2000s Archive

Carving Out Community

Originally Published November 2003
More than mere holiday how-tos, these books reconnect us with the true purpose of the “holy days”—honoring family, place, and heritage.

I was pawing through a stack of books about different kinds of holiday food when I picked up Ronni Lundy’s The Festive Table (North Point Press; $27.50) , a work dedicated not to “entertaining” but to the fact that all of us want our lives to have some meaning. In pursuit of this truth, Lundy went out and found several dozen people with a lot to teach other Americans in an age when almost nobody can claim simple, unbroken continuity with the place, religion, sometimes even family of their birth. The only thing Lundy’s subjects have in common is that on particular occasions, they use food to carve out versions of heritages and continuity that matter to them.

They tend to be transplants, members of self-defined communities, partners in mixed marriages, survivors of rocky personal or historical passages. The artists in a Wisconsin cooperative hold an “annual summer salad celebration” by taking assembled contributions and arranging them in a hollowed-out log section for a salad bowl. Jackie and Leon Olenick make their Passover seder affirm a confluence of Judaism and ecological awareness. Karen Faster routs late-winter gloom with a self-invented fiesta to which everybody brings a “hotdish” (Minnesotan for a baked anthology of elements that achieve thematic unity through canned soup) and an inedible Jell-O tableau. In Louisville, Kentucky, Anoosh Shariat awaits the exact moment of the spring equinox—the Persian New Year—with his American-born wife and kids while reading the poetry of Hafez aloud. Sandra Mlinarcik re-creates the Easter meal of her Polish Catholic childhood, thinking, “In some ways, I’ve become my grandparents.”

From the 130 or so recipes in Lundy’s book, I surmise that I’d joyfully cook some rather than all of the meals these people celebrate with. But I’d be honored to eat at any of their tables—which is why I came back to the other books in my stack with a different perspective on the uses of holidays (a word that used to mean “holy days”) in grueling times.

Today, much Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner advice is understandably more about getting through the ordeal in one piece than anything else. But a few other examples out there suggest that maybe Thanksgiving and Christmas should be sent back to the shop for moral and spiritual repair. Take Kwanzaa. In contrast to the more taken-for-granted holidays that seem to be on a collision course with many overscheduled and self-centered lives, it’s clearly an idea in progress, something people are working on precisely in order to find and create meaning for the future out of a brutally interrupted past. A good introduction is Jessica Harris’s A Kwanzaa Keepsake (Simon & Schuster; paperback $14), which incorporates an aunt’s admonition, “You don’t have a holiday, you have to make a holiday.” It lucidly sketches the structure of the seven-day feast and offers possible agendas. Though not primarily intended as a cookbook, with some 60 recipes it certainly could serve as one.

It would be unrealistic to expect anything comparable from books about Christmas, which is generally imposed on people rather than chosen. Yet the current selection of Christmas cookbooks does seem amazingly devoid of substance beyond recipes or battle schedules. Today I find nothing resembling the imaginative exploration of traditions in Mimi Sheraton’s long-out-of-print Visions of Sugarplums (HarperPerennial), a survey of round-the-world Christmas sweets. (Look for copies online.) The only recent Christmas cookbook that strikes me as having a clear and well-executed agenda is Rozanne Gold’s Christmas 1-2-3 (Stewart, Tabori & Chang; $16.95), which leaves to others questions like “Why bother with Christmas, anyhow?” and ably addresses the task of reducing the bother with the excellent three-ingredient recipes that are the trademark of this series. Despite what you might expect from such minimalism, effortless cooking it’s not, but it could go far toward keeping the lid on Yuletide kitchen panic.

As a holiday, Thanksgiving is in the same boat: Its chief raison d’être for many today is a long weekend, and a lot of cooks hope just to survive it. The few cookbooks devoted to the event mostly contain practical blueprints for action. If that’s what you want, Diane Morgan’s orderly minded The Thanksgiving Table (Chronicle Books; paperback $18.95), offers useful recipes, good “service” information, and rational timetables. The book that puts some humanity back into this celebration, however, is the tiny, charming, and (natch) out-of-print A Southern Thanksgiving, by Robb Forman Dew (Addison-Wesley), usually available online for a song.

Jewish and Italian holiday observances afford some perspective on what the American Christmas and Thanksgiving generally are not. The missing factor, or one of them, is a belief that the calendar isn’t just dates on a page but the stuff of perpetual reenactments that confirm one’s identity and literally make holidays holy days. Meals prepared and eaten at home—that is, within the sanctuary of the kosher household—have been the foundation of Jewish observance for millennia. The Sabbath meal is a week-by-week anchor of stability; the cycle of holidays from the fall New Year through the late-spring Festival of Weeks (Shabuoth) gives shape to the year and is also, to an extent, a cycle of foods.

Any Jewish cookbook will convey an inkling of this, so holiday cookbooks tend not to be revelations of unsuspected marvels. But if you specifically want a book about the major Jewish holidays, Gloria Kaufer Greene’s The New Jewish Holiday Cookbook provides a big assemblage of recipes with some emphasis on time saving, fat reduction, and the Sephardic food of the Jewish Mediterranean. Joan Nathan’s slightly older The Jewish Holiday Kitchen (Schocken Books; paperback $19.95) is fairly similar in focus but pays a little more heed to Ashkenazic (eastern European) food and also shows a dogged preservationist instinct for finding and honoring people and their stories. Nathan’s The Jewish Holiday Baker (Schocken Books; hardcover $23, paperback $16.95) is an entirely separate work of homage, constructed around roughly 50 recipes by a dozen or so professional and home bakers—including some very elderly people whose skills otherwise would have remained unbequeathed—from highly varied Jewish traditions.

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