It is the belief of theologians, philosophers and psychologists that while food nourishes the body, family traditions nourish the soul. These persons of knowledge tell us that the practice of traditions in our lives mark off “sacred” time, a time that makes possible the duration of the “ordinary” time within which every human life must take its course. They further suggest that it is within this “sacred” time that generations pass on information, instruction and beliefs for future preservation. And that the security in the “sameness” of these practices both recreate and renew us, keeping things in balance, and giving us a sense of who we are and where we come from.
In the simpler times of my own youth, holiday food traditions were woven into the fabric of our family life. Each holiday, the women gathered in the kitchen to prepare the holiday feasts. Recipes were non-existent, and food was prepared from habit and by feel … a little of this and a pinch of that. And amidst the clanging of pots and pans, chatter and laughter, both young and old participated.
As a person of Polish ancestry, one of the holiday food traditions I grew up with was the making of Perogi, (a dumpling with fillings running the gamut from sweet to starchy). It was a difficult, delicate and time consuming task, but the rewards were worth the effort. Not only in pleasure to the palate, but in the pleasure of family communication.
Our Perogi was the starchy kind, filled with fried potatoes and onion. Its making required several steps, beginning with the grating and frying of the main ingredients, which were then set aside to cool. Next came the mixing of flour, egg and salt until the dough “felt” ready. Then followed the rolling and cutting of circles, filled, folded over, crimped like pie crust and set on cookie sheets awaiting the final steps. Pots of water brought to boil engulfing each Perogi, until rising to the surface a bright yellow; they were transferred to an awaiting bowl and smothered in butter. I have been known to eat as many as seven dozen at one sitting. But the best part was the frying of the leftovers served as breakfast the next morning.
I must confess, with the passing of my elders and the busyness of life, the tradition of holiday Perogi making is rarely practiced by our family today. But all has not been lost. About forty years ago I started another holiday food tradition … the making of caramels.
The original recipe for these Christmas treats came from a longtime friend. As stay-at-home moms, we spent endless hours together cracking and chopping walnuts for the recipe’s base. Then standing over a hot, syrupy mixture, we alternately added butter and cream, stirring constantly until it formed the required firm ball stage when dropped into cold water. Then, pouring the mixture into 9 by13 Pyrex dishes, when cooled we cut and individually wrapped each morsel. As with Perogi making, this, too, was a difficult, delicate, time consuming task with great rewards. And like my ancestors, my friend and I laughed and chattered and bonded our friendship throughout the process.
Now that my grandchildren are old enough to safely help me prepare this candy, we are carrying on a new generational tradition. Although I have altered the recipe over the years, using pre-chopped pecans, instead of hand-cracked and chopped walnuts, and have added rum flavoring to the mix, the process remains much the same.
Each year a few weeks before Christmas, my grandchildren gather with me in the kitchen. Everyone does their part. The younger ones grease the dishes with butter, sprinkling nuts across the bottom. Then they cut waxed paper into squares in preparation for wrapping. Those old enough to work the stove are in charge of alternating ingredients and stirring until the mixture reaches the desired temperature. Grandma is in charge of pouring, so no one gets burnt. When the mixtures cool everyone participates in cutting and wrapping.
As we work, we talk, joke and even have some serious discussions. It is an opportunity to ask and answer questions and express ourselves in a safe environment. And it gives us all time to get to know each other a little better.
One link in this tradition may be broken this year as my eldest grandchild, Jesee, enters college and moves into her own apartment. As she takes her own life’s path, it is an exciting but also sad time for all the family. This life process leaves me wondering if she will want to participate in this year’s family holiday food tradition. But then I remember the words of Tevye (from “Fiddler on the Roof”) - “traditions … without them, our lives might be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof” – and I know that whether she continues to participate or not, the bond with family has been secured, and whatever choices she might make that bond will never be broken.