What is created in the kitchen looms large in memories of holidays past. And we know that for every tidy tamal, every crisp latke and every roast beast, the “yucky” yuca, burnt dinner rolls and dog-eaten pie made just as much of a lasting impression. Herewith, Post staffers share their stories:
Wait long enough, and they’ll come around
The grumbling always started right on cue. Everything about wigilia, the Polish Christmas Eve vigil supper, starts right on cue. First star appears in the sky, you sit down and eat. Seven, nine or 11 courses, depending on how ambitious the cook is feeling.
I stuck to seven. Partly because there’s only so much cooking I’ll do. But mostly because of my boys.
The annual litany at our Christmas Eve table:
Son 1: Ew, pickled herring? I’m not eating that. Yuck.
Son 2: Ack, barszcz. Beet soup is horrible! Don’t give me too much!
Son 1: I hate pierogi. Especially with sauerkraut. Just one, just one!
Sons 1 and 2: Do I have to have the fried fish? It’s gross. And no boiled potatoes — I only like mashed!
There was slumping in seats. Squirming and gagging. Groans of: Are we finished? Can we go?
This was my thanks for days of preparation, of kneading dough and peeling beets, of cutting up potatoes and cooking cabbage. For rising after each course and standing over the stove to ready the next one. For trying to keep the Old World tradition my parents had passed on to their own children going for one more generation.
For years the whining continued, into the kids’ teens and beyond. I soldiered on, making compromises (sorry, Mom) to win hearts and minds. I offered shrimp as well as herring. Gave up on sauerkraut pierogi and switched to cheese.
Then the guys reached their 20s, and things changed, right on cue. A couple of years ago, our younger son got stuck working late in Philadelphia on Christmas Eve. “I can’t make it home in time for wigilia,” he said.
And then the words I thought I’d never hear:
“Save me some barszcz and pierogi, okay?”
— Zofia Smardz
The family fruitcake lives — without a recipe
My family loves fruitcake.
Laugh if you want, but it’s not Christmas until the fruitcake gets cut. And it doesn’t get cut until Christmas Day.
Let’s be clear: I’m not talking about that brick that can be found in supermarkets and mail-order catalogues. I’m talking about a recipe that has been passed down for nearly 50 years, loaded with butter — and a substantial dose of alcohol.
As far as we can tell, the tradition began with my grandmother Lillie. She would make the cake several weeks in advance, place some apple slices on top and cover it with a cloth until she was ready to board a Greyhound bus and head to Baltimore from South Carolina.
After she arrived, she would set the cake out and pour rum or wine on top, probably for the second time.
As my grandmother got older, the task fell to my mother, Mary. And as she got older, it fell to my sisters and me.
The first couple of years were a challenge. Neither my grandmother or mother ever used a recipe. When it came time for them to tell us what to do, I swear, the number of cups of sugar would change from year to year.
Now they’re both gone. I’ve thought about tweaking the recipe, doing away with the candied fruit that none of us really like. But I never do. When I make the cake, I see my grandmother getting off that bus, cradling her gift to us like a baby. I hear my mother telling me to make sure I roll the fruit and nuts in enough flour to keep them from sinking in the batter.
And when we set the cake out on Christmas Day, I can imagine they’re still here with us.
— Monica Norton
Hannukah via FedEx
I was 23 and living in Florida, adjusting to my first job out of college. Hanukkah was coming. I didn’t have the money to fly home, which meant that I wouldn’t get a chance to eat my mom’s latkes.
She and I had a fraught relationship when it came to the kitchen. It was her space, and whenever I tried to help, she shooed me out because, she said, I wouldn’t follow her instructions. Born in Europe, she was a fabulous cook and entertained beautifully — silver always polished, china laid just so. I tried to emulate her but couldn’t: My apartment was tiny, and the furniture came from Goodwill. I didn’t have equipment for latkes, let alone a recipe.
But it was Hanukkah, and I really wanted latkes. So I called Mom and bemoaned my fate.
A day or so later, they showed up on my doorstep. Latkes, when made properly, are moist, golden-hued pancakes of perfectly proportioned potatoes and onions. Mom’s were always flawless. These were not.
They arrived bare, dry, in a FedEx envelope. Worse, they were black. I knew, from visits to my grandmother’s house, that her latkes were always black because she forgot to add enough flour to the potato mixture to keep it from discoloring. Either Mom had done the same thing or, more likely, the latkes had turned dark in transit. But I was so desperate that I heated them up and ate them, anyway.
In the years since, I’ve had my own latke mishaps. I’ve used too many onions. I’ve forgotten the salt. I’ve spent too much time in the kitchen and not enough with my family.
