We’ve come to the time of year when home cooks reach into their treasure trove of once-a-year holiday recipes and create their most beloved dishes. But what is it that makes a holiday meal special? I think it is more than just the delicious food, or even the effort that goes into producing a feast, though that is certainly part of it. To me it is the memories, stories, and traditions that accompany the foods that make holiday meals truly special. 

We can all rattle off the Thanksgiving standards, but no two tables look exactly the same. There will probably be a turkey, mashed potatoes, and cranberry sauce, but is that cranberry sauce canned or homemade? Cooked or fresh? Do you always make your great-aunt’s recipe with orange zest in it? Is it served in a special bowl that only comes out once a year? These are the details that make each spread unique. Certain smells, tastes, and textures bring back memories of people and places we have loved. These memories make up the stories we use to define our place in the world. To claim our past and dream of our future. 

What dishes (holiday or otherwise) feel like home? What makes Thanksgiving really taste like Thanksgiving? For my friend from Michigan, it is a “salad” made from rice, whipped cream, and canned crushed pineapple. It’s called Glorified Rice. It is delicious (I promise); it appears at Thanksgiving every year without fail and makes my friend think of her grandma. Oh, and it is not, I repeat, NOT a dessert. 

Some foods come with stories that link us to relatives we never met. Whenever I make a pie crust, I think of my mother’s story of my grandmother explaining that you take some flour, cut in some fat, and add cold water until it feels right. At this point in my life, I’ve made enough pies that I understand what she meant, and it makes me feel closer to the grandmother who died long before I was born. 

Many people incorporate culinary traditions from their own heritage into celebratory meals. Regional differences such as the great stuffing vs dressing debate spring to mind, and (strange as it sounds to this turkey devotee) there’s a long-standing tradition in the San Francisco Bay Area to serve crab at Thanksgiving. Often, whatever you grew up with is what tastes right, whether that is oysters in the dressing or green bean casserole with those weird crispy onions on top. 

Traditional foods connect people to heritage and home by reminding us of where and who we come from. For recent immigrants that can be especially powerful. The foods that are incorporated into a celebration feast speak to the strength and resilience families build as they tell the story of where they came from, challenges that have been faced, and the founding of a new life and new home together. Whether you serve kimchi, kebabs, lumpia, or lefse, those foods serve as a multisensory shortcut home (even for a brief time) and an opportunity to treasure a piece of where you come from, right where you are.  

Of course, holiday gatherings are seldom simple. Not every childhood memory is a happy one, families are complicated, and get-togethers often come with stress built in. We also acknowledge that the history behind our Thanksgiving holiday is complicated and problematic. 

For all of that, creating and sharing a celebratory meal with family (born or chosen) is fundamental to being human. Food is more than just food. Familiar dishes carry memory, community, identity, and history. Traditional celebrations are about being part of a community, but each family celebrates in their own way. Each individual’s experience of those traditions is personal. And while we’re talking about tradition, let’s remember that it is within your power to create a new tradition, right here and now, this year. Sure, the pecan pie recipe is precious because your aunt always used to make it that way, but the butternut squash you started making two years ago and everyone always asks for has the same potential. What memories do you want to carry with you into the future? What stories do you choose to tell? 

If you’re interested in finding a new recipe to try this year (perhaps the first year of many), take a look at this list of cookbooks in the library’s collection. Perhaps you’ll rediscover an old favorite along the way. For a sweet way to share the recipes you treasure, take a look at Lyn’s blog from last Thursday. You’ll learn how to make and bind your own recipe book. 

As for me, I’m going to close my eyes and imagine the beauty and uniqueness of each holiday table: of the love and labor that goes into the food, the stories told from celebrations past, the quiet grief that comes with missing those who cannot gather with us, the delight of getting to know someone new, and the pleasures of good food, warmth, and shelter.