The meals we share during the holidays are so much more than just food. Holiday dishes can bring our families together, tear them apart, remind us of our traditions or forge new ones. Here, four people tell us about their most treasured holiday dish.
Freya Wasteneys // Managing Editor
I used to beg my grandmother to let me lick the filling off the spoon. Sweet and tangy, it was made from the wrinkly brown blobs that looked a little like bugs, mashed into a paste. Sticky prunes. Then, sitting on the counter, I would pinch the thick cookie-like dough into my mouth as Grandma put layer after layer into the gas oven. With each open and close, the heat would whoosh over my sockless feet dangling off the counter. “Can you tell me a story about Dad when he was little?” With each layer, another story.
Some cakes have layers—vínarterta has seven. It takes four hours to make, and up to four weeks to mature. It’s a labour-intensive, traditionally Icelandic dish, made to eat during the holidays with tea and coffee, particularly après-ski. For Grandma, it was a labour of love—a way to cling to her father’s Icelandic ancestry, an assertion of her sense of identity.
She passed away without leaving the recipe, but the internet has left a legacy of suggestions. Each year my family strays a little further from the traditionally low-sugar cake—adding a little more sugar here, and a little less prune there. Following tradition, but making it our own, we try to remember the stories Grandma told us as we lick batter and filling off spoons. There’s meaning in layers after all.
Kaileigh Bunting // Contributor
In my family, the holidays have never been much about gift-giving or spending outrageous amounts of money on material items. Instead, when thinking about Christmas, I’m overwhelmed with childhood nostalgia catalyzed by different smells and tastes. This feeling engulphs me in the weeks leading up to the holidays and never fails to generate warmth in my chest. Classic Christmas jingles play softly in the background, and like stepping through a portal into the past, I am five years old again. I drag a small wooden chair over to my mother who is in the kitchen and manage to perch myself next to her by the stove. Ah-ha! I am just tall enough to peek into the large pot she is stirring. Instantly, my nose is filled with sweet hues of butterscotch and notes of maple syrup. My mouth is watering, and the heat from the stove makes my cheeks warm. I can’t wait to try whatever this decadent dessert is. “Penuchi,” my Mother says when I ask her what is in the large pot. This a word I can’t yet pronounce, but I still nod. My mother tells me that this recipe has been passed down by my Great Grandmother who was an immigrant to the prairies of Saskatchewan in the late 1920s. I nod some more and I ask to lick the spoon when it’s done. Mother laughs. I try to help cook, but to my disappointment, I’m too short to stir the pot. In fear of burning myself, Mother kicks me out of the kitchen. To this day, Penuchi remains my favourite Christmas tradition. Made with brown sugar, condensed milk and maple syrup, it’s a golden, square-shaped fudge that goes well with a good scotch or dark hot chocolate. I credit my mother for making it perfectly every year and can’t wait to lick the spoon clean again this holiday season.
Theodore Abbott // Contributor
The food cooked within my grandmother’s kitchen transcends itself and becomes an inextricable part of the household. Each chair, couch, wall and cabinet has been permeated over centuries with the earthy smell of garden picked vegetables. As I stumble into Grandma’s kitchen, I’m instantly reminded of what a kitchen is supposed to be. Every 11pm, last-minute meal had standing over my sink is forgotten, and I’m once again reunited with the ritual of cooking and eating. Of all the unforgettable meals she’s served during the holidays, her lentil soup is my favourite. Within this meal the ease of simplicity works to refine the details of perfection, and it is here in the rubble of this broken dichotomy that we find a soup that is simply perfect. My grandma’s lentil soup needs no dollop of sour cream or buttered bread to accompany it. Standing alone, this bowl of perfectly saturated legumes represents decadence, an epitome of comfort food. For Grandma, the process of cooking is tantamount to that of enjoying what she has created. As food nurtures the soul, the act of making it calms the mind.
Valeria Velazquez // Contributor
Although mashed potatoes might not be a traditional Mexican Christmas food, they certainly are in my family. Mom always makes them for the holidays because they’re easy to make, delicious and everyone in my house loves them. Creamy and buttery with a hint of rosemary, they’re always the first thing that runs out, even before the sweets. When I was a kid she would make me boil them, and then my brother and I would take turns mashing them. If only one of us did it, we’d get too tired, and wake up the next day with a sore arm from the massive amounts of potatoes we had to mash. As I grew older, my ideals surrounding food changed: I became vegan. I could no longer enjoy them, so I tried to come up with a vegan alternative for them. Although it might sound like something that could be easily turned vegan, let me tell you—it wasn’t. I tried for three years to make vegan mashed potatoes that tasted just as good as my Mom’s, but couldn’t. I’d end up watching the rest of my family enjoy those succulent mashed potatoes while I ate my knock-off vegan version of them (which actually turned out to be more expensive). What made Mom’s mashed potatoes so special wasn’t the ingredients she used. It was the fact that she made them with love: to share with the family on Christmas, where we’d all gather at the dinner table to eat (while my parents tried to stop my brother from throwing mashed potatoes at me when I pissed him off).