As I mentioned in a recent post, I am not a cook. I do not have the patience or the desire to devote a significant part of each day to preparing food. If it comes in a box or a can with a “Healthy Choice” label on it, it’s good enough for me. I’ll steam some vegetables and cut up some fruit and be good to go.
My mother was a good cook, a trained home economist, who I now believe had about as much interest in cooking as I do. She prepared meals out of obligation. Somehow I never even gave in to the guilt.
My sister is a superb cook, particularly of ethnic foods. She bakes her own bread and makes her own pasta. My maternal grandmother was a regionally renown cook.
I did not inherit any of those genes.
At this time of year, many of you are dusting off family recipes and preparing those traditional dishes that make the holidays special. Good for you. I’m cloistered comfortably in my home accepting Christmas goodies from kind-hearted neighbors. It works beautifully. I have no problem being their charity case.
But I’ve been paying attention to what my family and friends are preparing for the holiday. Let’s start right here at my house. Many of you know that my husband, Rick, is a master bourbon ball maker. He revels in crafting visually perfect bourbon balls from a pleasing blend of butter, sugar, chocolate, and a wide variety of bourbons. (He’ll trade you a box of confections for an unusual bourbon, if you’re curious about how it will hold up against the other competing flavors.)
I had never known Rick to spend any time in the kitchen until after his mother died in 2012. She had been the family purveyor of traditional Kentucky bourbon balls, and they needed to make an appearance at family gatherings. So Rick started working with her recipe, recalling the time he had served as her hands in the kitchen while she gave him instructions when she wasn’t well enough to do the physical labor herself.
This year, it seems, Rick has spent ten to twelve hours a day in the kitchen for weeks on end making his mother’s bourbon balls. People all across central Kentucky are happier because of it.
I have written about my dear friend Philip who passed away in May. His sister Joan recently shared a story of Philip trying valiantly to reproduce his mum’s traditional Irish mincemeat pies after her death in 2018. Joan described his first attempt as “pretty awful,” but said he was improving. As youngsters, they had failed to relay to their brother Brendan that the pies were deliciously sweet, so he wouldn’t eat them for years, leaving more for Philip and Joan. Brendan didn’t learn what he had been missing until he was in his 20s.
This year Joan is baking her mother’s Christmas cookies. She plans to pick up the mincemeat pies next year—in memory of both Philip and their mum.
My friend Kristi, who lives in Minnesota, couldn’t believe that I had never heard of potato sausage. That is her family’s Christmas tradition, along with oyster soup. As a child, neither looked appealing to her. She got a hot dog instead. As an adult, she has decided there is nothing better than a spicy potato sausage with a little ketchup. She will serve it for her holiday meal.
Kristi’s grandfather made potato sausage at the meat market he owned in Maiden Rock, Wisc. Her grandmother later worked at the Red Owl grocery in Red Wing, Minn. Today, Koplin's Village Market in Red Wing still uses her grandfather’s recipe to make their potato sausage. It’s a family Christmas tradition that has been extended to many in the Red Wing community.
Jacalyn Carfagno, a longtime Lexington Herald-Leader writer and editor, recently wrote about learning to make biscotti from her dad after he retired and “returned to the Italian-American foods that had nourished him as a child.” Carfagno has continued the tradition of holiday biscotti baking every year since. In her article, she describes her vigilant pursuit of new biscotti recipes to add to her regular rotation of hazelnut, chocolate, pistachio, and fig/walnut. And she references a common factor in holiday food preparation: “Like many holiday traditions, the way I make them is highly ritualized.”
These rituals bring us comfort. They connect us to family and friends who can no longer gather with us around the table. They tie us to each other and cement the bonds that make family—however you define it—special. And they present the rest of us some pretty darn good eating.
Whatever your family food traditions, whether you’re cooking or not, here’s wishing you a a warm and memorable and delectable holiday.