A collection from local luminaries
To celebrate the holiday season and all the good eating that goes with it, we asked several Dallas personalities and a winemaker with deep Texas roots to tell us about their favorite holiday food memory. Sounds simple, right? Spoiler alert: They’re not what you might expect. How many of us grew up with a Christmas dinner of goat in sugarcane syrup and hot sauce? Or came home from an outing, only to discover our meal demolished by the family pets? And which holiday foods are worth arguing over at your house?
Rachel Edenson Pinn and José R. Ralat wrote their own stories, and the others told theirs to me. We dusted it all with a little love to bring you some sweet and savory food remembrances for your reading pleasure.
JOSÉ R. RALAT
Food editor, Cowboys & Indians magazine and
author of the Taco Trail blog, thetacotrail.com
photo by Robert Strickland
photo by Urban Taco
How many tacos de tamales can you eat in one sitting? That’s the question I asked myself as Dec. 26 greeted me. Two days earlier, my family, my in-laws and I had returned from Christmas Eve Mass hungry. And like any good Texan family on Christmas we were craving tamales, 36 of which were waiting for us at home. The lot of husk-wrapped corn masa weren’t from the Mexican bakery where we usually bought our holiday tamales.
Instead, that year, we opted for a selection from Urban Taco’s annual 12 Days of Tamales series. There were zucchini-potato tamales, tamales filled with spicy picadillo, tangy cochinita, chicken in mole poblano and the pumpkin seed mole known as pipian, as well as a light, sweet corn nestled in fluffy masa. They were accompanied with all the fixings: chopped cilantro, tangy crema, a smoky salsa roja as luxuriously warm as a Pendleton blanket and a sweet but zippy salsa verde as easy to binge on as Christmas stocking candy. Surely, I thought, my family of five would put down the entire load in one sitting. Nope. Even my 6-year-old son, known for destroying several orders of breakfast tamales at his school cafeteria, disappointed. The kid barely ate one.
So, the day after Christmas I laid out the substantial leftovers alongside shredded cheese and fresh corn tortillas and began assembling my tacos. I reckoned, if residents of Mexico City can eat tortas de tamales, I can scarf tacos de tamales. And with the glee of a child who had received a slingshot from Santa, I knocked down as many tacos as I could while ignoring the disapproving stares of my wife—the person whose idea it was to buy 36 tamales. As for the answer to my question: It’s eight. I can eat eight tacos de tamales before a siesta is in order.
Think host, KERA-FM (90.1)
The dish that irrevocably evokes Christmas memories for Krys Boyd, KERA’s crackerjack host of the in-depth interview show Think, is her Irish-German grandmother’s pickled eggs. “When I think about Christmas that’s what I think about,” she says. “They were sweet, ruby-purple things. They were on the table every holiday.” When you cut the eggs in half, they revealed brilliant magenta-purple rims that bled into the whites. Arrange them petal-style and they look like a flower with pale yellow yolks at the center.
Everyone went to her grandmother’s house in Manhasset, Long Island, for a lavish Christmas buffet, says Krys, who grew up in nearby Old Bethpage. She has two sisters and vividly remembers one year when Laura “climbed on a chair, got on the table and shimmied across like an Army crawl” to get to the treasured eggs. Krys still makes them for her “little” sister, who’s 40 years old now. But the three sisters were never able to transfer their love of the pickled eggs to their own families.
“None of our husbands or kids will eat these things.”
EDWARD LEE “MAC” MCDONALD
Owner-winemaker, Vision Cellars
They had no refrigerator, only an
icebox, and would hunt or fish for most
meals. Hunting meant squirrel,
various birds or rabbit. “If we
had extra, we’d take it to a neighbor.”
One of California’s few African-American winemakers, Mac McDonald has a way with Pinot Noir and loves to tell his story of growing up as the son of a moonshiner in the backwoods of East Texas between Palestine and Fairfield. The huge extended family (“nine aunts and uncles and numerous cousins”) would gather for Christmas at his grandparents’ house in Buffalo. “There were tables all over the house,” Mac says.
Or they would eat outdoors, under a tent. His grandfather raised many goats, he says, and his grandfather would butcher a few of the younger ones for the Christmas feast. He would cook the goat in sugarcane syrup he made himself and plenty of hot sauce and various spices.
