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North Hills Monthly

Home for the Holidays: Family Meal Traditions Inspire Love and Make Memories

Nov 30, 2015 06:12PM ● By Jennifer Monahan
Deep-fried smelt. Potato latkes baked from scratch. Banh tet. Spinach pie. Pierogi stuffed with cabbage. This smorgasbord of Italian, Jewish, Vietnamese, Greek and Polish holiday favorites have no obvious similarities. The common threads across such widely varied menus are an appreciation for cultural and family traditions and the love and pride with which the food is prepared.

Jim Houser’s family has celebrated the Feast of the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve for as long as he can remember. His grandmother, Lee Perfetto Houser, brought the tradition with her when she emigrated from Italy in the 1920s. Though the menu varies slightly from year to year, Houser family staples include clams in white aioli garlic sauce with linguini, squid and red sauce over spaghetti, shrimp cocktail, lightly breaded deep-fried smelt, baccalà (salted cod) and an appetizer of anchovies on oranges. Although the last item is not his favorite, Houser explained that it is a point of honor in the family to try one every year. “You don’t get away from a Houser Christmas Eve without eating that,” he explained.

Houser’s favorite is the deep-fried smelt, which his father, Gary Houser, prepares each year. His father and uncle also occasionally make their own wine to accompany the meal. Houser described the gathering with obvious affection, and hopes his own three children will carry on at least some of the Christmas Eve traditions as they get older.

Lisa Dickter and her family celebrate Chanukah each year with traditional potato latkes (pancakes). While boxed options exist, Dickter’s mother prepares them the old-fashioned way. “She uses flour, eggs and onions, grates the potatoes, strains them, puts the potatoes in the blender, strains them again and fries the pancakes in oil,” explained Dickter. The oil symbolizes the miracle of Chanukah, when the Jewish people reclaimed a temple that had been corrupted. They needed to light the temple’s menorah for eight days in order to rededicate it to God. Although only one day’s worth of holy oil remained in the temple, they lit the menorah anyway, and it burned for all eight days.

Dickter explained that other than latkes accompanied by sour cream or applesauce for dipping, the food varies greatly among Jewish families on Chanukah. Her own family celebrations usually include matzo ball soup and corned beef sandwiches, or sometimes brisket. The meal is followed by the kids playing dreidel, lighting the first candle on the menorah, and opening gifts. One of Dickter’s favorite parts of the celebration is lighting the candles. “The fun thing for us is that the kids would often make a menorah as a craft project at Sunday school, and we have ones that we got for engagement or anniversary presents. We put them all out every year, and trade off which ones we light,” said Dickter.

My-Trang Robinson and her family celebrate Tet, the Vietnamese New Year, by gathering relatives for a traditional meal that in addition to banh tet (mung beans, sticky rice, and meat filling wrapped in a banana leaf), includes thit kho, which is made from chunks of pork steamed in broth with soy sauce and boiled eggs. Her mother, Ann Truong, usually serves it with a side dish of bean sprouts and chopped carrots in vinegar. Dessert is mut (dried coconut, pineapple, and ginger coated with powdered sugar) and com ruou, which translates directly to ‘rice alcohol’ and is an elaborate dish made of sticky rice fermented in yeast for five days, then served in balls and eaten with xoi, rice mixed with crushed mung beans.

In addition to the food, a large part of the celebration focuses on traditional practices of wishing their elders a happy new year and then imparting a particular wish for that individual, such as good health or prosperity. The older members of the family then offer li xi (red envelopes containing money) to each younger person. Robinson grew up celebrating Tet and has enjoyed introducing her two daughters to the celebration, although her focus has changed. She explained, “As a kid, I looked forward to the red envelopes. Now I love knowing that it’s going to be a happy occasion with my family. This is our big family gathering of the year.”

Becky Totolos did not grow up in a house with a dominant cultural tradition, but she married into a Greek family, loves to cook, and quickly acquired the culinary prowess required to execute a traditional Greek Christmas meal. Mainstays on the Totolos’s holiday table include roast lamb with oregano and lemon, spanakopita (spinach pie), dolmathes (grape leaves stuffed with meat), fassolakia (green beans in tomato sauce), lemon-roasted potatoes, feta cheese, baklava, and kourambiethes, a shortbread-type cookie that is a family favorite, especially for her husband, George.

Totolos explained that in the Greek Orthodox faith, people typically fast from oil, dairy and meat for the four weeks leading up to Christmas, so this meal is especially elaborate. The celebration lasts through the Feast of Epiphany on Jan. 6. Totolos’s favorite memory is of the year her husband’s parents traveled from Greece to visit for Christmas. They purchased authentic ingredients from Stamoolis Brothers in the Strip District and “we really Greeked it up,” she laughed.

For Mary Lou Kisic, née Kopczyk, preparing for Wigilia on Christmas Eve provides a meaningful way to remember her beloved grandmother who brought the tradition with her from her home in southern Poland. Kisic explained that her family’s customary dishes differ from some others because her grandmother grew up on a farm in a landlocked area of Poland, and relied on ingredients that could be stored until December rather than the fish that comprises many dishes in other Wigilia meals.

Kisic follows her grandmother’s practices of putting hay underneath the tablecloth to represent the manger where Jesus was born and leaving an empty seat at the table to symbolize waiting for the Christ child to arrive. The meal begins with everyone breaking off a piece of oplatki, a thin wafer. Kisic’s menu keeps the tradition of being meatless, and includes potatoes, sweet cabbage, sauerkraut, potato and cabbage pierogi, honey noodles, barley, buckwheat, peas and mushrooms.

Growing up, Kisic enjoyed fresh oranges and poppy seed cake for dessert. She has added her own cherry-nut pound cake to the menu in recent years. Wigilia is sometimes called the Twelve Dishes of the Apostles, but Kisic explained that the tradition must include an odd number of dishes –12 for the apostles plus one for Jesus.

Kisic has been making the elaborate, time-intensive meal for her family and friends for almost 30 years. “I love when they come,” Kisic said. “That’s my Christmas right there.”

Lest readers be overwhelmed by the elaborate preparations required for many of these special meals, Bill Sherry has found an alternative. About 11 years ago, Sherry and his wife Jane decided that they were done with cooking, cleaning up or traveling to the homes of in-laws on Christmas Day. They opted instead for what Sherry calls his “non-traditional Christmas tradition” of Christmas dinner in a restaurant each year. Sherry gives an annual ‘State of the Family’ address and has been gratified at the lengths that his five children go to to be able to attend; so far, no one has missed a dinner.

Sherry has enjoyed welcoming his children’s spouses and now three grandchildren as the family expands. His favorite thing about the gathering is how it brings the family together. “They all look forward to it, and it binds us as a family,” he explained.

Whatever is on the menu, honoring loved ones and practicing cultural and religious customs add meaning to the holidays for many.