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!
(Adapted from Mark Bittman’s “How to Cook Everything Vegetarian”)
Homemade tomato sauce