The crisp fall air brushes against our mountains, painting them with vivid oranges, yellows, and reds. Cornstalks rustle, and the nutty smell of squash, burning ditches, and cinnamon awaken our senses. Autumn arrives, ushering in anticipation for the Holidays — and the foods that come with them.
Food sustains life and nourishes our bodies, but food also sustains cultures and nourishes our identities. Food is generally at the center of all we do. Foods are symbolic in our religious rituals and associated with specific celebrations. Our food preparation can be sacred, an exact science, a lesson in chemistry, or just some good ole’ fashioned fun — with a pinch here and a dash there! Creating delicious dishes binds friends and families together — or, if you’re on a cooking show, it can turn into a hellish-battle!
Conversations, stories, history, and heritage are shared — traditions are passed down, and new ones are created — all while we gather around food.
As we prepare to enter the Holiday chaos, it might be fun to learn a bit about the foods used in celebrations around the world. We invite you to sit back, relax, read for a moment — or two — then take a deep breath, exhale, and prepare to dive into whatever your Winter season looks like (don’t forget to pack a snack).
While some people carve pumpkins for their October 31 celebrations, residents of Oaxaca, Mexico, are preparing to celebrate Noche de Rabanos (Night of the Radishes). This tradition takes place on December 23 and has been practiced for over a century. Large radishes (upwards of six pounds) are grown and harvested specifically for the event. The radish artists can spend days creating and carving their masterpieces, many of which display nativity scenes, animals, or Mayan imagery. The best radish carver can receive a cash prize worth thousands of pesos (hundreds of USD).(https://www.wvpublic.org/news/2018-12-20/holiday-food-traditions-are-as-much-about-connection-as-eatin)
The week-long celebration of Kwanzaa (December 26-January 1) is full of dancing, singing, gift exchanging, and culminates in a large feast. Catfish, collards, macaroni and cheese, jerk chicken, gumbo, and accras (Caribbean fritters), have become traditional foods used during the festivities. (https://www.africa.upenn.edu/K-12/Kwanzaa_What_16661.html)
The Feast of the Seven Fishes is a Southern Italian tradition celebrated on December 24. Whether you’re celebrating in North America or Italy, you won’t find seven specific types of fish being served. Think of it more as a seafood celebration. Typical fish used include: baccala (salt cod), frutti di mare (shellfish), capitone (eel), calamari (squid), scungilli (conch meat) and vongole (clams). Fried vegetables are also a popular accompaniment to the fish. Traditionally, the feast takes place in the morning’s early hours, after midnight mass. “Then it’s time for dessert, which may include biscotti, panforte, pandoro, and panettone.” (https://www.italiarail.com/food/feast-of-the-seven-fishes)
Worldwide, it is Jewish tradition to eat matzah on Passover, and apples dipped in honey on Rosh Hashanah. During Chanukah (Hanukkah), eating traditional oily foods such as latkes (fried potato pancakes) topped with applesauce or sour cream, and sufganiyot (deep-fried doughnuts) or other kinds of fritters, is in homage to the miracle of the oil that burned for eight nights instead of one. (https://www.chabad.org/holidays)
Midnight snacking takes on a whole new meaning if you are celebrating New Year’s Eve in Spain. Apparently, eating one dozen grapes at midnight isn’t just a tradition — it’s a serious superstition. On Noche Vieja (Old Night), it is customary to stay at home until the clock strikes twelve. Families and friends gather around their bowl of lucky grapes (uvas de suerte) and wait to hear the chimes ringing from the Real Casa de Correos in Madrid (broadcasted via television across the country). The bells toll twelve times — one for each month. With each chime, you ‘pop’ a grape into your mouth — and probably try not to choke — or laugh. If you eat them all, you will have good luck in the new year. (https://www.donquijote.org/spanish-culture/holidays/nochevieja/)
This next dish sounds delish! Lechón (Spanish for roasted suckling pig) is one of the most popular dishes in the Philippines and many Latin American countries. The pig is usually stuffed with lemongrass, tamarind, garlic, onions, and chives; it is roasted on a large bamboo spit over an open fire. Lechón is traditionally served whole on a platter at celebrations like weddings and Christmas. It is often served with a thick, rich liver sauce cooked with sugar, fresh herbs, and vinegar. (https://www.tasteatlas.com/lechon) I don’t know about you, but all this talk of food is making me hungry!
If you need to stop reading and make a food run — go for it — I get it! There are a few more unique victuals to share, but then I think we should go to work on creating our own traditional cuisine and get some food in our bellies!
Onward — we go!
In many European countries, you will see processions of girls dressed in a white dress with a red sash, wearing a wreath with candles upon their heads, singing, and carrying Saffron Buns in celebration of St. Lucia on December 13. In Greece, many fast before the holidays, and when Christmas arrives — they go all out — after they break their fast. One of the more popular traditional foods served is Melomakarona, a sweet, honey-soaked cookie topped with ground walnuts. Of course, there’s always the traditional Plum or Figgy Pudding from the UK, Danish Kransekake or Almond Wreath Cake, and all the marzipan, chocolate, red cabbage, and roasted goose from Germany. In Australia, Christmas and New Years are smack dab in the middle of Summer! They celebrate by throwing whatever they feel like on the barbie (grill for the rest of us mates) and enjoying seafood, cold cuts, alcohol, pavlova, and trifle, just to name a few, along with a challenging game of cricket. Here’s an interesting tidbit. According to BBC, for 40 plus years, many Japanese families have gathered around a KFC ‘Party Barell’ for some finger-licking-good chicken as part of their Christmas celebrations — bet you didn’t see that one coming.
Food is an extension of who we are. Regardless of culture or religion, food is an integral part of life celebrations across this beautiful globe we call home. Food unites. Where ever you are in the world, and whatever you celebrate or don’t celebrate, whether you’re honoring a generations-old tradition or creating new ones; this winter season, we invite you to come, gather — eat and enjoy!
Gather your kids, friends, and family to discover different cultures and the food they eat. Try out a few new recipes, and prepare them together. Participate in a festivity you’ve never celebrated before. Eat new foods. Share and create a new tradition!