It’s the last week before Christmas and one of the busiest kitchen times of the year with so many of us baking and cooking up our favourite holiday traditions.
Regardless of the country, food and drink seem to be one of the most important aspects of the Christmas season. There is a reason for that - aside from the fact that food is often shared with others which causes bonding, enjoyment and socialization, there is proof that taste and smell are important triggers for memory, hopefully positive ones around Christmas time. In BrainFacts.org Michael W. Richardson explains in his article Savor the Moment: The Peculiar Connection Between Taste and Memory that "Taste and smell are both senses that react to chemicals in food, and the oral and nasal cavities are directly connected, so it's no surprise that the two senses are closely linked." To summarize, the two senses (mostly smell) work together to have the amazing ability to call up memories from the past. His article is an interesting read and might explain why that gingerbread smell transports you back to your childhood!
In Redbook in 2018 (redbookmag.com), writer Jessica Booth highlighted some of the seasonal favourites in her article 30 Christmas Food Traditions From Around the World. In southern Italy, for example, the Feast of Seven Fishes is popular – you guessed, seven seafood dishes. I could really get into that! In Poland, they serve a 12 course meal on Christmas Eve with, of course, red Borscht. I would love that, too. In Puerto Rico, a roast suckling pig is popular. Yum! I could also really dive into the popular Buche de Noel, the traditional chocolate Yule Log in France. I have never tried the puto bumbong of the Philippines, but the name is great. It is made of sweet, glutinous black and white rice. Then there is the goose in Germany and the steamed sheep’s head in Norway and the whale and reindeer meat in Greenland. One of the most interesting traditions, though, is KFC in Japan! I had to check this out several times! Apparently, you have to put your order in months in advance.
Here in America, of course, turkey and ham are popular with numerous variations of vegetables, gravy, and cranberries. But in a country as large as Canada, there can be as many different Christmas food traditions as there are diverse landscapes. Jenny Potter of Food Network in the Great Canadian Cookbook (9 December 2016) reminded us that butter tarts are a staple in many places, especially in Ontario, Tourtiere is popular in French Canada, and Nanaimo Bars and wild salmon in British Columbia. Keeping in mind that, as Canada has long had a diverse immigrant population, it is common to see food inspired by other cultures – perogies, borscht, trifle, and short bread. But I would imagine that with every year, the diversity of Canada’s Christmas tables is growing, just as the diversity of our population grows in a wonderful way with the arrival of new immigrants from around the world!
Our mother was British, so our Christmas meal followed British traditions – a turkey and lots of vegetables (just boiled, of course, nothing fancy!). It was always topped off with steamed Christmas pudding and Bird’s Eye Custard (does anyone remember that?)
But one memory that stands out is the fact that mom always made two types of potatoes – mashed and roasted. The roasted potatoes were placed in the oven in about an inch of left over grease (that had been stored in the fridge for weeks from some type of roasted meat) and turned over and over, and basted with even more fat, while baking so that the potatoes formed a nice brown crust with a soft inside. (You can never have enough fat or too many carbs.) I think she made two kinds because dad LOVED roasted potatoes. Dad was French Canadian. French was his first language, but when he adopted English, he lost his French to the point that, I tell people, he could not speak either of our country’s two official languages well. Throw in the fact that he seemed to make up his third language which was probably a bastardized combination of French, English, and slang . . . and the roasted potatoes became known as “favorit (with a soft ‘a’) patatos”, and they remain that to this day. I am not a fan of potatoes, but I was a fan of my dad!
Speaking of food memories, does anyone remember the Lime Green Jello Salad? I was first introduced to this when I met my husband's family. Who can forget a concoction of green jello, cottage cheese, and mayonnaise? (It seemed like, back in the 70's and 80's, anything with jello was a hit!) In case you forgot, here's a picture from food.com.
These are great memories but, as I said before, my relationship with Christmas has long been complicated. Living in a culture that is often characterized by excess, the inequities in the world, especially in terms of finances and food distribution, seem even more vivid at this time of year. The site, worldpopulationreview.com, particularly the Poverty Rate By Country 2021, explains what is considered ‘poverty', not having the income to meet basic needs of food and shelter. Thankfully, the global poverty rate is dropping, but an estimated 696 million people in the world still live in extreme poverty. Even in the United States, it's between 12.3% and 17.8% and, here in Canada, it’s an estimated 11.6%. This is just a reminder to me that there are many, many people in the world whose biggest decision will not be which fancy baking or cooking to do for Christmas but what they will actually have available to eat that date. Here's an interesting world map from worldpopulationreview.com:
Once again, I strive for balance in this part of life. (Balance seems to be my ongoing challenge!) I think we would be remiss not to enjoy our good fortunes. So, I strive to enjoy the smells and tastes of the Christmas season as they conjure up memories of childhood. But, hopefully, I can balance this with moderation and thankfulness for what we have. I never want to forget that there are still millions of people in the world for whom this is not reality; and I want to be especially grateful that so many of us won the lottery, so to speak, simply by being born in a country such as Canada where, yes, we still have our problems, but our immigrant parents/grandparents worked hard so that the majority of us, and our children, have the opportunity to eat what we choose, and often in abundance.
So, this Christmas, what is your "favorit patato"(or lime green jelly salad)? I hope it conjures up some great childhood memories.