Our family of six sisters had a tradition as we dated in high school and college. If you brought a boy home for Christmas Eve dinner, you had to force him to bring along a traditional dish representing his ethnic heritage.
This was how we learned to embrace exotically diverse non-Scandinavians, not to mention expand our culinary experience outside of all things white and flavor-free.
Eventually, as our custom continued over the years and down through the younger sisters, we created a legacy of sorts. Where other families’ holiday tabletop decor ran to holly boughs dotted with berries, ours evolved into a motley assortment of oddball kitchen concoctions that were only occasionally edible.
Secure in our own superior annual consumption of cod that smelled like dirty socks, we nodded smugly to ourselves as years of eating potluck taught us an incontrovertible fact: other people eat odd things for the holidays. For Christmas, we’ve eaten bagels, tostadas, and liverwurst. Fruit soup in clear glass Mason jars, dusty with half-a-year’s group of storage on a canning shelf. Pink slabs of finnan haddie, salmon that has been salted and smoked over peat fires, served with a cream sauce. (Imagine a culture doing that to fish; we were aghast.)
One lad, claiming he had no roots other than “American,” brought wieners and beans. Fair enough. Once, we got wild rice with pheasant—my sister, Linda, was sensible enough to marry the guy who brought this and Uncle Ed’s Hot Dish is part of our family holiday feasts to this day. And Jell-O. Lots of Jell-O. Jell-O with carrots, Jell-O with peas, Jell-O with cream cheese, Jell-O with pistachio pudding.
So at the holidays, an elegant table set with crystal and silver just doesn’t look quite finished to me. I have to go find leftover something or other in the kitchen, spoon it into a scarred Corningware dish, wrap it in a charred hot pad, and set it next to the salt and pepper.
There. Now it’s Christmas.
This first appeared in Midwest Home & Garden in Dec/Jan 2003.