The more things change, the more they stay the same

Everyone has their special occasion meals, or at least dishes. My family’s meals have never quite stayed constant, due to my mom’s love of “changing things up,” while Chris’s family’s are as steadfast as the Lincoln Memorial. Of course, the holidays are the prime special occasion meal season, and we’ve eaten quite a few of them over the last month or so.

This year’s Thanksgiving featured a few old favorites, and one major modification – a lack of turkey. In part, we made this change because my mom has become a pescatarian (eating fish, but no meat) since last Thanksgiving. But it was actually more due to the oddity of the entire set-up. Rather than going to my aunt’s house in New Jersey, as my family has traditionally done, or even going home to New York, we were restricted to our own house because of Chris’s job. He not only had to work that weekend, but cook for others on Thanksgiving day itself. So my parents came to us. We realized that because my mom doesn’t eat meat, I eat little of it, and Chris wasn’t going to be there, it would be absurd to have an entire turkey. So along with our staples of (vegetarian) stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet potato casserole, mushroom dip, and broccoli, we ate lobster. Considering that in the Pilgrims’ time, lobsters were plentiful in New England, it was about as historically accurate as turkey – and quite delicious in butter to boot! Unfortunately, Chris was sad about the lack of turkey leftovers. (Or to quote “A Christmas Story:” No turkey sandwiches! No turkey salad! No turkey gravy! Turkey Hash! Turkey a la King! Or gallons of turkey soup!”)

On the opposite end of the spectrum was Chris’s graduation dinner with his parents and sister. His mom made us what we fondly call “the Italian feast”: chicken parmigiana, eggplant parmigiana, and ziti. She makes this spread for every significant occasion – birthdays, graduations, her children visiting home. In part, she cooks this meal because everyone loves it and will eat the leftovers. She also does it because Chris’s dad is very particular about what he eats. So the meals for both Thanksgiving and graduation were influenced by one particular person’s tastes – one for a change and one against – yet were delicious and enjoyed by everyone there. However, we did convince my mother-in-law to make one change – using homemade tomato sauce. After some amount of convincing from Chris, both myself and his sister have become homemade sauce evangelists. As the new sauce still lacked any discernible “chunks,” my father-in-law remained happy and we made the meal just that much more special.

Lastly, our Christmas meals were a mix of the newly traditional, the re-imagined time-honored, and the totally novel. My mom started us off with French toast stuffed with bananas and cream cheese, which my family has been doing for the past few years. We never had any specific meal for Christmas breakfast until Chris started celebrating it with us, so I think a little of his family is rubbing off on mine. We also had vegetable frittata, just so we weren’t eating pure sugar and fat.

For Christmas dinner, I took control, determined to cook my first holiday meal. I reached really far back for inspiration – all the way to my mom’s childhood. My grandmother always made lasagna for Christmas dinner, which sounded like a fantastic idea. It’s something I’ve made before, it’s comforting, and it had the weight of tradition. Of course, the re-imagined part was that it had to be a vegetarian lasagna. But rather than just taking out the meat, I also added a number of vegetables to retain some bulk. In addition to the main course, I made porcini and pecan pate from a recipe in Food and Wine as an appetizer. My mom used to make sort-of chicken pate (it used meat, not liver) for a Thanksgiving appetizer, and I planned it as an homage to that dish.

I had mixed results. The porcini and pecan pate took a lot of time and wasn’t something I particularly liked. I love mushrooms, but the porcinis were too pungent. However, it improved substantially when heated up the leftovers, even if it was much less pate-like. In contrast, the lasagna came out wonderfully. The tweaks I made to the original recipe elevated it; even Chris said it was quite good. I’ll certainly be making it again – probably next Christmas, in fact.

The food we eat for special occasions speaks to our loves and likes, to whether we reject or embrace change. This holiday season, we experienced meals across the spectrum and each had its own pleasures. As tradition calls to me, I’ll always answer back, even if it’s not an exact echo.

Do you have any recipes that your family always makes for special occasions? Share them in the comments!

Veggie lasagna
(Adapted from Mark Bittman’s “How to Cook Everything Vegetarian”)


  • 10 dried lasagna noodles
  • 2 tbs extra virgin olive oil
  • Homemade tomato sauce (see below)
  • 3 cups raw spinach, chopped
  • 1 cup fresh basil
  • 3 cups ricotta cheese
  • 2 cups fresh grated Parmesan
  • 1 green pepper, diced
  • ½ eggplant, cubed
  • 4-6 ounces mushrooms, sliced

  • Directions:

  • Cook lasagna noodles according to the instructions on the box.
  • While the noodles are boiling, prepare the tomato sauce (see below).
  • Drain the noodles and lay them flat so they do not stick to each other. (Note: Using paper towels to separate the noodles just makes them stick to the paper towels instead.)
  • Saute the green pepper. When the pepper is beginning to soften, add the eggplant. Salt and pepper. After a few minutes, add the mushrooms and lightly salt and pepper again. Remove all vegetables when the mushrooms become lightly sauteed.
  • Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
  • Grease a rectangular baking dish with the olive oil. Layer the tomato sauce, noodles, spinach, basil, sauteed vegetables, and cheese, in that order. Trim the noodles if they don’t quite fit into the dish. Create a second layer with the same order. Continue layering until you almost run out of ingredients.
  • Top with the remaining tomato sauce and cheese.
  • Bake the lasagna until it bubbles and the cheese is lightly browned on top, about 30 minutes. Let rest a few minutes before serving.

    Homemade tomato sauce

  • Ingredients:
  • 2 tbs olive oil
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 4-5 cloves garlic, diced (or more, if you like garlic)
  • 1 red pepper, diced
  • 1-2 tbs dried oregano
  • 1-2 tbs dried basil
  • ¼ cup red wine
  • 24-36 oz can crushed tomatoes
  • 6 oz can tomato paste (optional, depending on time and preference)
  • Chopped fresh basil and oregano leaves (optional; be sure to strip the oregano off of the stem)
  • Sugar to taste


  • Saute onion on medium-high in a large skillet.
  • As the onion begins to soften, add the garlic.
  • As the garlic begins to brown, add the red pepper. Add the dried oregano and basil and salt and pepper generously.
  • Turn down the heat if the vegetables are starting to burn, but let them brown and just begin to stick to the bottom of the skillet.
  • Deglaze the skillet by pouring the red wine in and scraping the “stuck” parts of the vegetables off the skillet.
  • Add the can of crushed tomatoes.
  • If available, add several leaves of fresh basil and several stems-worth of oregano.
  • Turn the sauce down to low and simmer for 15 minutes to an hour. If you are able to simmer it for an hour, it should thicken substantially. If you are rushed for time and like thicker sauce, add the tomato paste. If you use the tomato paste, you may want to add additional salt, pepper, and herbs for flavor.
  • As the tomato sauce simmers, taste it occasionally and add salt, pepper, additional dried herbs, and sugar to taste. If the sauce tastes bitter, the sugar will help balance it out.
  • This entry was posted in cooking, family, food. Bookmark the permalink.

    3 Responses to The more things change, the more they stay the same

    1. Randi says:

      I just read this, and actually, my family rarely celebrates Christmas with a turkey. For the last few years my mom’s always done up a prime rib roast with Yorkshire pudding, and as fixings cabbage rolls, mashed potatoes (and gravy), cole slaw, cooked carrots or some like vegetable and fresh made baking powder biscuits.

      I love non-traditional meals at traditional celebrations!

    2. Pingback: Giving Thanks for More than Just Turkey « Will Bike for Change (or Pie!)

    3. Pingback: It’s a Pierogi! « Will Bike for Change (or Pie!)

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