My memories of Thanksgiving always include my aunt’s yum yum salad. Every holiday there was a variation on the dish consisting of a fruit, Jell-O and whipped topping. It reminds me of family and togetherness.
That’s the power of food — we need it to survive, but it can also tell a story, build community and help preserve traditions. Our association with food, especially around the holidays, can be a conduit for sharing and passing down our heritage and cultural stories with friends, family and the world.
I spoke with several local chefs and restaurateurs about their holiday traditions and the vital role food plays in each.
Marcie Rosenberg is the chef/owner of Dining In Inc, Charleston’s premier kosher catering company. She’s a third-generation Charlestonian and long-time chef. I spoke with her to learn more about Hanukkah and its food traditions.
In the grand scheme of Jewish holidays, Hanukkah is fairly contemporary; it’s not based on the Torah. According to Rosenberg, “The traditions, foods and manners of celebration are largely defined by how people have come to celebrate it.”
The holiday commemorates a historical Jewish military victory and, according to tradition, a miracle that allowed only a small amount of oil to light the temple menorah for eight days. Celebrations start at nightfall when one of the eight candles is lit and families gather for prayer, meals, to play dreidel and sometimes to exchange small gifts.
In honor of the miracle of the oil, fried foods are classically associated with Hanukkah. Potato latkes, also known as potato pancakes, are a well-known dish often served with applesauce for those who stay kosher, or sometimes sour cream. Another beloved food, according to Rosenberg, is sufganiyot, delicate fried donuts originating from Israel that closely resemble beignets.
According to Rosenberg, Hanukkah tables will often feature a vegetable or chicken soup, a roast chicken or brisket and schnitzel is also popular. Side dishes vary depending on the region from which the family originates. They can sometimes be very light, like salads and vegetables, or heavier like borscht and potato or meat kugels. Tzimmes is a traditional Ashkenazi side dish made with carrots, yams, sweet potatoes and dried fruits.
Gelt are wrapped chocolate coins that are given to children and are associated with the Hanukkah tradition of playing dreidel.
Rosenberg recalls having her children help in the kitchen when they were young to peel or grate potatoes for the latkes. “Judaism is filled with food,” she said, “and there are traditions in response to the food being eaten; those are passed down to the generations through food which is very prevalent in Judaism.”
Christmas food traditions are known to vary widely from family to family. I spoke with Jeff Filosa, chef and owner of LoLA authentic Louisiana cuisine, about his Christmas traditions. Filosa grew up in an Italian family in Boston. He always looked forward to Christmas because it meant having lasagna or his grandmother’s famous potato gnocchi with Sunday gravy — a dish she would only prepare on Christmas. Dessert was often spumoni, a cherry, vanilla and pistachio ice cream molded to look like the Italian flag.
But Filosa is quick to point out that while it’s fairly common, Italian families don’t always cook Italian foods at Christmas. Filosa’s time in the south, and especially New Orleans, not only inspired the menu for his popular local eatery, but also influenced his own Christmas meal traditions.
Christmas dinner in the Filosa household now usually consists of a reverse-seared prime rib served with a port wine rosemary jus. Filosa uses an abundant Charleston resource for his favorite side dish: oyster stuffing. He starts with homemade cornbread croutons for rich texture and adds oysters and fresh herbs. His meal usually includes a potato dish and spins on classic traditional dishes like creamed spinach casserole in place of the traditional green bean casserole.
Filosa serves a mimosa-esq cocktail called a Poinsettia consisting of sparkling wine, a dash of cranberry juice, a squeeze of orange and a shot of vodka. He maintains a running list of desserts he’s served from year to year so he doesn’t repeat.
For Filosa, the meal is just part of what makes the holiday special—mostly it’s about spending quality time with family. “I’m in the kitchen all day cooking and I have grown children who have children, so my house is usually the last stop, so the kids end up with me to enjoy a beverage and enjoy time together.”
While Kwanzaa is a relatively new holiday, its roots date back centuries. Kwanzaa was created as a means for African-Americans to celebrate their cultural heritage and honor the traditions of their ancestors and their place in modern-day America. The seven principles of Kwanzaa, as represented by seven candles, include unity, collective responsibility, community and faith.
I spoke with Sara J. Nesbit, CEO of Kwanzaa Experience South Carolina, and RaGina Saunders, head of the hospitality committee for the Kwanzaa Experience, about the food traditions associated with Kwanzaa. According to Nesbit, “the dishes that are prepared are actually dishes that our families prepare throughout the year. Yams, greens and seafood are served throughout the year, but they are also staples of the Kwanzaa table.”
Not surprisingly, in South Carolina Kwanzaa meals and traditional Gullah Geechee dishes are often one and the same. Dishes from Nigeria, like jollof rice, Senegalese-inspired jambalaya or Ethiopian-style flatbread, are mixed among Southern staples such as stewed okra and tomatoes, greens and rice dishes. Kwanzaa embraces its pan-African roots in each meal.
In lieu of breakfast, celebrants often fast, partaking of only water as it’s a symbol of purity and is the essence of life. Lunch might be a simple meal, but dinner is the focus, offering an opportunity to join families and friends in a communal dining experience. Chicken, fish, rice, cornbread, black-eyed peas, yams, soups and fruits like pineapple adorn the table. Meals are served family style to reinforce the principles of Kwanzaa.
Nesbit said her favorite Kwanzaa dish is always yams cooked with butter, cinnamon, sugar and honey. For Saunders, fufu, a West African dish made with sweet potatoes, is her favorite and one she only makes during Kwanzaa.
To Nesbit, Kwanzaa is about community building. “We break bread together, it’s a learning experience for everyone—friends, neighbors, co-workers,” she explained. “It’s our endeavor to teach our children our history and our culture.”
By Sherry Whiting