December 23, 2008
Does your family have a traditional holiday dish that you eat at only one time of year—and for good reason? It’s not that the dish tastes bad. Maybe it requires obscure ingredients or specialized equipment, or maybe it takes an absurd amount of time or upper body strength to prepare. Is there some recipe you make that, in its disdain for modern conveniences, makes you feel sort of Amish for the day?
In my family it’s lefse, a Scandinavian potato tortilla (basically). You peel potatoes (get all the eyes or they’ll come back to haunt you), boil them, mash them, rice them, mix them with flour and cream and butter and sugar, press the mix into loaf pans, chill overnight (yes, it takes two days), cut into slices, roll VERY thin, use a lefse stick to drape one piece onto a lefse griddle, bake, flip, and fold. Then slather it with butter and sugar, roll it up, and eat. (Or follow the directions in poem form.)
Several people around Smithsonian.com HQ have similar stories. Sarah from Surprising Science says her mom makes Polish cookies: “Cruschiki are little knots of crispy fried dough covered in powdered sugar. The recipe has several steps, and the dough is hard to roll out.”
An associate editor’s parents make baccala, a fish soup. The hardest part is finding the main ingredient—salted, dried cod—and then you have to soak the cod until it’s plump and some of the salt has dissolved away.
Beth, from Around the Mall, brought in caramels the other day made according to her grandma’s recipe. Beth says that if the preparation goes really wrong, the burned caramel sticks to the pot and you have to throw the pot away.
A Venezuelan friend of Diane makes hallacas. You roll a complicated mixture of meats and spices up in a cornmeal dough, then wrap with plantain leaves and steam. A lot of work, but a great excuse for friends or family to sit around a table together getting their hands dirty.
Anika‘s mom makes Jalebi, “a fried funnel cake covered in sugary syrup. It requires saffron, cardamom, and a kadhai (the Indian version of a wok).”
Andrea, who used to live in Greece, says cookies called melomakarona appear there this time of year. They are made of honey, lemon juice, walnuts and semolina. She points out that the ingredients would have been available in ancient Greece, possibly traded by the Phoenicians, and an alternate name for the cookies is “Phoenikia.”
Jesse‘s dad’s side of the family makes fried oysters, which used to be readily available only around Christmas. His mom makes pizzelles—thin, waffle-like cookies that require a special iron, and are “supposed to be the culinary equivalent of catching snowflakes on your tongue.”
Aside from a few odd proteins (or, in Hugh’s case, ethanol), most of these family traditions seem to involve a lot of starch and sugar, nature’s two finest food groups. Everybody feeling nostalgic now? Or maybe just hungry? Let us know about your own quirky traditional dishes.
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