When we’re not marketing food, we’re discussing, praising, preparing, or consuming it. Does this qualify us to discuss the holidays? You bet your fruitcake. No matter who, where, or how you are, your holiday memories involve food. The holidays don’t exist because of food, but they probably wouldn’t exist without it. I could recommend trying to imagine the holiday season without food, but I won’t—the thought is very, very terrible.
I joke, but I also take food seriously. We, as a group of people, take food seriously, and we’re all incredibly grateful for the simple blessing of a table, a loved one, and something to eat. Food matters a lot, maybe more than ever, at the holidays. This year, we decided to spend time reflecting on the ways that food shaped our holidays past and how, finally, it became such an important part of who we are that we would end up together at a food marketing agency.
What you see below are the results of that reflection. Each of us created a visual and a short description to communicate something of the connection between food and the holidays. We enjoyed doing this (obviously, as it was another excuse to think about food), and we hope that you reflect on and enjoy your own food traditions this holiday season.
I love being on vacation between Christmas and the new year. In addition to Christmas and all of the beauty and wonder it represents, it affords me precious time with my family and allows me to do things I never have time for otherwise. One of those things has become a Christmas-break ritual: an Amtrak ride to Washington, Missouri. This 45-minute train ride transports us from the city to a small, slow-moving town on the Missouri River. “Slow-moving” is not typical of my everyday life. I love this trip.
We move from small shop to small shop and buy Christmas ornaments, drink hot chocolate, and search for the perfect new train car to add to Aidan’s train set. The shop owners are proud of their entrepreneurial endeavors, as they should be. We then go to Grafton, Illinois, to peruse antique shops and find the perfect location to spy (and photograph) the awesome bald eagles that claim Grafton as their winter home. We return home, where, between meeting family and friends, I give attention to “rescheduled” photo, sewing, and organization projects.
As for food, one would think that since I’ve been in the food industry for half my life, I’d be a great cook. I do most of the average cooking and leave the majority of the great cooking to my husband Phil. One area that I have mastered, though, is the Santa Cookie. I make standard sugar cookies and transform them into candy canes, snowflakes, stars, Santas, and Christmas cats (my son’s idea). Add to that list chocolate-peanut butter dream bars, Andes mint cookies (which Aidan affectionately refers to as Grinch cookies), peanut butter chocolate kisses, chocolate coconut cookies, and Neiman Marcus chocolate chip cookies. Then I top all that off with a grand gingerbread house.
My Santa Cookies don’t hold a candle to Phil’s stolen, smoked brisket, or cream-cheese laden mashed potatoes, but Aidan is amazed by my work. He still believes in Santa, so he doesn’t know that I eat the 8-10 Santa cookies left near the fireplace. It’s a tough job. I love the holiday break.
Consider Christmas dinner. Go ahead, imagine what’s about to happen. I’ll give you a moment.
There is reason for concern. To be sure, there is kinship and laughter, food and good cheer, but this is, after all, the night of the nativity: a baby is in a barn, and that means dirt and discomfort and awkwardness all around. Yes, it’s a night for miracles, but there’s still a lot of dark between the star and the stable.
Now, consider the Christmas dinner of your childhood. What would you like to have back?
I wouldn’t blame you for naming things—the kid’s table, pajamas, Peanuts on the TV screen. But that’s not what you want. You don’t want the things you had; you want the safety, security, and hope you felt. You want to feel what you’ve lost. I want to feel, for just one second, the freedom from struggle and worry, from the conflict and pressure that the grown-ups at the grown-ups’ table carried for me, from which they protected me, from which they saved me. Only now, I would know why I felt such joy, I would know whom to thank, and I would understand Christmas.
Our first Thanksgiving in St. Louis, my wife and I had yet to make many friends, and we certainly didn’t invite family (plane tickets from Korea were a little out-of-budget). We also failed, apparently, to invite food from the store to our refrigerator. We knew that having a nice meal is a holiday tradition in America, so we decided to go out for just that. Unfortunately, the people who serve nice meals were having their own nice meals in the comfort of their own nicely stocked homes. We went to several places, all of which greeted us with closed signs, until, finally, we spotted a small Chinese storefront, lighted and electric and warm.
Never had I been so grateful for a cheap meal. I’d never been so happy to talk to an employee. I knew it wasn’t literally true, but I believed that the three men preparing our Thanksgiving Chinese meal were the only people in St. Louis working, and they did so with a smile. I call them my chop suey saints.
A month later, when Christmas arrived, we had learned from our lack of Thanksgiving preparation and done some grocery shopping a few days before Christmas. But when the day came, something about the food seemed off. It didn’t seem special. We didn’t feel grateful for it. We couldn’t. Not after Thanksgiving. So we got in our car, drove to see the saints at the Chinese takeout, and enjoyed the best Christmas dinner ever.