This year, I’ll be roasting a goose and frying my latkes in the fat from the drippings. The other day, I called my mom and reminded her of the black latkes incident. She claimed that she didn’t remember it, but then said, “They weren’t difficult! I worried how they would ship.”
After I hung up, I realized their condition hadn’t mattered. They were a taste of home, just when I needed it.
— Lisa Grace Lednicer
Yuca was my Noche Buena nemesis
The end of the story is this: Yuca con mojo is delicious, and I look forward to piling it onto my holiday plate.
The beginning is this: Yuca con mojo is disgusting, and I would have given away all of my Star Wars figures if it meant I never had to taste it again.
For most Cubans, or at least the ones I am related to in Maryland, Christmas Eve is always the bigger deal. The evening before Christmas is called Noche Buena throughout Latin America, but I know it as the night when cousins gather to eat, exchange gifts, yell about “Los Redskins” and reminisce.
When I was younger, hosting duties would alternate between my mom and my aunt, but at either house, my grandmother Tita was in charge of the kitchen. On the table sat a mix of “American” holiday food, plus such Cuban dishes as croquetas, roasted pork, black beans and rice and plantains. For dessert, we’d have turrones (a confection) or natilla (a custard).
Amid all those goodies was my food nemesis: yuca con mojo (cassava root with garlic sauce). This dish is the anti-mashed potatoes. Instead of whipped and fluffy, yuca is firm and starchy. The sauce, instead of a creamy brown gravy, is oil-based and garlicky. And as a kid, I’d wonder why they were torturing me with this inferior root vegetable when potatoes did, in fact, exist.
If that sounds like an overreaction, it’s because it was. I mean, I was 8.
Sometime after becoming an adult, I decided to give yuca con mojo another try. I had about three helpings and was convinced I was eating an updated take on my grandmother’s classic.
Nope, my mother told me: same recipe. And it’s the same one she’ll be cooking this Noche Buena. I hope my kids eat it.
— Jorge Ribas
A trotter under the tree
My grandfather was the youngest of 10 children, raised on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Though as an adult he traveled far from his origins, as he got older, he reclaimed some of his Southern roots, including his food preferences. Fish was always served with grits; and, recalling the canned goods of his childhood, he had a penchant for overcooked vegetables that the rest of the family did not share.
One Christmas, the family decided to get a genuine Smithfield country ham, dry salt-cured, as an addition to the holiday table. When it arrived, shipped from Virginia to New York, it was impressive and slightly daunting to the cooks in the family, particularly when it came to figuring out how to prepare it. Country ham has to be soaked for hours and then cooked in a vat of water, and the question arose of whether to retain or remove the trotter before cooking.
My grandfather, though not a cook himself, pulled rank as a Southerner and let it be known that the proper thing was to leave the trotter on. He was unmoved by the practical argument that with the trotter, the ham was simply too big to fit in the pot.
The ham was duly prepared, and Christmas Day arrived. Because the adults had agreed that only we children should get presents that year, my grandfather was surprised to find a package for him under the Christmas tree. He opened it and exclaimed loudly. It was the pig’s trotter.
It was a few more years before I learned to appreciate the intense flavor of country ham. But I always kept a fundamental affection for the idea of it, linked to the memory of my grandfather brandishing his Christmas gift, amid gales of laughter.
— Anne Midgette
The cookies smelled good, and I felt better
They say that nothing evokes memory quite like our sense of smell, and for me, there is a particular scent that instantly summons the feeling of Christmas. It isn’t pine — alas, we had an artificial tree when I was growing up — but the rich aroma of a favorite cookie: vanillekipfel, a crescent-shaped holiday tradition passed down through my mother’s Austrian side of the family.
The recipe has subtle variations. In our house, vanillekipfel was made with ground almonds, plenty of butter and a lot of loud cursing; the dough is particularly dry, and we didn’t have an electric mixer back then, so kneading was a vigorous workout. Plus, shaping the cookies into dainty lunettes without breaking them apart was a challenge.
When I was little, baking those cookies with my mom was something I looked forward to all year. I liked to think I was helping, but my contribution was mainly to learn new words I wasn’t allowed to repeat and to lick the spoon my mom used for stirring the melted chocolate. (In lieu of the traditional dusting of confectioners’ sugar, we topped our cookies with the thinnest squiggle of dark chocolate.)
So I was especially crushed when, at age 6, I came down with a miserable flu right before Christmas and was quarantined in my room while my mom baked alone downstairs. The memory is fleeting but vivid, in the way childhood memories often are. As I sat upstairs in bed, sniffling and miserable, the house began to fill with the buttery, nutty smell of the cookies baking. And then my mother suddenly appeared in my bedroom, holding a spoon coated in a thick layer of melted chocolate. It was a simple offering, but in that moment, it felt magical.
