Few things connect us like food, especially during the holidays.
Written by Scott Jones
It’s that time of year when I find myself lost in thoughts of cooking traditions past, present, and future. Something as mundane as a walk through the mall can turn into a wonderful stroll down memory lane as I breathe in smells of warm chocolate chip cookies and spiced apple candles. The latter takes me back almost 20 years to when, while attending the Culinary Institute of America, my wife and I lived in New York’s gorgeous Hudson Valley. Those December days were cold and snowy, but inside, plenty of warm Christmas cheer filled our tiny basement kitchen. Fellow students who were likewise “orphaned” had our oven and cooktop rockin’ with a medley of flavors and traditional holiday dishes from their respective homes. But one thing never changed—a simmering pot of mulled apple cider, which was pressed just a few blocks away only a few days before. I’ll never forget the cider’s soothing smell and taste plus the special memories from that time.
With a tween and teen now in the picture, my wife and I build deep family traditions in our Birmingham kitchen, whether it’s an ambitious goal of making fresh fettuccini for the neighbors or something as simple as baking up batches of snicker doodles for coaches and teachers. The key is that we’re communicating love through food.
I believe that food connects us all, and stored on our mental hard drives are powerful food memories capable of sweeping us away to a specific moment or causing us to reflect on how blessed we are today. I set out to test my theory by asking a few of my pals to reflect back on how food has influenced their holiday memories. While the mix includes chefs and home cooks, all confirmed that love and food go hand-in-hand during the holiday season.
Roscoe Hall II
Chef, artist, and curator of the blog
Punk As Food
Growing up in Chicago, Hall remembers Christmas mornings filled with a spread of traditional comfort foods that always included “baked chicken or Cornish hens, wild rice, chitterlings, some type of dressing, some peas, and a batch of delicious blueberry cornbread muffins, all made with love.” Once Hall left the nest and travelled the world, however, his notion of the holiday spread radically changed as he experienced a diverse collection of global flavors and combinations. This first-time father now looks forward to creating memories with his new family. Ask Hall about this year’s Christmas dinner and you’ll get a rapid-fire mix of dishes reflecting his colorful culinary influences. “I see a simple herb-roasted chicken, clams, and mussels with lots of wine and butter, collard greens, yeast rolls with honey butter, and a plate of fresh sea-salt-topped chocolate chip cookies. The more I think about it, the more excited I get.” And just like when he grew up, everything will be made with love.
“Pulpy goodness” is how Cole remembers the just-picked navel oranges that played a starring role in her Grandma Holloway’s Christmas ambrosia. In fact, when it comes to a favorite holiday memory, Cole says this special recipe is the first thing that comes to mind. “We spent Christmas at my Grandma’s house in north Florida, and I loved the experience of helping the other women in my family prepare her ambrosia. In the spirit of quilting bees, we would gather around my Grandma’s distressed-wood kitchen table to peel the oranges and segment the juicy little filets. It was a genuine labor of love.”
Cole also cherishes how the women shared stories during the time-consuming activity. “It’s such a special part of my family’s history and lore,” she says. The practice carries on in Cole’s kitchen today. “My grandma always served her ambrosia in these dainty, emerald-green Depression glass bowls alongside a homemade pound cake. I inherited those very bowls and happily maintain the tradition.”
“My mom made the most amazing latkes,” says Shapiro as she recalls her family’s more “minimal” Hanukkah celebrations that also included blintzes and kugel in supporting roles. “For us there were no parties, twinkling lights, or big decorations. We simply lit candles on the menorah, sang the blessings, and played dreidel,” she reminisces. Get Shapiro talking about her mother’s latkes, though, and her countenance changes. Her eyes light up as she describes how her mother prepared large batches of these grated potato delicacies for the local synagogue and their immediate family. “Mom always served her latkes with homemade applesauce and sour cream. I know it sounds basic, but they were delicious,” she says.
These days, Shapiro’s brother, Jeff, has taken oven the latke making duties. Eager to heap praise on her sibling, Shapiro says, “Somehow his are crisp on the outside and fluffy on the inside. Honestly, Jeff’s are incredible and like no other latkes I’ve ever had.” The secret ingredient, she believes, is that Jeff makes them with love, just like her mother did.
Owner, JaWanda’s Sweet Potato Pies
If there’s one thing Jackson knows, it’s the way to a man’s heart. “There are not many men who don’t enjoy a home-cooked meal, especially during the holiday season. It’s definitely true of the three men in my house,” Jackson says with a warm smile, referring to her husband and two sons, all of whom love to eat. They are particularly fond of her “soul food.”
Jackson’s definition includes traditional stick-to-your-ribs favorites like turkey and dressing, turnip or collard greens, yams, and sweet potato pie. She also makes sure there’s plenty of soul in her soul food. “I honestly believe that good food requires more than a good recipe—you have to make it with love. Whether I’m making Christmas dinner for my family or baking a sweet potato pie for a customer, I want my food to deliver a taste of Heaven and be something they remember.”
Don’t miss Mindi’s Hanukkah Latkes with Applesauce along with Leisa’s Christmas Ambrosia. Find them at jonesisthirsty.com/