Of Food, Festivals, And Family

My family of origin always has our biggest gathering on Thanksgiving. My spouse Helen, our son, and I pretty much party from then until Helen’s birthday in early January, marking Hanukkah, Christmas, and New Year’s along the way. It’s both exhilarating and exhausting.

Some of my favorite parts of the whole season are the foods I cook for my family. As those who know me can attest, I am far from a domestic goddess, having long ago rejected that traditional gender role, but cooking is the one exception. 

For me, it’s a creative outlet.

My brother and his wife usually host our family Thanksgiving meal, but I’m in charge of making the cranberry sauce. I do a traditional version of whole-berry sauce, but also always make a fiery “cranbanero” in which I steep several habanero peppers. Sweet, sour, and sometimes incendiary—a blending of flavors like the holiday itself, which despite being about gratitude, also has a darker side. Its origins in colonialism still haunt our country and Native peoples today—something I try to remember as we tuck in to our turkey and stuffing.

Hanukkah is next, and at some point during the eight days I’ll whip up a batch of latkes, a pancake made of shredded potatoes and fried in oil — essentially giant tater tots. The connection with Hanukkah, we are told, is in the oil. When the second-century Jews reclaimed the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem from the Greeks, the Talmud says, they only had enough oil to light the lamp in the Temple for one day, but it miraculously lasted for eight.

The fact is, though, that latkes as we know them are not as traditional as they seem. Potatoes are a New World vegetable. Latkes were probably first made near the Mediterranean from cheese, then from buckwheat or rye in Northern Europe, as Yoni Applebaum explained in a piece at The Atlantictwo years ago. Even once the potato was adopted, chicken fat remained the frying medium of choice until the early 20th century, when Jews in America started to use newly invented Crisco vegetable shortening. The use of oil and the connection to Hanukkah happened after that.

All this seems to reflect the challenges of a people trying both to retain its traditions and to adapt to new surroundings. That’s particularly appropriate in relation to Hanukkah, since the original events also involved a split in the Jewish people, with some urging assimilation with the Greeks and others seeking independence. 

The tension of assimilation versus separation comes up, of course, not only for Jews, but for any people within a majority population not their own. How do we continue honoring and remembering our unique culture while also learning to respect and work with the practices of the wider society? 

The rise of Hanukkah, which is really a minor Jewish holiday, to be viewed by many as co-equal to Christmas in significance, is a prime example of these forces at work. Such transformations make me hope that LGBT people, in these days of marriage equality and queer parents in the PTA, can still keep the rainbow flags flying on our picket fences.

My spouse and I work to keep both my Hanukkah and her Christmas traditions alive. We celebrate each in its turn, but also sometimes blend them. At least once during the holiday season, we’ll have a family day of baking gingerbread cookies with our eclectic collection of cookie cutters. 

Five-pointed Christmas tree stars sit next to six-pointed Stars of David; reindeer prance next to menorahs; many of our gingerbread people are gender creative. Our son always decorates his cookies with as many M&Ms and other candy pieces as they’ll hold, taking advantage of our holiday exception to junk food limits.

For Christmas, we keep things simple, food-wise. Helen’s parents live across the country, so we don’t usually get together with them for the holiday. For many years, though, I’ve taken to starting a batch of cinnamon sticky buns on Christmas Eve so that I can pop them in the oven Christmas morning for us to eat while we open our presents. 

Sure, we might get sugary smears all over the gifts, but that’s a risk we’re willing to take. I use a recipe from one of my favorite cookbooks (“The King Arthur Flour Baker’s Companion”), boosted with raisins and orange zest. Any recipe worth making is worth making one’s own—a lesson that just might apply to a lot of life.

New Year’s Eve brings champagne for Helen and me; sparkling apple juice for our son. Then for Helen’s birthday, to wrap up the season, I’ll bake a cake from scratch, usually my go-to chocolate cake with one of several frosting possibilities (fudge, coffee, cream cheese, peanut butter, or peppermint, among others)—something tried and true topped with a little variety to keep it interesting. Maybe that’s the secret to our 25-year relationship as well.

As we eat throughout the season, we savor how we’ve created our unique expression of traditions. Like our family, we’re making it up as we go along, taking the models we were given and adapting them so they feel right for us. All we know is that there’s a lot of love here as we gather together in the season of light.

Happy holidays to you and your families, no matter how you celebrate.


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