— Caitlin Gibson
What Grandma put on the table...
My grandma Lillian was prim and proper. She never left the house without lipstick and hose. And she always started prepping her Christmas feast the day before. Mom and I lived in the upstairs apartment in Grandma’s 1890s greystone in Chicago, so Mom bunked downstairs when the cleaning and shucking and basting spilled into the wee hours. There were collards and corn bread, ham and mac and cheese, of course.
Then one year, unbound by tradition, Grandma surprised us with a seven-layer pea salad: peas, mayo, lettuce, peppers, eggs, bacon bits and only God remembers what else.
What? Do black people eat this? Nope, we didn’t, and it just sat there. We could think of no circumstance in which peas and mayonnaise should coexist. It took a few years for her to get the hint that it would probably fare better at the office potluck. And that’s when our irreverence ended.
We would also come to make peace with her topless buns. Come Christmas, she didn’t see the point in rolling and kneading after a dozen hours on her feet, so every year, at the end, she would slide a pan of Sunbeam Brown ’N Serve dinner rolls into the oven — and walk away. Like clockwork, she would remember them too late. None of us dared suggest bringing our own or making a new batch. We’d just scrape off the burned tops, as instructed, and bury our faces in the cushiony cores.
— Carla Broyles
Doggone it, every year
Every year for Christmas, my mother bakes for days. An array of cookies, dusted with confectioners’ sugar. Apple cake, my great-grandmother’s recipe, and chocolate cheesecake. And every year, our family dog — one of a series of dopey-sweet Labrador retrievers — manages to find the most beautiful thing my mother made, and eats it.
We tried to keep each one out of the kitchen. But we couldn’t lock a dog in a crate for all of December, so we employed a jingle-bell collar and listened for signs of trouble. We erected baby gates, barricaded the kitchen door with chairs, bought airtight (but ultimately not dog-proof) containers. We each took turns minding the dog. But amid the holiday commotion, when one of us let our guard down for a split second, a cake left to cool on a countertop would be gone. Remember the scene in “A Christmas Story,” with the Bumpus hounds? That’s us.
These dogs weren’t particularly smart; one of them could spend hours chasing his own shadow. But when it came to finding food, they were geniuses. First there was Buddy, a yellow Lab who was, essentially, a furry dumpster. She once ate all our turkey leftovers, including the aluminum foil wrapping. Devastatingly, she bit a hole through my Christmas stocking, hand-knitted by my late grandmother, to get to the candy inside it.
Next came Nadal, named after my tennis-playing little brother’s favorite athlete. We lost an apple cake to Nadal, for which my mother blamed my father. He was supposed to be watching the dog but instead took a nap. Another Christmas, Nadal ate some of that chocolate cheesecake, which in large enough quantities could have proved fatal. The dog suffered mere indigestion — a Christmas miracle.
Now my parents have two 2-year-old chocolate Labs, Sophie and Josie. They work in tandem to steal food. One creates a distraction while the other climbs the countertops in the kitchen. RIP, pie.
We never get mad at them. But my mother does exact one form of revenge: She dresses them up as elves.
— Maura Judkis
All hands in for pasteles production
When my family couldn’t go to the island, Puerto Rico came to us — personified by my aunt, Maria Gabina Hernandez.
Titi Mary, as we knew her, made sure the three Hernandez kids understood how traditional Puerto Rican food was a part of our heritage. Our grandmother had staved off poverty with her fierce intellect and sumptuous recipes, augmenting her school janitor wages by selling food in her barrio.
So one Christmas, Titi Mary came to Washington to teach us how to make abuela’s pasteles. They are the one dish every Puerto Rican is waiting to eat on Noche Buena, or Christmas Eve. The tamale-like pillow of savory plantain and pork tastes like Puerto Rico after a rainstorm: humid and earthy.
Titi Mary brought the culantro – a tropical cousin to cilantro — from her garden for the seasoning base, sofrito, that is the bedrock of Puerto Rican cooking. We scoured international groceries for plantains, green bananas and other tropical root vegetables, and frozen banana leaves.
Then the 24 hours of work began. First, the pork shoulder was chopped into cubes and simmered with spices for hours. Meanwhile, my siblings and I grated vegetables for the masa batter and listened to Titi’s stories as we worked. Once the meat and masa were ready, an assembly line formed.
