By Catherine Kaufman
This month three major holidays with different cultural foods and festivities converge. Since we’re a melting pot and there are a lot of crossovers among the cultures, we’re fortunate to be able to partake in the delights of all of the traditions.
Here are some food highlights from the three big winter festivals – Christmas, Chanukah and Kwanza.
From Eggnog to Yule Log
Whether you celebrate Noel or not, you can’t help but become intoxicated by the spirit of the holiday that is ubiquitous throughout the land. ‘Tis the season for sugar and spice and edible vice.
Christmas spices come out of the pantry like cloves, nutmeg, allspice, peppermint and ginger. Desserts are a bazillion calories and grams of sugar, flying off the glycemic index, and some are so heavy and dense they could double as weight-training devices or decorative doorstops like the fruitcake that dates back to the Middle Ages, marzipan, plum pudding, mincemeat pie, gingerbread houses, and imports like panettone, stollen and the Buche de Noel, aka the Yule Log.
Exotic fowl of goose, swan and pheasant are served at Christmas tables around the world along with cocktails and mocktails that scream Christmas cheer – from the traditional eggnog and hot apple cider, to creative mixologist’s holiday concoctions including a Gingerbread Man with butterscotch schnapps and Bailey’s Irish Cream, and a Mistletoe Martini with melon liquor, coconut rum and pineapple juice.
Finally, home baked chocolate chip cookies and a tall glass of milk are symbolic offerings for Santa after he makes his chimney deliveries.
Festival of Lights, Latkes
Chanukah used to be a minor celebration in the Jewish line-up of holidays, but thanks to Christmas-envy among Jewish children who are in awe of the bedecked trees and whole neighborhoods that are lit-up and sparkle like a fairytale wonderland, Chanukah has been elevated to the A-list.
Jews celebrate the “festival of lights” to commemorate the miracle in the days of Judah Macabee when they found a flask that contained enough oil to burn for eight days for the rededication ceremony of their desecrated temple in Jerusalem.
Candles held in a Jewish candelabra called a menorah are lit for eight days, and doughnuts and latkes or potato pancakes fried in oil served with traditional toppings of applesauce and sour cream are part of the modern day celebration.
When my grandma was growing up in Russia, her family performed a beautiful “festival of lights” ritual called the Flaming Tea Ceremony. Cones of sugar were crumpled into chunky chunks and doused with brandy.
Everyone was given a glass of hot tea and a teaspoon full of brandied sugar. The lights were dimmed and a lit taper was passed around the room, lighting everyone’s high-octane sugar. When the last person’s sugar was ablaze, they dropped the flaming cubes into their tea and the room sizzled. Ooooh! Aaaah!
Then they sang Hanukkah songs and noshed on my great-grandma’s Old World apple strudel.
Kwanza: The Newbie on the Block
Kwanza, a seven-day secular celebration of African American heritage, begins on Dec. 26 every year since 1966. “Kwanza” translates from Swahili to “first fruits” in honor of the treasure trove of harvest fruits and veggies from the African soils. Some traditional dishes served during the Kwanza feast are Koki, a black-eyed pea appetizer; peanut soup; okra and greens; anything yam since the root is considered “the king of crops”; and for dessert, “the first fruits” of fruit salad or coconut pie.