Cuisines of Our Cultures

Holiday Traditions Bring Their Mixed Blessings to the Table

It’s a crazy mixed-up world, or so it seems in this year just drawing to a close. Earthquakes, hurricanes, wars, record heat waves, you name it, this year has witnessed it. And at the same time, contradicting the craziness and woven through it, are the on-going miracles of life. Against all odds, the sun comes up, babies are born, we breathe in and out. Each day brings new opportunities for redemption, for forgiveness, just as it offers the possibility of mistakes, hurtful words, errors of omission.

Families so often mirror the confusing contradictions in life. The people we love the most are the ones with the power to drive us crazy. We’re polite and helpful to strangers but so often squash the confidence of those in our care. Some days it seems easier to love the friends who make up our “chosen” families than our given ones.

The Holidays can seem the same — we anticipate them all year, and then they’re on us in a heap, a jumble of errands and food, relatives, presents, pressure; joyful reunions and old resentments all tangled like tinsel. And in our multicultural society, there is often the added pressure of juggling very different traditions. The juxtaposition of Hanukkah and Christmas on the calendar echo their “kissing cousins” position in my family history.

My mother’s family tree contained farmers and merchants, staunch Baptists and Methodists, growing deep roots through several generations raised on Texan ranches and dusty small towns. My father’s family were immigrants at the turn of the 20th century, Russian Jews, a long line of tailors, merchants and scholars. These two unlikely branches came together when my parents met at university and braved a “mixed marriage” that five decades ago must have raised more eyebrows than it would now.

We were raised with the food and guilt of both religions, but not really the religious training of either. Bagels and biscuits, more than baptisms and bar mitzvahs. My parents taught us to be tolerant and open-minded; curious about religions but not in thrall to any one belief system. We got gifts on the eight nights of Hanukkah from my Jewish relatives and Santa left presents under the Christmas tree next to those from my Methodist aunt and uncle.

We argued over who would get to light the ritual candles that celebrated a miracle of one day’s worth of oil lasting eight days in a reclaimed temple more than 2000 years ago; we sang and played at gambling with the dreidl, a 4-sided top.  We also went caroling and squabbled over who would get to hang the star on the top of the tree. Both holidays were happy times marked by gifts and food.

From this mixed family, I got a sense of being welcome in more than one “camp”. While I didn’t have the grounding of a faithful conviction, I got to explore, to question, and to enjoy different traditions.

I hope that this holiday season finds you gathered safely, co-existing happily and healthily with your neighbours and your loved ones. Enjoy your own traditions but take some time to explore new ones. Enjoy some of the following dishes to create a multi-cultural Holiday meal to share with those around you. And I hope that as you cook and eat that you will remember that Life, as well as food, is a blessing, one that we ought to give thanks for daily, not just on Holidays.

Happy Holidays!

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If you love carrot muffins, you will love this stuffing for your Christmas turkey. By making the stuffing separately in a loaf pan, you reduce the amount of fat absorbed by the stuffing making it easier to digest. Serves 8.

Carrot Turkey StuffingIngredients:

  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup fresh whole wheat bread crumbs
  • 2 Ontario Carrots, coarsely shredded
  • 1/2 cup chopped pecans or almonds
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp each salt, ground ginger and nutmeg
  • 1/4 cup each softened butter and packed brown sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1/3 cup apple juice

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Potato latkes are a Hanukkah favourite. For a healthier twist, try these chickpea fritters laced with rosemary, common in parts of France and Italy. Drizzle the latkes with pomegranate molasses (found at Middle Eastern markets and some supermarkets). Adapted from Bon Appetit magazine, this recipe should make 24 latkes, enough to serve 6-8.

Ingredients:

  • 1 15-ounce can garbanzo beans (chickpeas), rinsed, drained
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 1 Tbsp fresh rosemary
  • 3 large eggs (or substitute 1/2 block of medium tofu, pressed, drained and blended)
  • 6 Tbsp water (if using tofu instead of eggs, start with 3 Tbsp water and add more only if needed)
  • 2 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
  • 3 Tbsp all purpose flour
  • 1-1/2 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp ground black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 6 Tbsp (or more) olive oil
  • Pomegranate seeds (optional)

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Debby Segura, a Los-Angeles-based designer and chef, created this gorgeous soup. Comforting as well as elegant, perfect for the first course of a Christmas meal. Serves 8-12 as an appetizer.

Squash SoupIngredients:

  • 3 pounds butternut squash, peeled and cut into 2-inch chunks
  • 2 golden delicious apples, peeled, cored and cut into 1-inch chunks
  • 1 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 Tbsp honey
  • 1/2 tsp sesame chile oil
  • 4 cups vegetable broth or chicken broth
  • Tamari soy sauce, to taste
  • 1/4 cup pumpkin seeds

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My practical, farm-owning Methodist relatives wouldn’t admit to believing in many superstitions, but one that they swore by was the need to eat black-eyed peas on New Year’s Eve in order to bring fortune in the year ahead. Plan a midnight meal with these beans served over corn bread or rice — superstitious or not, you’ll feel fortunate as you ring in the New Year. Serves 6

Ingredients:

  • 1 pound black-eyed peas (small white dried beans with a dark spot or “eye”)
  • 3 stalks celery, diced
  • 2 onions, diced
  • 1 red bell pepper, seeded & diced
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1/2 tsp ground cumin
  • 3 Tbsp butter or soy margarine
  • dash of Worcestershire Sauce
  • dash of Tabasco
  • pinch of salt and fresh ground black pepper

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From The Jewish Holiday Cookbook by Gloria Kaufer Greene (Times Books). Cook and author Gloria Kaufer Greene says, “sesame seed candy is a must at Hanukkah time. It is an ancient confection that is made by Jews from all over the Middle East and North Africa. For the best results, try to make it on a cool dry day.” Yield: about 64 small candies.

Ingredients:

  • Vegetable oil or non-stick cooking spray for the pan
  • 2 cups sesame seeds
  • 1/2 cup honey
  • 1/2 cup packed dark or light brown sugar
  • 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp ground ginger

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