One person wiped down a banana leaf and placed it on parchment paper. The next coated the leaf with annatto oil. Then Titi Mary showed just how much yellow batter to plop onto the leaf and added a spoonful of meat filling. After the crucial folding, wrapping and tying technique that gives pasteles their shape, we boiled them — and, finally, unwrapped and devoured them.
Now that Alzheimer’s disease has ravaged Titi Mary’s memory, I cherish thoughts of those moments even more. Every time I bite into a pastel, I’m reminded of her greatest lesson: to be proud of my culture and share that love with everyone I can.
— Arelis Hernandez
The kid who loved the onions
Our holiday dinners were a cultural mixture, as my dad was from the District — a “Southern” town — and my mom was a Northerner from Kingston, N.Y. So, in addition to the standard Southern-style collard greens, we had creamed onions.
I was the only one in the family who really liked them. Loved them, even. It was a such a treat, because we typically had them only three times a year: Easter Sunday, Thanksgiving and Christmas. Everyone else in the family except for my dad turned up their noses at them, and I’m not sure why a kid like me would love such a savory, oniony thing. They were my favorite, next to the turkey and dressing.
Turns out, the handwritten recipe my mother used was from my late great-grandmother: boiled pearl onions, a butter-and-flour roux, a 1:1 blend of whole milk and cream, plus salt, white pepper and paprika.
My mother, now 92, still makes them at holiday time — just for me.
— Angela Barnes
The holidays must be cheesy
Many things signaled the arrival of Christmas at the Connelly house: a shipment of holiday cookies from Grandma Connelly (gently scented by her Benson & Hedges cigarettes), the purchase of ginger ale (soda was a holiday-only treat) and the acquisition of a tree. But Christmas didn’t really start until the Alpine Alpa Baby Swiss Cheese wheel was delivered.
The cheese was a yearly gift from a bus company my dad had worked with. It arrived doubled-boxed, the interior box cherry red with 1950s-style line drawings of happy Swiss folk. Inside, the several-pound cheese with its wax rind was nestled in green paper grass. Dad would make a production out of the carving: our largest cutting board, the cleaver for the initial halving. The smaller wedges were carefully wrapped, to be attacked one by one until we finished them sometime around the new year. The creamy, slightly sour baby Swiss cheese tasted like being grown up. This was no block of Kroger cheddar; this was cheese sent to my family because my dad was so good at his work, to be savored during those special weeks when there was no school and no bedtime.
During the weeks of Christmas, baby Swiss was everywhere. Cooked into eggs. Layered with iceberg lettuce and mustard on sandwiches. Sliced and served with pretzels as an afternoon snack. Alpine Alpa could not (to my knowledge) be obtained at a store. It was part of the mystery of the season — a taste that could not be purchased, only gifted.
The bus company eventually went out of business, and the Alpine Alpa deliveries stopped. But our ornaments come out of storage packed in red boxes with cheery line drawings, and during Christmas, we still try to make sure there is a wedge of baby Swiss in the fridge.
— Phoebe Connelly
Christmas Day could never arrive fast enough. I’d lie awake in bed, bored out of my skull, waiting for hours until my parents would extract their weary bones from bed and allow their kids to go feral on a pile of gifts under the tree.
But like a post-Adderall crash, the remainder of my morning was spent in a semi-depressive state, dreading the next stop on our holiday agenda: Christmas dinner at Uncle Jack and Aunt Mary’s house. My anxiety had nothing to do with the extended family, a boisterous, storytelling bunch of Midwesterners who had none of the reserve that so many associate with flyover country. It had everything to do with the meal.
I spent my my early years wrestling with adult foods. No one understood the visceral reaction that would overtake me when I tried many dishes, a combination of psychic distress and dry heaves. The worst part was the teasing, innocuous to outsiders but crippling to a shy boy.
Then there was my Uncle Jack, a towering man who was many years older than my father. My uncle was more like a grandfather to me, and during Christmas dinner, he would play the role to perfection. While the turkey was still in the oven, sending its savory aromas throughout the house, he’d approach me, comfort me gently and promise to save me an extra slice of pumpkin pie, the only part of the meal I loved.
There was nothing special about that pie: To the best of my memory, it was a pre-made crust loaded with a canned filling mixed with eggs and evaporated milk. Who knows, maybe it was just a store-bought pie. It didn’t matter. When buried under Cool Whip, it was a sugary slice of mercy, a sign that dinner was nearly over. It also served as a bond between nephew and uncle, a man whose gentleness was a gift all its own.
— Tim Carman
Do you have a holiday food memory fit for sharing? Do so in our Free Range chat Wednesday at noon: live.washingtonpost.com., or in the comments below.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article referred to the Bumpus hounds in “A Christmas Carol.” The correct reference is “A Christmas Story.”