Over the holidays there is a lot of socializing that takes place. In fact it’s hard to get a night without some Christmas concert or office social on the calendar. I find myself in many conversations with people I haven’t met before, or don’t know very well. That can be awkward but it’s a good party trick to have a few conversation openers in your back pocket. One that never fails me is asking about people’s holiday food traditions. I am always intrigued by the diversity of traditions often tied to cultural or religious heritage. You might not think your family does anything weird, but you will find it’s all in context. Take for instance, some of the things I have heard about from these exchanges along the way.
One conversation with a Japanese exchange student sent me googling to fact check. Their family orders Kentucky Fried Chicken. They actually have to order it months in advance it is so popular. This is the result of a very successful “Kurisumasu ni wa kentakkii!” (Kentucky for Christmas!) marketing campaign started in 1974 by KFC.
In France, I learned, it’s all about oysters. In the time between Christmas and New Year’s the populations noshes through over half of France’s yearly oyster production. My Czech friends, who are all about food, always have fish on Christmas Eve, and a huge spread on this aptly named “Generous Day”. I have heard stories about people’s parents buying live carp and keeping them in the bathtub until Christmas Eve to keep them fresh. From what I can see you make as many small and varied cookies as possible. The vanilla crescents are by far my favourite.
Now I have spent some time in South America and from what I saw the foods eaten over the holidays take quite an effort with many hands in the process. In Mexico its pozole, rompope and non-stop tamales. In Venezuela there is a version of the tamale called hallaca made with corn dough and a mixture of meat, raisons and olives wrapped inside a plantain. Each family has their own take on the recipe, and declare it to be the best.
Lutefisk is a winter delicacy for people in Norway, Sweden and part of Finland that has also made its way to wherever descendants have travelled and set down roots. It is a dried whitefish treated with lye (which I didn’t think was edible, but what do I know) that makes it sort of jelly-like in texture.
Today marks the Winter Solstice, the shortest day and the longest night of the year. In the Northern Hemisphere, many cultures celebrate with bringing of light and merriment in the midst of deep winter often assisted by Wassail, a hot and spicy beer. I love the English tradition of the holiday booze-soaked dessert Christmas cake. My mother-in-law makes an amazing hard sauce to top it off. Then there is the bit about setting the brandy a fire before we serve it at the table. That adds an element of danger that always gets the kids’ attention, and I can’t deny there have been close calls with the tablecloth and some burnt eyebrows over the years.
At my house food is definitely at the centre of our celebrating and everyone pitches in to make it doable. I host a baking circle that has been coming together for almost two decades, where we bake and trade (and are hardly competitive). We also host a seven fishes dinner on Winter Solstice where everyone brings a West Coast-inspired seafood dish to share. For Christmas dinner we take advantage of our wonderful seasonal bounty with a local turkey, and a meal of winter squash, potatoes, carrots, beets and brussel sprouts. It would do a lot for our local food artisan and farm economy if more people looked to make local a holiday food tradition. If you are not sure what is available ask your grocer.
Whatever your holiday food traditions, make time amidst the hustle and bustle to celebrate with family and friends, share what you can, and give thanks for our many blessings. I look forward to more Local Flavour with you in 2017.
Linda Geggie is the executive director with the Capital Region Food and Agriculture Initiatives Roundtable.