tim Patterson, author of Home Winemaking Guide for Dummies, in October. In turn, the Berkeley-based writer and award-winning home winemaker shared his Top 10 tips and other advice for those with aspirations to-do-it-themselves around pressing and bottling.
“For many years, I hated the holidays,” Patterson says.
His “seriously Catholic” parents died when he was a young teenager. His older brothers scattered in all directions. “And Christmas was mostly about being alone and grumpy,” he says.
“To get even with Christmas, [Note: Maybe you need to be a little eccentric to make wine!] I started my own holiday tradition, which was to spend Christmas morning — not opening presents — but cleaning the toilet wherever I lived.”
This, he says, went on for some years.
Until eventually, he says, he relented. “Thanks entirely to falling in love with and marrying — a Jewish woman.”
“She had spent her childhood jealous of all her Christian friends and their trees and baubles and presents and was never satisfied with the Hanukkah decorations her parents put up. In the fourth grade, she went out, bought her own Christmas tree and dragged it home. Her mother said she could keep it, but only in her own room.”
By the time Patterson met his food-writer wife Nancy Freeman, “she was a grown-up with a ten-year-old son and boxes of Christmas decorations and that was that. I made my secular peace with the best parts of the season — mistletoe, haunches of beef with Yorkshire pudding, holiday notes to far-flung friends.”
Most of all, he says, he became an obsessive fan of holiday music, “discovering that among the department store muzak drivel are an amazing number of seasonal tunes done in a serious way by serious musicians.”
And of course, “Any excuse for eating and drinking is fine with me. It's a time when bubbly beverages are mandatory, not just the fancy ones for toasting on New Year's Eve but also the more whimsical versions: sparkling muscats and gewurztraminers, or ink-black sparkling shiraz.”
Dessert wines, he says, “from sticky rieslings to well-aged ports, the kinds of wines many people will only drink once they get to a certain festive mood. Nancy and I have built complete Christmas Eve parties around dessert wines and desserts — under the watchful eye of her Christmas tree and with festive audio assistance from everyone from Death Cab for Cutie to the Five Blind Boys of Alabama.”
Friends — and Life Before Chocolate
In September, we featured producer Lalita Krishna’s must-see film about the different faces of chocolate.
“When we moved to Canada 20 years ago,” says Krishna, “we planned to drive to New York around the holidays. My husband's brothers live there and I felt it important for my kids to get into the celebratory spirit. In our second year we had snow storms and couldn't go. The kids were depressed. We didn't know too many people yet in Toronto.”
Then, on the eve of December 24, “an acquaintance we’d met through another friend called. When I mentioned we couldn't go to New York, she told me to get the kids into the snow suits and bring over with whatever I'd cooked.
“When we reached their home, there were 25 to 30 people there. All the kids were outside making snow figures and playing. We met a whole lot of new people who became our new family in Canada. And 22 years later those bonds are still strong.”
For her the holidays, she says, are about spending quality time with people you care about. “My parent’s home was always filled with guests. So I tend to also keep an ‘open house’ during the holidays."
“In order to make sure there is enough food and I’m not scrambling at the last minute, I tend to make a few dishes in advance. One in particular is a baked biryani with vegetables that suffices as a one-dish meal.”
Follow this link for a vegetable biryani recipe.
Recipes for South Africa-Themed Entertaining
In July, we gave Cuisine Noir readers culinary tips for home entertaining from rising culinary star Themba Mngoma, who forged his career as a top South African black chef by thumbing his nose at the stereotype that says Zulu men should stay out of the kitchen. These days the talented Mngoma is executive chef at Stephnie’s, a contemporary-chic theatrically-themed restaurant in South Africa’s administrative capital, Pretoria.
Mngoma has bitter-sweet childhood memories of the festive season. “Christmas is celebrated and it’s a festive time in rural South Africa,” he says.
His holidays would typically start when he was bundled into a car for a long drive from Zululand to family in the Eastern Cape region known during apartheid as Transkei.
On Christmas morning kids would typically receive much-needed clothes, given that families were poor and new clothes were a luxury. All the kids — “even those who did not attend Sunday school” — would don their new attire.
At some point during the afternoon they would go door to door and villagers would give them sweets or toys “pretty much like trick and treating in America at Halloween.”
Meanwhile a goat or a cow might have been slaughtered. The women would cook up a feast. There would be “umqombothi” (Zulu beer) and dumplings.
“If you are Zulu or Xhosa, even if you are poor, you would never let a visitor go home with an empty stomach. And why go to the butcher with goats and cows running around? If you are going to slaughter, you also burn some herbs (impepho) and explain to the ancestors why the house is full of blood. Also, I guess, it’s to thank the ancestors for taking care of you and letting you be there for another Christmas.”
These days for Mngoma, Christmas is about turning out splendid five-star meals for guests. He shares a sublime distinctly South Africa dessert recipe with us. He would make it using Zulu beer, but seeing the ingredients are hard to come by in the US, he suggested Guinness stout as a substitute.
Click here to go to Themba Mngoma’s Guinness and Amarula ice cream with melk tart, and chocolate “soil” recipe in the Chef’s Corner.
Black Girl’s Guide to Festive Fun
In May, Kiratiana Freelon shared her Black Girl’s guidelines for traveling deliciously.
Freelon has been busy since then with her new book, Kiratiana’s Travel Guide to Multicultural London: Get Lost and Get Found.
“One of my favorite holiday foods is a sour cream macaroni cheese,” she says.
“I'm not a big fan of the traditional macaroni and cheese, with the creamy sauce and eggs. The one we make in our family is very simple. You boil the macaroni. Then set aside cheddar, sour cream, Monterey jack cheese and butter.
“Put one layer of macaroni, then add cut pieces of the cheese, dollops of sour cream and butter. Then repeat. Top macaroni off with cheese. Sprinkle salt and pepper as you go. The result is cheesy, delightful and moist.”
Her most wonderful holiday memory was doing Thanksgiving in New York city in 2010. “My brother is an actor and we decided to take him to see some Broadway shows. In three days we saw three and for Thanksgiving dinner we went to B. Smith's! It certainly wasn’t the most traditional Thanksgiving meal I ever had, but it was good. I especially remember the bread pudding, which is amazing.”
Memories are Made of Many Things
For Matches that Matter’s Odette Pollar who for April told us how to tap into the amorous nature of food, any good holiday memory involves food, family, friends and good conversation. And for Billy Budd who, the previous month, told us where to eat the world’s best street foods and why, the best holiday memoirs involve family bike trips in South Africa and beyond with his delightful daughter.
To get back and answer the question I asked at the start of this column: “What would the holidays be without friends, family members you enjoy, food ...” and eggnog, bubbly, wine or whatever is your chosen libation?
Just another day or weekend, I guess. Not something memories are made of.
My 2012 holiday wish for you is — make some good memories. Be creative or relaxed as you like. Just be sure to make it a delicious life.
See my December 2011 Memories are Made of Fish story (plus some of last year’s tips for holiday bliss that remain current).
And for more Delicious Life holiday ideas, including links to great recipes for candied peel and Limoncello, click through to this link: Eight delectable show stoppers for your holiday entertaining and travel pleasure.