“My grandmother would make cakes in a wood stove,” Mac recalls. Some were topped in meringue, and other toppings were peanut butter and crushed peanuts. “Christmas mornings were the best smells of the year.” This was the 1950s and 1960s, a long way from Mac’s life making wine. Almost everything the family ate was “fresh and organic,” he says with a wee twist of irony. They had no refrigerator, only an icebox, and would hunt or fish for most meals. Hunting meant squirrel, various birds or rabbit. “If we had extra, we’d take it to a neighbor.”
A group of doctors and lawyers would come down on regular hunting trips with his grandfather, who they called “General Tatum.” One of the doctors enjoyed drinking Burgundy. Mac stated that he did not know a Burgundy from a Zin or Cabernet. However, after tasting the Burgundy at age 12, he decided he wanted to be a winemaker. That was all it took to set the young man on his future path. But no matter how far Mac got from Texas, those early holidays were always special. “It didn’t matter that it was cold. We would build a fire, enjoy what we had and be thankful to visit with family. It was the way to go.”
Author, From Scratch, SMU professor
Cute little Rigby, Rachel’s Cavalier King Charles spaniel, met Rachel and her family at the door with a bow around his neck Christmas Day last year when they arrived home from a movie. “I was first to walk in,” Rachel says. Her initial thought: “What’s going on?” Her two dogs and her parents’ three dogs were supposed to be safely gated in the study at her parents’ Littleton, Colo., home. Away from the Christmas tree in the great room, with all the presents the family had opened the night before. Away from the kitchen, where Christmas Day supper was sitting out in various stages of preparation.
Instead, the pooches were lounging on the couch next to the tree. Going out for a Christmas Day movie is a tradition for Rachel, her husband and parents. Seeing the dogs, her mother bolted for the kitchen.
Mashed but uneaten, “The scalloped potatoes were on the floor in a goopy mess,” Rachel says, and the green beans had simply vanished. “I think [the dogs] ate them all,” she says. “Our joke was: Maybe they didn’t like the glaze on the ham.” Because that’s all the dogs left untouched on the counter. “They even ate the pies,” she says.
For that most memorable Christmas dinner, the family dined on Stouffer’s frozen mac ‘n’ cheese and ham. As for Rigby’s bow, he had somehow wiggled into it from under the tree. The dogs were chastened. “My mom put them all in their kennels for the rest of the night.” The men thought the whole thing was funny, Rachel says. Her mom, not so much, although she’s since softened. “You know what?” her mom said, “I’m sick of cooking anyway. Next year, I’m making lasagna.”
RACHEL EDENSON PINN
Dallas food writer
The best part of traditional Jewish holidays, for me, are the arguments. That’s right. I’ll summarize a few of them for you. Some folks, like me, slice onions and add them to our latkes, because onions make just about everything better. They’re like…the bacon of people who don’t eat bacon. But there is an entire latke camp that insists latkes are to be completely onion-free. Potato purists, if you will. No onions ever!
But the greatest point of Chanukah contention? Applesauce versus sour cream. Most choose a side. Some say both. Others say neither. Still other, perfectly sane people might even quietly whisper the word “ketchup,” which is likened to heresy, causing their elders to faint loudly. It’s so awesome. But, there’s one thing we semi-professional debaters can all agree on. And that’s that the Jewish people have enjoyed a long love affair with food.
My own personal favorite holiday food memory involved taking a Jewish culinary classic and making it my own. Last year during Chanukah I painstakingly shredded, squeezed, formed, fried, flipped, drained and topped at least a zillion bajillion potato latkes with crème fraiche and smoked salmon for a dozen of my goyim friends. Why? I’m not completely sure. Hours later, my feet ached, and I barely got to enjoy the party I put on, but darned if I didn’t make some perfectly crispy, totally delicious, fancy-pants latkes.
Twists on tradition was the name of the game last year; I made a couple of sweet noodle kugels topped with cherry pie filling (because man cannot live on latkes alone, of course), and we served donuts from nearby Hypnotic Donuts (a very non-traditional take on a traditional Chanukah fried treat). There were no dreidel games, but I think my non-Jewish guests got a sense for what it feels like, to be a goy on Chanukah. Plus, I made sure to argue with everyone just a bit, so they got a taste of the real Jewish holiday experience.
But the greatest point of Chanukah
contention? Applesauce versus sour
cream. Most choose a side. Some
say both. Others say neither. Still
other, perfectly sane people might
even quietly whisper the
word “ketchup. . . .”