Winter Holiday Foodways and Cookbooks, Part 1 of 2

Traditionally, holidays are times when families, friends, and communities come together, with food playing an essential role in celebrations. Obviously, the winter holidays (Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, and others) will be different this year, as fewer people will gather in groups. However, for comfort, many will still cook up their favorite holiday dishes. 

In New York City, during the winter, people from many different cultures celebrate multiple holidays with unique foods. It is impossible in a short blog post to “give a taste” of the diverse traditional dishes being served this season. Here are just a few holiday highlights, as well as a selection of e-cookbooks available through the library.

Hanukkah:

Hanukkah is an eight-day festival of lights commemorating the miracle when—after the Second Temple was desecrated then rededicated—one day’s worth of sacred oil for the altar’s eternal lamp lasted eight days. The eight-night celebration of Hanukkah is therefore supposed to include fried foods at the festive meal that is preceded by lighting the menorah, a eight- or nine-branched candelabrum. In Central and Eastern Europe, latkes (potato pancakes) were fried in schmaltz (poultry fat) because potatoes were plentiful while December was the season for slaughtering goose and ducks. Today, many people choose to make their latkes with vegetable oil. Jelly donuts, or sufganiyot, another food deep-fried in oil, are a Hanukkah tradition from Israel popular with Americans. 

Other Hanukkah foods reflect the ethnic diversity of Judaism. For example, Sephardic Jews (Mediterranean Jews) prepare elaborate vegetarian dishes with cheese while many Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jews eat roasted brisket as a main dish. For more special Hanukkah recipes, take a look at Sweet Noshings: New Twists on Traditional Jewish Desserts. For a Jewish perspective on Christmas, check out A Kosher Christmas: ‘Tis the Season to be Jewish.

Christmas:

Many New Yorkers from different cultural backgrounds will soon celebrate Christmas Eve and Christmas with big, multi-course feasts. One of the most elaborate feasts is The Feast of the Seven Fishes, an Italian-American Christmas Eve celebration. The Christmas Eve feast may include seven or more specific fish dishes that are considered traditional, such as whiting in lemon, clams in spaghetti, or baccalà (dried, salted cod). If you ever want to try to create your own feast, there are several pesci recipes in Canal House Cooking: Pronto! for you to try.

Filipinos celebrate Christmas from December 16 until the first Sunday of January and the Feast of the Three Kings. After Christmas Eve midnight mass, preparation begins for Noche Buena, when family, friends, and neighbors drop by for an open house celebration. Food is often served in buffet style. Among the typical foods prepared are lechon (roasted pig), queso de bola, ham, spaghetti, and fruit salad. Filipino Family Cookbook : A Treasury of Heirloom Recipes and Heartfelt Stories is a great resource if you’d like to learn more.

For many Latinos in the United States, the holiday season is synonymous with tamales. Mexican Americans often opt for corn-husk-wrapped tamales, while those from Central America typically wrap theirs in banana leaves. And while most Mexican and Central American tamales contain corn-based masa, Puerto Rican pasteles don’t use any, instead using a combination of ground yautía (yuca) and green plátanos (plantains). Tamales, Comadres, and the Meaning of Civilization is filled with family recipes and stories. It also celebrates tamaladas, large family gatherings to prepare the Christmas tamales.

Kwanzaa:

Kwanzaa is not a religious holiday nor a substitute for Christmas, and many people celebrate both. Maulana Karenga founded the weeklong festival in 1966 as a way for African-Americans to celebrate their heritage. Today, Kwanzaa is celebrated across North America and the Caribbean. The seven principles of Kwanzaa are umoja (unity), kujichagulia (self-determination), ujima (collective work and responsibility), ujamaa (cooperative economics), nia (purpose), kuumba (creativity) and imani (faith). 

The largest meal—Karamu Ya Imani—is held on December 31. The main dish served tends to be a stew, such as Ghanaian groundnut stew, Cajun jambalaya, Creole gumbo, West Indian curry. Other classics include Hoppin’ John, Nigerian jollof rice, fritters, catfish, collard greens, fried okra, spoonbread, plantains, and  (are you hungry yet?) sweet potato pie. Celebrate Vegan: 200 Life-Affirming Recipes for Occasions Big and Small offers delicious vegan versions of traditional soul food dishes. The Real Jerk : New Caribbean Cuisine provides recipes for Caribbean classics like jerk chicken, sorrel punch, and rum cake.

Michael Twitty is a wonderful food historian and writer who identifies as “an African American who happens to be Jewish, or a Jew who happens to be African American.” He writes a little about Christmas but he writes much more about  Hanukkah and Kwanzaa. His blog is a rich resource for both recipes and food histories. 

Part 2 of this blog will cover delicious sweets and desserts for winter holidays!

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