Tradition Week (Christmas): The Food

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In his book Me Talk Pretty One Day, in the essay titled “Jesus Shaves,” Dave Sedaris explores the difficulty in explaining a holiday to someone for whom it has no cultural reference: “Faced with the challenge of explaining the cornerstone of Christianity, we did what any self-respecting group of people might do,” he writes. “We talked about food instead.”

Sedaris was relating an anecdote about parsing Easter for two Moroccan students in a beginners’ French class he was taking, but the sentiment applies here, too.

Many of my Christmas memories involve food—and it’s no wonder. Smell, tied as it is into the sense of taste, is a powerful force in triggering recollections and remembrances.

I remember my mom making beef stew in the crock pot, where it would simmer throughout the day. Picking almonds out of the party mix at my paternal grandparents’ house on Christmas Eve. Eating beef stroganoff later that night. A tart lemon dessert my maternal grandmother made each year (and still makes from time to time; I got to have a slice this past Thanksgiving). Containers of bacon bits, bottles of Ranch dressing (both staples of my diet when I was younger), and Pez in my stocking on Christmas morning, which often yielded to a breakfast casserole fresh from the oven. The one and only time I had alcohol before I was 21 (shh, don’t tell!) was when I got a splash of champagne in my orange juice one Dec. 25.

Food showed up everywhere: I remember the cinnamon and gingerbread smell of a paper fold-out holiday street scene we unpacked along with the other decorations. And the photo of candlelight illuminating some sparkling champagne on the album cover I carefully handled each year so I could listen to “Do You Hear What I Hear?” And the Christmas ornaments featuring small mice tucked cozily into beds made from walnut shell halves.

As my family has expanded, so have the food memories. My wife’s family tends to enjoy cheese fondue on Christmas eve, a meal for which I’ve declared myself the official cheese grater.

I love grating cheese. It’s so gratifying to watch the block get smaller while the pile grows larger. You can tell you’re really accomplishing something. Success is so measurable and obvious.

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(I included my hand for a sense of scale.)

My children have been quick to identify and generate their own traditions. They may try something once and then declare that that’s what they eat whenever they visit Grandma and Grandpa, as they have with biscuits and gravy at my parents’ house.

I realized recently that now is when their lifelong memories are starting. My earliest recollections—the ones I can reliably say are true and in context—are from when I was 4 to 6 years old, so this is the time in my kids’ lives when they’re inhaling the scents of seasonal spices or otherwise mundane meals and connecting them with sparkling colored lights, sleeping bags under the Christmas tree, and everything else catching their eyes this winter.

In other news, I fell asleep while writing this post.

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