Sampler at the Holiday Meal
Sampler’s mom by the tree in the 1960s.
Memory is the essence of tradition. When we gather for the holidays, we long to touch the chords of times gone by, recalling not just the details and events, but the actual sights, sounds, and smells of our own private sacred past.
Just as the snatch of an old familiar tune suddenly thrusts into our minds a specific era and person, the taste of wonderful foods from our childhoods is able to strike chords of remembrance and appreciation that echo down through the generations, holiday meal after holiday meal.
I suppose every family has holiday traditions, and holiday meals they customarily share when by grace they are gathered once again around a common table.
For me, the very core of the holiday is rooted in the family, home and hearth, and the traditional holiday meal.
Of course, I’ve grown old enough to realize that many of our “traditions” are commercially created by the glazed ham and frozen turkey industry just as various new holidays spring up under the careful marketing of the greeting card industry.
Still, the holiday meals you had as a child are the holiday meals that are most likely to resonate with you.
I grew up in the 1960s here in Brown County, and I suppose my mother was as subsumed in the marketing culture as any housewife of her time. And so we expect the little, hard brown-and-serve rolls even though much nicer ones are now available, and we still make green bean casserole with the little dried onions that were still a novelty to my mother.
Those are little touches her generation added to the mix—but what were her influences? The most significant root is the one which goes deepest.
We were talking about the upcoming holiday dinners—what we would cook, who likes what, and whether we should just break down and take the whole gang to one of the local holiday buffets for a nice and easy solution that provides something for everyone.
But, deep down, I know my brothers aren’t going to be happy unless they get chicken and dumplings, just like mother used to make. They’d as soon skip the turkey as to not have these homemade noodles at the holiday.
For holiday meals, my family generally comes to my house, because I’m the one who knows how to make the dumplings. This year, I’m passing the secret dumpling-making knowledge downstream, in a little Thanksgiving morning seminar with my niece, safely committing the skill set to the next generation.
What is it about them? They aren’t even exciting enough to make it onto the menu at most restaurant holiday buffets, a humble peasant food which points to our more humble antecedents.
Subsistence farmers had chickens, and, even in Brown County’s earliest days, there was a mill to grind flour. Mother’s dumplings are made in a broth from the whole chicken, so all of that tasty chicken fat and random flavor is in there. They are made directly before dinner, and so arrive fresh and hot, newly-minted. They sit on cornbread dressing or whipped potatoes (“Irish potatoes” as Aunt Pat used to call them, not yams, which also belong on our holiday table.)
I remember the long anxious Thanksgiving mornings, the parades droning away on TV, while wonderful smells wafted in from the kitchen, promising a feast of major proportions.
Then, the sacred moment. The family all assembled, Father says grace and then pierces the breast of the giant roasted bird.
I read somewhere that any food is sacred if we make it sacred by taking a moment to honestly assess what it is, where it came from, and how it came into our hands.
There was usually so much at a holiday feast, sometimes it was hard to do everything justice. But if I had to pare it all down to one or two dishes that I must have for a holiday meal, I would probably say that chicken and dumplings and cornbread dressing (“stuffing” cooked outside the bird) would be the main thing.
Holidays are symbols; mileposts to remind us of particular events, seasons, or underlying social truths.
The holiday itself is not as important as the underlying reason.
Or, put another way, whatever the excuse, it’s always good to gather together family and friends and to break bread, share a meal, and perhaps some laughs—to remember memories and maybe even make some new ones.
Our love and memory of foods and meals we cherish goes back through the generations—back through the family of man to the first feast around a campfire in some dim cave. It is deep in our DNA to gather and to eat, just as we are genetically programmed to recall the past and those who came before us.
And one of the ways we keep those memories alive is to make the meals they made.
Mother had a stitching sampler on her kitchen wall that read, “Food should be made with butter and love.”
That was her secret ingredient which made everything taste so wonderful.
You can buy butter by the pound, but the love you have to manufacture on your own. And you have to just give it away.