A Taste of Christmas

Wednesday, December 24, AD 2008

One of the things I love most about our country is that it is not a state built to give expression to a particular “nationality” in the sense that swept the world like an plague in the 19th and 20th centuries. Our country shares a set of political ideals and cultural touchstones, but it is also a glorious mix of different traditions which we, as a nation of immigrants, have brought with us and continued to develop here.

In honor of which — and because it seemed to me that perhaps we could use a “getting to know each other” thread around here — I take the liberty of cross posting the following from my personal blog:

The feast of the nativity of Our Lord has traditionally been a time for feasting and the gathering of family and friends. And since taste and smell are powerful hooks for memory, many of us have intense connections to various Christmas foods and drinks. The other holiday here in the US which is heavily food-centric is Thanksgiving, yet with a few familial variations, the Thanksgiving food palette is pretty well defined. Christmas food traditions, however, are pretty various.

The following are the foods that I most closely associate with Christmas. Please feel free to add your own favorite Christmas food memories in the comments or in a post on your own blog.

The central dish for our family Christmas dinner varied from year to year, sometimes a Christmas ham (baked with cloves stuck all over it and a sherry and brown sugar glaze) and sometimes a turkey. So the dinner I remember most was actually one seldom if ever eaten on Christmas day itself: My grandmother’s tamales. Nearly every year, shortly before Christmas, my Ramirez grandmother would have all her daughters over for a day of tamale making — and my mom would bring home her share of three or four dozen tamales. Pork, beef, and chicken tamales. Yum. Living as I do now far away (and tamale making being a big enough production that my mother seldom attempts it on her own) I try every so often to recapture my memories with locally bought tamales — but as with any grandmother-made dish, the stuff I buy is never as good.

From the other side of the family, my strong memory is of the rum balls which my dad made most years, according to the recipe handed on from his father. One batch of rum balls included 16oz of dark rum, and seeing as the mixture was not cooked, eating one left a distinct alcoholic burn in the mouth. I recall that cocoa powder, vanilla wafers, pecans and rum were all involved, and the result was generously dusted with powdered sugar. One of these days I’ll have to get hold of the recipe and try it out — as we did with my grandfather’s recipe for fraternity eggnog last year.

The third taste which is definingly Christmas-like to me is that of thick, fresh gingerbread cookies. Too often, in an effort to make something that will last months in the form of a gingerbread man or house, these are cooked until rock hard, or made with too much flower to make them denser and harder. But to my mind the perfect gingerbread cookie (my mother’s recipe, of course) is thick and soft under the teeth, with strong tastes of molasses and ginger. I generally make these at least once each year, though we don’t overdue it as poor MrsD can’t stand the taste or smell of molasses.