In Lemony Snicket’s funny, but thoughtful children’s book, a latke escapes from a pan of hot oil and spend spends most of the story screaming and trying to explain what Hanukkah is. There are times when I have felt like that latke, caught between clashing cultural beliefs and ready to scream. But mostly I can ignore culture clashes, because I just love food, especially holiday food. I’m fascinated by food traditions—not so much the culinary traditions of cultural groups or nations, but rather the traditions that exist within families. If you tell me about your holiday celebration, I want to know what you ate.
My family and I recently hosted our annual “latke party.” This year it was held on the last night of Hanukkah. A friend brought a salad, I made a pot of soup, baked a challah, and roasted some chicken, for those who eat it–so we could pretend that we were having a real dinner. But the main focus of the night was, of course, the latkes. For those unfamiliar with a latke, it is a potato pancake made of grated potatoes and onions, bound with a bit of egg and flour, and fried. We like them flat and crisp, and I cannot stop myself from snacking on the crispy bits that break off from latkes as they fry. The latkes are eaten with applesauce and/or sour cream, and they are delicious. With the help of my daughter, I made roughly 3 billion (ok, that’s a slight exaggeration) for our party. We had to disconnect the smoke detector, and the entire house smelled like fried food for days, but it was worth it. I only do this once a year.
I love the combination of old and new. My mom remembers having to grate potatoes by hand, while I use the food processor. I use vegetable oil for frying, not chicken or goose fat. We light the Hanukkah candles as our ancestors have done for hundreds of years, and we play dreidel to commemorate an event that happened centuries ago.
We also have a Christmas dinner. Our Christmas dinner is cheese fondue. Unusual perhaps, but I did not grow up experiencing a traditional Christmas dinner. A few years ago, I came up with the idea of cheese fondue—which, yes, I think is brilliant–and that has become our family tradition. It is something that can be made easily and at the last minute. I know this from experience because the first year I prepared it after spending an entire afternoon in the animal ER with a sick cat. (I learned that the wait time in an animal emergency room is just as long as the wait time in a hospital for humans, especially on a holiday.) But fondue is luscious, seems slightly decadent, and is fun to eat. Isn’t that perfect for a holiday meal? We love sitting around the dinner table dipping bits of bread and fruit into the melted cheese, and we laugh when someone loses a piece in the pot.
Right now my kitchen is filled with freshly baked Christmas cookies, and my grown daughters will soon be home. Life is good.
If you are so inclined, please share some of your own food traditions with me.