Food and these winter holidays are trussed like a Christmas crown roast: latkes at Hanukkah, turkey or ham at Christmas, collards and black- eyed peas at New Year’s. Our food traditions run through these waning days of the year like strands of lights wrapped around the individual boughs of our family trees.
There is a strong likelihood that if you enjoyed what you did as a child, you’re keeping some semblance of it now. Perhaps you are still the traveling guest, worried about how to keep the glass top on the steaming green bean casserole. Or now you’re the host and you’ve been in the kitchen more than your bed the last 48 hours.
Some families gather around a groaning table of savorings, but others have their own traditions. Some pop over to the club for a pre-ordained menu, while others prefer the simplicity of a Waffle House menu. We all have to eat at the holidays, so the festivities are freighted with food.
Sensory memories for me at Christmas are as much about smell and taste as sight. This time of year, Mom and Grandma would be spending time in the kitchen, a tight little galley of a cooking space compared to today’s kitchens that more resemble the size of a Costco.
In the lead-up to Christmas, it would be cookies coming out of the oven: chocolate chip, peanut butter (with a fork used to crosshatch the tops) and snowballs, or what I guess today would be called Danish wedding cookies. Grandma would also make a type of peanut butter cookie with a Hershey’s Kiss perched in the center.
The cramped countertops would have waxed paper stretched across, allowing the cookies to cool in their regimented rows. I am sure Mom did that to make sure she could count what we pinched. And when a batch of chocolate chip cookies was done and the bowl needed “cleaning” before cleaning, it was a war of attrition among brothers to see who could get as many fingers around the edges.
But the cookies were just the warm-up act. The real holiday baking came from Dad, who did his Hungarian heritage proud by laboring for hours to make a series of traditional pastries such as poppy seed rolls, nut rolls and fruit rolls (mostly apricot ).
Dad would hand-shell the walnuts for his nut rolls and rent a grinder to grind them and the poppy seeds. He made the dough and fillings by hand. The rolls came out of the oven and, once cooled would be apportioned: ones to keep, ones to freeze for later enjoyment, ones to give away as gifts.
All the baking, of course, was mere prelude for the main holiday dish: lasagne. My grandmother came over as a little girl from Potenza, near the arch of the “boot” that is Italy.
Together, they’d start with the sauce. The key, they taught us boys, was three meats — beef, sausage and a pork chop or even a bit of lamb — to cook the sauce, the base of which came from cans of Progresso tomatoes. And that sauce simmered all day.
Assembling a lasagne takes work and space — and cheese. Ladle in the sauce, layer in the noodles, spoon in the Polly-O ricotta (liberally applied) and then a gracious sprinkling of hand-grated Polly-O mozzarella. Then, repeat until you get to the top of the pan.
The pans — there were usually two — were groaning by the end. I bet each was at least 10 pounds.
Complexity and work all went into preparation. The dinner itself was simple: a full dish included a stacked square of gooey, steaming lasagne, salad (bottled Italian dressing, sadly) and freshly made garlic bread.
Mom and Grandma’s traditions live on today. Each year, I make a lasagne in a similar style to feed the family. My brother Paul, in Durham, makes an excellent one as well, though he’s added his own tweaks over the years. While he puts the meat in his lasagne, I pull mine from the sauce and serve it on the side. And he does something special with basil I just can’t seem to beat.
Each Christmas season when we get together, Paul and I still go pan-to-pan. Maybe one of these years, we’ll do it in the same kitchen. Chances are, some good Scotch would probably get consumed along the way too.
As for dad’s Hungarian pastries, none of us has ever even attempted what he accomplished. Some things live — and taste — best in memory.
Contact editor John Nagy at (910) 693-2507 or email@example.com.