My father is from Austria, and one way he keeps tradition alive is through our Austrian-style chocolate store. Though we offer seasonal items year-round, Christmas is the big holiday, and it shows in the store, which transforms into a full-blown Old World of decorations and chocolates. My father spends day after day in the candy kitchen pumping out chocolate Santas ranging in size from one inch to three feet tall. As much of a site to behold as they were, these Santas were never the bees’ knees in my eyes. Maybe that’s because I wasn’t allowed to eat a hollow Santa from the store (there was so much labor involved, they were meant only for selling). I’m not sure. What I do know is that the chocolate wreaths my father hand-presses were the most delicious item in the store, and even better, much easier to sneak off the shelf than a toddler-sized chocolate Santa.
My father uses every single day of his 50 years of experience to delicately press perfectly round wreaths, making sure they’re not too fat or skinny. My brothers and I have tried for years to come close to matching the care and perfection of his wreaths, but there’s no doubt who’s the master chocolatier in our family. But no matter, as all we’re really concerned about is enjoying the Austrian tradition wherein we hang foiled chocolate ornaments on the tree and eat them on Christmas Eve.
To this day, when I hear that my father is making wreaths, I feel a rush of Christmas spirit. I recall a store packed with customers ordering wreaths by the pound for their loved ones, and I consider what a gift it was to grow up in a chocolate wonderland.
Fruitcake has nothing on stollen because no one has anything on my great grandmother. Were this loaf-shaped product offered to me by a stranger, I would probably refuse (“Thank you for the kind offer of a fruit-filled cake loaf covered in ornamental fruits, nuts, and sweet drizzles, but I must decline”), but it was passed down from great grandmother. Even if the President of the United States were to say, “Phil, let me introduce you to this fruitcake made of yeast, water, and flour with a touch of citrus zest applied to the dough and perhaps some raisins and a hint of cardamom,” I would ask, “Are you my great grandmother? I don’t think you are, and due to your failure to be great grandmother, I must refuse.” Not even Santa could convince me to eat this monster of a pastry (the typical stollen weighs around four pounds), not unless he knew great grandmother, who left this out one night with his glass of milk.
Stollen is something best eaten with heritage in mind. Something best swallowed with a grain of tradition and pride. Otherwise, it’s just another fruitcake.
I should feel more conflicted about the holiday season, I suppose, but I’m an expert mingler. Latke, sufganiyot, kugel, eggnog, reindeer cookie, Christmas ham? Yes, please. Though the traditions clash on the menu, the food itself, once prepared and set before me and my family, brings us together. The food, as in most cultures, is what centers us, what nourishes us, what daily calls us to each other. It’s no surprise, then, that my favorite memories of the holiday season involve a dinner table, candles, family, friends, and the food that tells me that I belong.
When I think of holiday food, I think of my mother. And when I combine my mother with the holidays, I get cookies. Lots and lots of holiday-themed cookies. A veritable smorgasbord of a mosaic of cookies. My mother has baked so many different cookie shapes over the course of my Christmas life that if you were to lay them all out on a table, you would have on your hands the greatest edible Christmas puzzle of all time. That would truly be the gift that keeps on giving, suitable for ages 3 and up.
Ah, Christmas. Maybe it was the flannel shirts or the dim lights so-slightly illuminating the dining room table; perhaps it’s just age fuzzing my memories, but when I recall Christmas as a child, I remember the distinct presence of a soft Christmas glow. A Barbara Walters interview kind of glow. I remember not the Santa Claus bearing gifts but the one gracing cans of Coca-Cola. Coke tasted better during Christmas, a little bit sweeter at the start and definitely crisper at the finish. I remember a spread of mini-sandwiches and assorted finger foods and sweets adorning the dining room table. I liked the Swedish meatballs okay, and I legitimately enjoyed the little bread slices with the cheese and sausage spread, but nothing beat the crab rangoon. Those rangoon weren’t innately magical, I suppose—no family recipe, no ancient Chinese secret. Let’s be honest, Mom would thoughtlessly pluck a box of them from the freezer at the store and check them, like a bored supermarket elf, off her list. But they were so, so good, especially when combined with Christmas coke.
A gastronomist might tell you that I was reacting to the saltiness of the wonton combined with the semi-sweetness of the imitation crab and cream cheese “filling” followed by the palate-cleansing crispness of the Santa coke. But we all know that childhood memories are less clinical than that—they’re more magical, softer, fuzzier. They glow. They’re like Christmas.
The holidays are about making things work, about taking things that probably shouldn’t be together, or aren’t expected to work together, and making something meaningful. As a child, I longed for the holidays not for the Jim Reeves album Twelve Songs of Christmas featuring, on eternal repeat, “The Merry Christmas Polka” but for the food, the homemade fudge, the buckeyes and sugar, and the cookies. The production line for this smorgasbord started at Thanksgiving and stretched through December until every bag of Chex mix was filled and every peanut butter cookie browned.
