Nostalgia is a powerful ingredient. It shapes our perspective on a meal in ways that few other elements can, drawing on a lifetime of positive memories to weave its web of enticingly sticky biases. It’s not just the taste of a dish nor the deftness of execution that defines deliciousness, but the combination of every flavor, sound and diner present that culminates in producing a food memory like no other.
I don’t know if my aunt’s oysters casino are as tantalizingly tasty in reality as they are in my mind, but I do know that they were part of a bigger memory that involved a host of players including my mother, father, sister, grandparents, uncle and cousins. They were the reward for a post present-opening frenzy followed by a tedious drive down I-270 from Maryland to Northern Virginia. I can’t remember any other prepared dishes served over a lifetime of holiday meals, but those oysters bring it all home every time. I can taste the bacon and onion, as well as hear the sounds of laughter from my beloved family. The sweet smell of Half and Half tobacco from my grandfather’s pipe fills my nostrils, while the roar of a fire warms my heart even after all these years.
These ghosts from long-past experiences shape my perceptions of holiday flavors to this day.
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Thanksgiving’s menu is fairly equation-driven, and while deviations from the normal lineup are always represented, offerings from house to house are within a degree or two of separation from whatever your neighbor is serving. Christmas gets more creative. Yes, the ham and goose, turkey and mashed potatoes can all be found with great regularity at this time of year, but there are infinite variations on those themes.
In the spirit of the season, I'm eager to learn all about your culinary traditions and how they were formed. And for all my cheffy-type friends, I'm hungering to know whatcha making for your holiday meals, and why?
I find culinary histories fascinating: They define not only why we do what we do when it comes to food over the holidays, but more important, who we are and what makes us tick. How have we changed, and how has that changed what we cook?
Jamey Fader, founding chef of Lola Coastal Mexican and a veteran of many other kitchens, is now the culinary director of Marczyk Fine Foods and ready to answer all your restaurant-related questions.
Email your holiday culinary traditions — and any other thoughts you might have for Jamey Fader — to firstname.lastname@example.org.