The new year is here and with it, new holidays and plenty of new things to celebrate and be thankful for.
When it comes to the holidays, what favorite foods come to mind? When you think of those recipes, are they dishes that you associate with family and friends or a time and place? When you go to your local market, can find you those ingredients readily on the shelves or do you have travel someplace far from where you live to find them? And then, with the foodstuffs in hand to make your dish, can do you do it instinctually, off the top of your head or do you, like so many of us, need to go and seek out the recipe?
For most of my life I have loved to cook at home, but only in the past 15 years or so have I gravitated toward using recipes. Holiday cooking makes using recipes even more merry and fun. I love to use a bright and shiny new cookbook, knowing that it will get broken in and soiled, but I equally enjoy poring over stacks of gently used books from my local second hands when I seek out new treasures to make. As much as I love the touch and feel of books, I know that for simplicity’s sake I can always fall back onto the myriad cookery sites found online for super fast recipe information and clarification. In the end, though, what really thrills me most about pulling together holiday treats is that I get to channel my inner-abuela or some great old Uncle so that when I make the grand old family recipes, they come straight from the heart.
Holidays are particularly important when it comes to making these old family dishes just so. For many families there are certain, particular ways of making a dish, no variations necessary or appreciated. That, in turn, leaves many new and current family members bamboozled as to why that is. But to please both new and old relatives, they make those dishes a certain, particular way year after year, no questions asked. That reminds me of the old vaudeville routine about the husband instructing his new wife on how to roast the holiday ham, making sure to slice off both ends of the ham before putting it in the oven. She was curious to know where that particular tradition started but since the husband didn’t know they asked the husband’s mother why it was done that way. She didn’t know so they went to ask her mom. She didn’t know, either, but she said it always done that way. In the end they went to see the husband’s great-grandmother and she said, well, when she was a young bride, they didn’t have the correct size pan for the ham so she sliced off both ends of the piece of meat to make it fit.
Traditional holiday foods can sometimes be that way; we do some things a certain way just to make them fit into our holiday mythology. Sometimes we make things from scratch, sometimes we just pull together canned, boxed or frozen ingredients ready made from the aisles of our local supermarket. For every cook that makes their stuffing or pies from individual ingredients, there are a ton of us out there who suffer from a lack of time, kitchen help, cooking quarters, or imagination to do things just so, and so we end up making things the best we can.
This year I took on my family’s traditional ways of making tamales. I have a small kitchen but I managed to not only pull together a meal this year that would have made my grandmothers proud, but it gave me a chance to reflect on holidays past and how we made things work in the kitchen. And while I didn’t have “masa preparada”, prepared corn masa, from a local tortilleria on hand to make my tamales with, I did have a bag of Maseca, and so with that and the techniques that were taught to me by my relatives, I ended up making tamales enough for my holiday meal, for the freezer and for my friends and neighbors, too.
Now that the big feast days are behind us, there are still many special days ahead where we just might want to celebrate the new year with old family recipes and possibly make new traditions, too. If you haven’t already be sure to take a moment and look over the cookery section in our catalog. You will find that the Jackson County Library Services’ collection of cook books has something for every taste and dietary need, and should astound and please the most finicky cook. It doesn’t matter if you come from a place far away–be that Mexico, Africa, Austria, or even Wisconsin–there will be books, videos, and streaming products available to help you pull together whatever foodstuff you miss most and desire. We have plenty of books and such on holidays around the world as well, so even if you can’t be someplace special eating your holiday cookies or roast beast, you can read about them and share the memories of those special places and times that will help to make that grog or eggnog go down that much sweeter.
And as for that taste of persimmons? I have fond memories of fresh persimmons being served up by my mother and her people when I was a boy, and have always thought of them as being a pretty delicious treat. This year, when I couldn’t find Mission figs for a holiday chevre appetizer recipe I longed to make, I asked the greengrocer for an idea on what to use as a substitute. He mentioned using dried prunes. On my way to find those, I saw a pack of dried persimmons sitting on the shelf and fell in love with their color and size of the area of the fruit I could work with, and chose them, instead. So, new recipe, new tradition. That spur-of-the-moment change in a recipe, would it have pleased my Abuela? I think of her and know that she was the kind of person who would have cut the corners of that ham to suit the needs of her pan. To that end, I am sure that she would have tasted that new revised treat and approved!
Here is a list of great Latin American cookery books!