It’s Not Just About Turkey and Pumpkin Pie Anymore

    Think of a holiday and probably your first thought, and warmest memory, is of food. And naturally so. Beyond nutrition, food has a place in societal and familial bonding. Our memories are pinned to food, triggered by taste. There is the well-worn example of Marcel Proust’s memories stirred by eating madeleines, a small sponge cake. Truly, though, who has not compared something that stirs your tastebuds to the same dish Mom used to make—chocolate chip cookies or fried chicken or lasagna or soup?

    So here we are: the time we’ve been waiting for—that fun, joyous, three-month end-of-year holiday bash. Traditionally it’s been Thanksgiving, several Christmases, and New Year’s, but now the festivities are even extending over four months, as we include all cultures in our diverse society. Each of the holidays has a different beginning and purpose, whether religious, social, or a derivation of historical events and customs. Whatever their origins they all have one major thing in common, which is food … from the bountiful delights of the Muslim holiday of Mawid al-Nabi (birth of the Prophet, Oct. 18 in 2021) to those of the Chinese New Year (upcoming on Feb. 1 in 2022). But what food? Is what we eat at certain of these holidays a beloved family tradition? or a national custom? or an historical recollection? or perhaps all of the previous?

    Sometimes traditions are only one generation long rather than having developed over several centuries. Take Halloween, for instance. I remember looking forward to getting homemade treats every October 31: cookies, brownies, candies, or candy apples. With the advent of concern over tainted food, Halloween has become a one-night mountain of miniature candy bars, all safely wrapped.

    Before we can even process that sugar high comes Thanksgiving (this year Nov. 25). Turkey has become this celebration’s staple because the Pilgrims were said to have eaten that bird. Maybe. There could have been a turkey at the first Thanksgiving meal, but the birds were more likely to have been wild ducks or geese, readily available along the Massachusetts coast.

    Eating turkey during the holidays is basically an outgrowth of farming practices. The birds grew big for family gatherings, leaving chickens for egg production. Turkey really caught on after World War II with improved farming/breeding practices.

    But why not go back to the beginnings of Thanksgiving with a brace of duck or large goose? My own preference of the two is duck, but I am a big fan of that French classic, cassoulet—a dish of goose, beans, and a variety of meats. Leftover goose makes a very satisfactory cassoulet if serving the dish at Thanksgiving is a taste too far.

    Turkey carried over into Christmas, gently nudging aside ham. History holds that King Henry VIII was the first person to eat a turkey on Christmas Day. Again, maybe. Goose is what we associate with England. The iconic American chef Julia Child stuffed hers with pork, chestnuts, and prunes.

    Child’s stuffing doesn’t appeal to you? Bread stuffing has become tiresome? Reach out. Try “fusion holiday” stuffing by mixing two food traditions. Channukah (Nov. 28 to Dec. 6 in 2021) is the time for latkes, fried potato pancakes made from large white potatoes, onions, eggs, salt, and matzoh meal (the secret to success) and/or flour. But my mother, and now I, add a bit of baking powder and use the mixture for stuffing (which health authorities advise cooking separately these days). The taste melds perfectly with gravy.

    There are even more interesting options for main courses during these holidays. Perhaps you’d like to go way far afield, to India, where dinner for the Catholic community in Goa tends to favor pork vindaloo. It is a decidedly hot dish not for everyone, but you can tone down the heat.

    Chef Robert “RC” Carter of Cioppino Restaurant and Cigar Bar.

    Chef Robert “RC” Carter of Cioppino Restaurant and Cigar Bar.

    For Pittsburgh-style holiday creativity I reached out to Robert “RC” Carter, executive chef at the Strip’s Cioppino Restaurant and Cigar Bar (2350 Railroad St., 412-281-6593; cioppinoofpittsburgh.com). “Brisket is my favorite cut of beef. I grew up barbecuing at my mom’s restaurant in Detroit.  I didn’t discover the greatness of brisket until I did some traveling later in life,” he admits. “I fell in love with barbecuing, and when I discovered Texas barbecue I dove in head first—not only regarding the method but the reasoning and science behind it, what woods to use, temperatures to cook at. The most important thing is the cooker; there are many ways to get a tasty brisket, but an offset cooker is ideal.”

    Carter notes that there is a practical side to brisket: “I’ve found that brisket cooking works well for Christmas dinner. If I were preparing, for example, a prime rib I might have to worry about cooking to different temperatures for the preferences of various family members. I eat all my steaks rare or medium rare, and not everyone will agree. But brisket—a great cut of beef—is done well when well done.” Chef Carter pairs his brisket with a barbecue sauce that he has shared with us below; it sounds delicious and is a welcome, if surprising, change from fowl.

    What about the rest of your meal? There is a tantalizing variety from which to choose, representing so many cultural traditions.

    Chinese New Year treats are excellent appetizers with meaning that everyone can relate to. Dumplings and spring rolls, for instance, are associated with wealth.

    Try starting your meal with mushroom soup, a dish treasured at Orthodox Christmas (Jan. 7 in 2022), followed by a variety of cabbage-based dishes for accompaniments. Or explore the dishes of Kwanzaa, a nonreligious holiday celebrating the African American heritage (Dec. 26 to Jan. 1). Harvest foods inflected with the traditions of African cuisine take center stage. Sweet potato and celery root fries are a winner, as are stewed okra and tomatoes. Or, better yet to my tastebuds, crispy fried okra.

    Tired of pumpkin pie for dessert? Turn again to Channukah for sufganyot, jelly-filled doughnuts, or chocolate wafers wrapped in foil, which are readily available at most supermarkets. Or choose nut rolls, from the Orthodox tradition. Mawlid al-Nabi features special cookies made out of toasted semolina, melted butter, and honey, not to mention delicately scented rice pudding and baklava. No matter on which dates you are having your own holiday feasts, any of these options would satisfy the deepest sweet tooth.

    So, surprise your family with a new dish that might very well become a tradition. With the ingredients and finished products of the world at your fingertips down in the Strip, it is easy to expand your repertoire. Your palate will thank you—as will your family.

    Barbecue Sauce, for Brisket

    Makes 32 ounces of sauce. — Courtesy of Cioppino’s executive chef, Robert “RC” Carter.

    Ingredients:
    2 white onions, diced
    1/2 lb. garlic, very finely chopped or put through a press
    4 ancho chilis, rehydrated until soft in warm
    water, stems removed
    1/2 cup molasses
    1 cup (or an 8 oz. can) tomato paste
    2 cups apple cider vinegar

    Procedure:

    1. Heat a 1/8-in. layer of neutral vegetable oil to shimmering in a pot deep enough to accommodate all ingredients.
    2. Add the onions and stir to spread out;* reduce the heat.
    3. Add the garlic when the onions become translucent, stirring rapidly so they don’t stick to the bottom of the pan and begin browning too quickly.*
    4. Reduce the heat again and cook until the onion and garlic have caramelized, stirring regularly.
    5. Add the chilis, pressing them gently to encourage “melting” into the sauce.
    6. Carefully add the rest of the ingredients.*
    7. Stir gently until the tomato paste has been absorbed into the liquid.
    8. Finish in blender until smooth.
    9. Use in your favorite brisket recipe.

    * Note that care should be taken, as this process can produce steam, which can cause burns.

    Cynthia F. Weisfield is an art historian with a degree from the University of Chicago. She is a freelance writer whose articles about art and food appear regularly in multiple publications. She teaches classes about Abstract Expressionism and politics in art for Osher at CMU and Mt. Lebanon adult education.
    Photograph below by Mary Pegher

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