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A Taste for Tradition

Family foods feed the soul at the holidays and other occasions.

This past week I attended my first Seder, the Jewish Passover meal. For those you who have not experienced one, families and friends gather to read from the Haggadah and enjoy a traditional meal.

While the Haggadah, the symbolic foods of the meal and seder plate remain fairly consistent (and have for hundreds of years), the main course and side dishes are based on family traditions and preferences. 

Take, for example, one side dish that we ate—charoses. It symbolically represents the mortar the Israelites used to bond bricks when they were slaves. But that’s where the symbolism ends and family tradition comes in. My friend’s version had apples, golden raisins, honey and cinnamon. Another guest of the meal brought charoses made with mango and cranberries. Both were absolutely delicious. Many versions include other fruits, walnuts or almonds.

After such a wonderful, inviting experience, I started thinking about my family's holiday meals and what traditions we carry from year to year. Honestly, I couldn’t think of anything that carried with it such tradition, history and meaning as the charoses did. When I’m at my parents’ house in New Orleans, sure, we always have ham (basted in brown sugar and Coke) at Easter, and we always have shrimp and squash casserole at Christmas, but there was no real meaning behind those dishes, like the foods in the Haggadah. 

I remembered a meringue cookie my mother-in-law made with my daughters last Easter. You add certain ingredients that have meaning in the story of Christ, such as egg whites and vinegar, and then you put the “dough” in the oven, turn off the temperature and keep the oven closed until the next day. In the morning the cookies are complete and they are hollow, just like Christ's empty tomb. 

And I also remembered Catholics don’t eat meat on Lenten Fridays as a sacrifice and remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice. (I have to add that growing up in the coastal community of New Orleans, it wasn’t very much of a sacrifice to give up a burger for good, abundant seafood.)

As engrained as the food is in our family traditions, is it really about the food?  Or is it about the family and friends that gather with us to share the recipes and traditions, tell a family story or read from the Bible or Haggadah? An important part of the Seder meal is the discussion that occurs about the readings.

But sometimes it is about the food. Do you want a Thanksgiving with no turkey? I certainly don’t want a birthday without cake. And if we didn’t serve Noodles Romanoff at Easter dinner, I don’t know what my husband would do. We’ve taken the time to write down some of these recipes and share them with family members to make sure that they can be passed down from generation to generation. 

And I guess ultimately it is the combination of the two—the family and the food—that make our holidays so special. I wouldn't want to be without either.

Susan Carroll April 26, 2011 at 04:05 PM
I am a very nostalgic, sentimental person, so this article really hits home for me. I am so glad you've made sure to write down your recipes. There are some things my grandma and her sisters used to make at holidays that are now lost to history because nobody thought to write them down.
Elizabeth Major April 27, 2011 at 04:29 AM
If your grandma was like mine though it would be hard to write down. My grandma never measured - would just throw the ingredients together, knowing by touch how much to use after making something for so many years. I managed to write down her way of making gnocchi only by watching her make them but haven't quite mastered them yet ...

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