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Gingerbread cookies and roast turkeys may be universal symbols of the American holiday season, but they don’t adequately represent the fact that each region of the United States has its own holiday food traditions. As the holidays approach, our unique food customs reflect the cultural traditions that have made this country the melting pot it is. Originating from immigrant communities or a region’s seasonal specialties, holiday food customs across the United States are as varied as our country’s vast geography, and just as eclectic as our diverse, multiethnic heritage.
For Ohioans, a holiday party would be incomplete without a platter of buckeye candies beneath the tinsel and lights, while in New Mexico, the spiced sugary cookies bizcochitos are a staple at most Christmas celebrations. Often, a holiday food tradition develops from the region's immigrant heritage, like the German holiday food festival in Chicago or the Cuban pig roast on Christmas Eve prepared by many Floridians, Cuban and non-Cuban alike. Just as often, these food customs bleed across regional borders and influence cultural communities across the country.
It would be impossible to cover the countless American food traditions in a single article, but we've gathered some of our favorites to help get you in the holiday spirit. However you celebrate, we hope this list will inspire your own traditions into the New Year. And it never hurts to put a new spin on an old custom, so use this list to enrich your current feasts, maybe by roasting your turkey in the Hawaiian kalua style or adding the Midwest’s lefse bread to your holiday buffet.
Dungeness Crab (Northern California/Northwest)
Dungeness crab season kicks off in December, so it makes sense that many Northern Californians make crab, not turkey, the center of their holiday feasts. Whether dipped in butter or tartar sauce, cooked Asian style, or added to a cioppino (a California seafood stew), fresh Dungeness crab is a classic California celebration meal.
Kalua Turkeys (Hawaii)
For Thanksgiving and Christmas, Hawaiians make their turkeys island style. Traditionally, kalua turkeys were wrapped in ti or banana leaves and slow roasted in an imu, an underground earth oven. For modern cooks, the turkeys are rubbed generously with coarse salt, wrapped tightly, and roasted for hours in the oven. When it’s finished, Hawaiians shred the turkey and serve it covered in its own juices, along with rice and pineapple.
Inspired by a traditional market in Nuremburg, Germany, Chicago holds its own Christkindlmarket, a festival of German food and Christmas festivities, every year in Daley Plaza. At the popular celebration, German beer and warm spiced wine flows as Chicagoans feast on potato pancakes, sausages and stollen (a traditional German Christmas cake).
Noche Buena (Florida)
Florida's large Cuban community, especially in cities like Miami and Tampa, means even many non-Cubans have adopted the tradition of Noche Buena (which means "good night" in Spanish) on Christmas Eve. The traditional feast consists of slow-roasted pork (either an entire pig or a smaller roast, depending on the size of the meal), rice and black beans, and yucca, along with plenty of Cuban bread.
Hoppin’ John (Southern U.S.)
Black-eyed peas are said to bring luck and prosperity, making them a Southern staple on New Year’s Day. Southerners put the legumes in Hoppin’ John, a dish whose origins date back to the Civil War that’s made of rice, smoked bacon and black-eyed peas. Whether or not the dish brings luck, a hearty bowl of pork and beans is not a bad way to start off the new year.
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