Whenever I think about family traditions, I realize some of my strongest and most beloved center around food. Christmas and Easter strongly evoke a Polish breakfast feast (my paternal grandmother is 100%) consisting of Kielbasa, horseradish, babka, and pierogi. Christmas also brings to mind halvah, marzipan, sesame honey candies, and pepperoni sticks -- our stocking staples. On any given birthday, it was an absolute given that the celebrated person got to decide what special breakfast, dinner, and cake that they'd like. Saturdays and Sundays always began with either pancakes, waffles, or crepes. In fact, we never let a special day or occasion (sometimes, even just a hint of one) slip by without ensuring it was punctuated by suitably festive bakes and makes.
In raising my own family, it has crossed my mind: "Is it pitiable or good that so many traditions and memories are associated with food? Do we over-emphasize food?" I don't think this is an unusual thought, especially as so many current discussions and approaches to food seem to focus on calorie-counting, clean-eating, guilt, and obesity. Or at least, have them lingering in the background.
Ultimately, I have decided that food traditions are not just good, but very good. Food and enjoying food are not bad things in themselves. Children do latch on to such traditions, making them a perfect first step for them to cling to in anticipating and remembering special occasions. Cultures are identified by foods they make. Hospitality has its root in the kitchen. I often think back to reading the Iliad and Odyssey where persons were praised and blessed by the gods for their hospitality displayed through decadent, no-holding-back feasts, often spanning days.
But why all these musings? All because I've decided to preserve my own and my husband's family's food traditions and even to take it a step farther. Do just a brief research, and one discovers there is a wealth of holiday-specific meals and bakes for many, many days of the year. In fact, it might be absurd if one held to them all. But, what a beautiful thing to start to incorporate. We need to eat every day, why not bring added significance where possible?
Which leads me to our celebration of St. Nicholas' day this year. Motivated by my thoughts above, but also greatly spurred by a need for distraction as baby girl's due date approaches and I become increasingly consumed by anticipation, I planned a couple special treats. For breakfast, we had gingerbread waffles. Ginger and spice are very traditional for St. Nick's day!
Then, I discovered the St. Nicholas Center website which has a whole section dedicated to traditional recipes. Of course, I was engrossed. I obviously gravitated toward the breads. Most were enriched breads shaped specially for the day. Some were shaped as St. Nicholas himself. Others, as his bishop's mitre and crosier. Still others, as a stocking to which an overflowing of candy would be added to after baking. I went with the German St. Nicholas breads shaped as the St. Nicholas figure and his bishop's mitre & crosier.
The bread was a hit. The kids enjoyed the fun shapes and stole peeks of it throughout the day. One family member described its taste as somewhere in between challah and cake. The crumb was tight, but not dense. The taste was sweet with a hint of lemon, but not so much to make it unsuitable for our dinner of sausage and lentil soup. It held its own without butter (though, who really likes skipping butter anyways?!). All in all, the consensus was that the bread is a tradition worth keeping.
Shaping the St. Nicholas breads brings to mind another bread I recently made for a Christmas-themed engagement party. I braided over 3lbs of my favorite challah into a single wreath. It made for quite a centerpiece! It was also fairly simple and straightforward, making me think: "Why have I never done this before? Why haven't I even seen or thought of this before?!" It too will certainly be incorporated into the family traditions.