Jim Reeves sang on as, after all the food was prepared, we wrapped it and packed it into the deep freezer. The deep freezer was huge. The deep freezer was a polar bear cave in our house. The deep freezer contained half a cow, which we butchered every fall. No one ever said that the cookies we gave them (as Christmas day approached, we’d prepare goodie trays from all the stuff we made and give them to friends and relatives for Christmas treats) tasted of beef—after all, it was Christmas time, and that’s when things come together.
Growing up in an organic vegetarian family, my holiday food experiences most definitely did not involve turkey or canned cranberries. Instead, I looked forward to the very exciting idea of eating snow and icicles during the holidays. I would consume gallons of snow and icicles over the course of a typical winter. I crunched, chewed, and cracked the ice and snow in every form that presented itself to me. And the little dirt flecks from the local traffic? I called that seasoning.
My design concept, a snowflake, pays homage to my obsession with frozen water. It’s no surprise, then, that the first things I drew as an artist-in-training many moons ago were snowflakes. I became obsessed not only with consuming them but also with creating them in my mind. From there, my drawing capabilities grew to include elaborate mandalas. And from those mandalas, a career in graphic design. In retrospect, it seems somehow natural that such an odd childhood obsession would grow into a lifelong career.
When I think of holiday food, I think of my mom making buckeyes and buttery sugar cookies shaped like traditional Christmas icons. I think of my grandma’s homemade bread—the incredible smell and warmth of the kitchen as she slaved away cooking 10 or 12 loaves for Christmas Eve dinner (the same bread that I now make to carry on the tradition). I think of the many cans of Busch beer that my uncles merrily swilled while playing cards or shooting pool late into the evening. In a close-knit family full of good cooks, great family recipes, and bountiful holiday meals, there’s no shortage of food-related memories and experiences to recount, but the one that sticks out in my mind most vividly is the tradition of the brown bag of goodies at Grandma Schipkowski’s house on Christmas Eve.
There were a lot of grandchildren, and each one of us would have a plain brown paper sack, with our name written on it, waiting under the tree until after dinner when it was time to open gifts. Despite the fact that the sack contained pretty much the exact same items in it every year—a box of cracker jacks, an orange, an apple, a bunch of nuts (Brazil nuts, hazelnuts, chestnuts, walnuts, and almonds, typically, all in their shell), and sometimes a box of raisins—this was one of the most anticipated parts of the holiday season for me. Maybe it was the anticipation, maybe it was the fact that you could look at that plain brown bag with your name on it and envision any manner of surprises within, knowing full well that a change to the routine might just upset the natural order of things. And maybe that’s the point.
The comfort and consistency of this one gift above all others resonates in my mind when I think of holiday food. On this 13th year since Grandma’s passing (the last time I received the brown bag of goodies), it will be my son’s first Christmas, and I want to ensure that it will be the little things, the traditions, the warmth and the anticipation, that paint the most vivid pictures throughout his childhood, too.
Chicken and dumplings, chocolate silk pie, green bean casserole, roast beef and gravy, and cookies. Every variety of cookie you could ever want or imagine, and all my relatives, their relatives, and my great aunts loaded us up with them. We ate cookies from Christmas day until we finished the last crumbling, stale bite in late January. This is mostly how I remember the Christmas food of my childhood.
Being somewhat of a pragmatist and an artist, I couldn’t reconcile putting this menu of items into a painting. It would take too long and would, most likely, violate my aesthetic sensibilities. So I chose a more unconventional and simple memory: Christmas breakfast. Christmas breakfast was not really about food. Christmas breakfast was about love.
Every year, I would stay, for several days, with my immediate family and my multitude of cousins, aunts, and uncles at my grandparents’ house in Chester, IL. It was a large house. But not so large that my grandpa couldn’t detect a batch of cousins creeping down the old servant staircase and into the kitchen, our eyes crusted and hair matted, at any time of the morning. He could have been reading the paper, playing a game of cards, or watching a tv show, but when he heard us, none of that mattered. All that mattered to him was finding us in the kitchen and making fresh breakfast for ten. That’s how my grandpa loved us. He loved us with attention, with care, and with food.
I attempted to capture the spirit of my grandpa’s house in this painting. As I reflected on those morning breakfasts (and the sheer generosity of them), I remembered the striped shag carpet in my grandparents’ family room. It was very, very ugly, but I liked it. I liked it because it was more than a rug; it was a repository, a reward for those small enough and patient enough to search. Look hard enough into its shaggy depths, and you’d find gifts without end: rings, earrings, crumbs, toy parts, you name it. My canvas, then, is that rug, and in its stripes hide the gifts—bacon, eggs, pancakes, coffee, Chester chocolate milk, and Sunny Delight—of grandpa’s Christmas breakfast.