Whether or not you celebrate Christmas — or Hanukkah, or Kwanzaa, or Ramadan — now is the time of year when food takes on a whole other layer of meaning.
After all, winter holidays are all about traditions, for better (latkes) or worse (fruitcake), and holiday food is atop an ever shrinking list of things that bind together the generations. Why do you serve turkey or tamales? Probably because Mom or Grandma did. Taking the time to serve them is about so much more than just making a feast. It's a sign that we respect our roots, that tradition isn't simply a matter of buying gifts and mailing cards.
We thought it was time to consider some foods with true personal significance: long-loved dishes that link us with our pasts, or recently discovered ones that offer a chance to forge traditions anew. That makes these true holiday foods in the most essential way. —Jon Bonné
Rice puddingAs a lonely international graduate student 13 years ago, I found myself unimaginably alone on an empty campus. It was Christmas, and everyone but me had gone home. Home was two oceans away in India so I had to stay put that season. TV, radio, newspapers and magazines buzzed with photographs and articles on family festivities of the season.
As I withdrew into my shell, I remembered mom’s velvety rice pudding being a must at Indian holidays back home each autumn during Diwali, the Indian festival of lights. Nostalgia is a comforting partner on lonely days and I found myself making rice pudding.
As the warm milk enveloped the rice and the sugar thickened the dish, the sweet smell took me back home. As I crushed the cardamom to garnish the dish, the way my grandmother had taught me, their spirit seemed with me. I did not feel so alone anymore.
Later that night, I ate my pudding complete with slivered almonds, crushed cardamom and a lighter heart. It has been a must at our holiday table since that lonesome night. —Monica Bhide
French onion soupI always thought the French onion soup we made during the holidays came from my mother's French-Canadian roots.
In truth, she and my father made it once, and it stuck. I've continued what they began. I crafted a vegetarian version for my future wife during our first Christmas together, but now she's reformed and I can make it with the traditional beef stock.
I spend all day making the rich, savory liquid and slow-cooking the onions until they're a deep russet. I top the soup with a thick piece of sourdough and slices of Gruyère, and then pass it under the broiler until the cheese is hot and bubbly. We pour a good Beaujolais, and dig in. —Derrick Schneider
Bubble and squeakSlide up to the sturdy farm table at my friend’s house on Boxing Day and you’ll be served fried Brussels sprouts and mashers with a little turkey drippings, otherwise known as bubble and squeak.
There’s no match for leftover mashed potatoes fried in a cast-iron skillet with those tiny cabbages, the edges crispy and browned, then drizzled with last night’s gravy. Apparently named after the noise it makes when cooked, this dish dates back hundreds of years in England, where it traditionally is served the day after Sunday roast dinner as a way to use up leftovers.
Back home in Big Sur, Calif., it is an annual event the day after Christmas. Not even noon and there we are, family and friends huddled around the massive stove — poking our noses and fingers in the pots, fork at the ready, waiting for our plate of food. —Romney Steele
In my family, it’s known simply as “cucumbers.” I have no idea where the recipe came from, but it’s been a part of the family longer than I have, and even has its own designated ceramic bowl.
First, slice cukes and onions Kate Moss-thin. (I use a mandoline for the cukes, but when I tried it for the onions, I nearly had to go to the ER.) Sprinkle with salt to draw out the water, wait an hour, then wring their little necks. (For some reason, this task always fell to my dad, his big ex-Marine hands working the veggies over like a Mafioso.) Drench them with vinegar, sugar and pepper, alternating and tasting, over and over, until you get a spicy, crunchy bite.
Somehow, on a plate piled high with turkey, dressing, cranberries and potatoes, the cucumbers always stake their claim. Stab yourself a forkful of turkey and dressing, and then carefully balance a tangle of cucumbers on top. That’s the taste of the holidays, right there. —Gael Fashingbauer Cooper
Despite what you might think, the bird Scrooge dispatches to the Cratchits at the end of Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" is ... a turkey. A big turkey. ("He never could have stood upon his legs, that bird.")
But when the Ghost of Christmas Present conjures for Scrooge a vision of the Cratchits feasting, they all marvel at a glorious goose. ("Such a bustle ensued that you might have thought a goose the rarest of all birds.") And why not? Turkey is commonplace, goose is a rare indulgence: rich, dark, succulent.
Though roast goose has a reputation as a Victorian English tradition (hence Dickens), Germany claims equal Christmas credit. That's probably why my father insisted on it as a Yuletide staple. Not that we formally celebrated, but he adored the elements of German Christmas — right down to the fruit-flecked bread known as stollen.
Hence goose remains a special treat, a sign of bounty in the year's darkest days. Just remember to save the rendered fat, perfect for roasting potatoes all winter long. —Jon Bonné
MusselsHunting for mussels along the California coast is a favorite thing to do around the holidays when we go home. Some years it’s planned, other times a last-minute scramble to get there early enough to beat the incoming tide.
It’s a wet affair for sure, and rain boots are in order, as is lots of willingness to pry the suckers off the rocks and get your hair salty and wind-whipped. Within an hour or less you can easily collect a bucketful.
Back in the kitchen, we scrub them and cook them up fisherman-style — in their own juices with a little garlic and white wine, then pile them into bowls with a bit of the salty broth. We always have an ample amount of crusty bread to go with them and are never shy about slurping the last bits from the shell. The meat is plump and slightly sweet and calls for a cold beer, something dark and spicy like Guinness. Spoon and fork not required. —R.S.
BieroksMy father's family looks forward to bierocks each holiday season.
Anyone from Eastern Europe would recognize the pastries filled with ground meat, cabbage, and onions: Poland's pierogie is only a phonetic hop away. My great-grandmother made bieroks long after her parents fled the Volga in the wake of the Bolshevik revolution, and today my father and his brother make her recipe around Thanksgiving or Christmas.
For them, it's a chance to relive a childhood tradition, ponder the past, and bring warmth and good smells to my uncle's kitchen. For the rest of us, it's a chance to score a few to take home for the freezer. —D.S.
Mulled wineA few years ago I started a tradition of hosting large holiday open houses. I wanted to serve a drink that was delightful and also easy to prepare for a large crowd. I was stumped.
I grew up in a family of Scotch drinkers, but Scotch and beer neither seemed the economical nor popular choice for a large crowd. I happened upon mulled wine at a friend’s home and it was love at first sip — red wine mixed with fruits and spices really warmed the palate. I loved the fringe benefit of the intoxicating scents that wafted throughout the house as the wine warmed: lemons, oranges, cinnamon and nutmeg.
At my holiday parties I like to serve mulled wine in a punch bowl, though I do keep an additional small pot with the wine-fruit mixture on the stove for the entire evening. The radiating bouquet of aromas gives the room a holiday personality. —M.B.
Jon Bonné is MSNBC.com's lifestyle editor. Gael Fashingbauer Cooper is MSNBC.com's television editor, and writes frequently about food. writes about food and culture from suburban Virginia. Derrick Schneider is a freelance food and wine writer and publisher of An Obsession with Food. Oakland, Calif.-based Romney Steele writes about food for Edible East Bay and is working on a book about salad greens.