Diversity, By Fork
How food and family unite us all
We’ve taken a trip around the globe without ever leaving town by celebrating the holiday traditions of England, Paraguay, and Jerusalem. Diversity makes our community fuller, more colorful, more interesting. And what unites us all is how families celebrate love through food.
Faith Pedowitz hosts as many as 80 family members at her home on the Sunday during Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of light. For this, she serves potato latkes with sour cream and apple sauce, the culinary mainstays of Hanukkah. Pedowitz’s apple sauce has become a local delicacy: she makes it in October with sweet Asian pears and sharp “Stark” apples picked from her 100 year-old orchard. The sauce is then frozen and saved for December. “The idea at Hanukkah is to eat foods that are fried in oil,” she explains. Her latkes contain shredded parsnip as well as chives “for an interesting taste and a bit of color,” she says. She also serves fried zucchini fritters. “In Biblical times, the Jewish people were rededicating their temple in Jerusalem after it was desecrated by the Romans. The Jewish congregation had enough oil to last one night for the rededication, but the lamps burned for eight nights. Foods cooked in oil are traditional in honor of the miracle of light,” explains Pedowitz. So while zucchini fritters are not normally served at Hanukkah, “they do fit with the theme.”
The latkes are best served immediately after frying, but most hosts don’t want to spend their party frying things in oil in the kitchen, “so I make them in the morning and heat them in the oven before we serve them. The candles on the menorah are lit at sundown—our parties are late in the afternoon so that we can light the candles together and then eat.
“My mother’s family came to the US from Poland, and we all get together as the whole extended family on Hanukkah every year as far back as I can remember as a child. Generation after generation we keep up with each other.”
Mincemeat dates back as far as the medieval period in the UK, and its ingredients have evolved over the centuries. It is baked in small, fingerfood-sized pies or tarts, usually topped with a pastry decoration and sprinkled with powdered sugar, then served alongside other desserts at holiday parties. Contrary to what the name implies, modern mincemeat doesn’t actually contain meat, although sometimes lard is used to bind the mixture (most people use vegetable shortening now). It’s a concoction of stewed apples, currants, raisins, and Christmas-y spices like nutmeg and cinnamon all cooked in brandy and left to stew—and stored in the freezer often several months before Christmas.
As it is at Christmastime in England, holiday baking is a Bartholomew family activity in Bedford, especially when toddler Daisy helps her mother Raquel to roll pastry and cut star shapes for the tops of the pies. The recipe the family uses comes from Raquel’s mother-in-law. On Christmas Eve, English families leave a mince pie, a glass of something alcoholic, and some carrots for Rudolph by the fireplace.
“Father Christmas—or Santa, as he is called in America—most certainly does not eat cookies nor drink milk in the UK,” says Bartholomew. “All our American friends leave milk and cookies, but in England we leave mince pies and either sherry, port, or whiskey. That is the difference in our culture—we are oblivious to the problematic idea that Santa would be drinking and then driving his sleigh,” she laughs. “The job of English parents is to make sure that before the children get up the next morning the mince pies and carrots have been ‘eaten’ by Santa and Rudolph and that the presents are safely under the tree. This involves some stealthy tactics.”
In Paraguay, Rosie Aguilera and her mother would bake sopa—which is served alongside huge batches of meats (pork or beef) roasted in a barbeque called an “asado”—for herfamily to eat at Christmastime. Sopa is mostly cooked by the women in the family with recipes passed down from grandmothers to mothers to daughters, and it’s baked in a huge clay oven—similar to a brick pizza oven. “What is important about sopa is its simplicity,” says Aguilera. Lightly flavored, the mix of corn, cheese, onion, black and red beans, and spices reflects the national foods of the country. “We are people of very simple tastes, and we serve very simple food,” says Aguilera. “Sopa means ‘soup’ in Spanish, even though it’s not a soup at all,” she explains.
It’s the perfect accompaniment to the rich meat that is barbecued by the men. Alongside the sopa, chipa—a sweet bread shaped into a donut-like ring—is also baked in the huge oven and used to adorn the Christmas tree. The Aguileras—Rosie, her husband Ramon, and her son Marcello—have about 25 people come to share this special supper, served at midnight on Christmas Eve. The children run around searching for the chipa on the trees—like an Easter egg hunt. Whoever finds the chipa gets to eat it. Also served with the chipa is dulce de patata, a honey-colored bar made with potatoes, sweet and delicate in flavor, and dulce de mani, a syrup made from sugar cane.
The decorative focus of the Christmas Eve festivities is the nativity scene with the sleeping baby Jesus (right). At midnight, the pesebre is decorated and lit with candles, and after that takes place, everyone, including children, eats their late night supper.