Holiday Meals Bring People Together…No Matter What’s on the Menu
Oct 31, 2018 07:12AM
By Vanessa Orr
Homemade potato latkes, a Chanukah tradition
Every year, our family came back from wherever they were living—New York, New Orleans and Juneau, Alaska—to gather around the Thanksgiving table and enjoy the incredible holiday feast that my mother prepared. While the food was fantastic, what mattered more to me then, and especially now that my mom is gone, were the memories that we were making as we celebrated time-honored traditions.
Years have since passed, and while I have tried to replicate those special meals of turkey, stuffing, gravy, mashed potatoes, pumpkin pies and more, it’s never been the same. In fact, we realized at my father’s house a couple of years ago that none of us actually even likes turkey—so whatever my mom did to make that meal delicious is even more astounding. So now we celebrate with fried chicken each year, which, while not exactly traditional, still gets us around the table to spend time together.
Different families celebrate in different ways, especially in Pittsburgh, which is a melting pot of cultures. Dinners feature everything from the “seven fishes” to potato latkes, pyrohy and more.
“We do our own version of the seven fishes for Christmas Eve, but we do it with shrimp and crab prepared different ways,” explained Denise Schreiber. “My mother was the only one who liked smelts; she grew up eating baccala (salt cod) and hated it, so it's something that we never saw.
“We typically have a pasta of some kind—some years lasagna, some years stuffed shells and some years ravioli,” she added. “There is also a standing rib roast, ham, potatoes, corn that I preserved, and my pickled beets.”
This year, Schreiber had cousins come in from Philadelphia and Wisconsin in mid-October to prepare the pasta. “October 14 was Ravioli Day with my family,” she said. “After my mom died, I decided it was better to get together for something fun instead of a funeral, so Ravioli Day was born!”
Last year, Schreiber’s family made more than 700 ravioli that everyone could take home and freeze. “We have Kitchen-Aid mixers and pasta attachments, and ravioli forms, and we all wear aprons, even the guys—there’s a lot of flour involved in ravioli making,” she laughed, adding that they use her great-grandmother's recipe for the meat ravioli.
Her mother and daughter also used to make frittelle on Christmas Eve; bread dough shaped like doughnuts that is deep-fried.
“My aunts used to literally make bushels of them for Christmas Eve, and now my daughter makes it for us every year,” said Schreiber. “We also make biscotti, pizzelles and Italian love knots for Christmas as well.”
Hilary Daninhirsch and her family celebrate Chanukah, or the Festival of Lights, each year. “We traditionally serve food fried in oil, as it commemorates a miracle that happened in ancient times,” she explained. “Jewish rebels were fighting for freedom and reclaimed a temple in Jerusalem. They only had enough oil to light the Menorah for one night, but miraculously, it stayed lit for eight days.”
The highlight of the meal is homemade potato latkes, which consist of shredded potatoes, salt, onion and a little baking powder deep-fried in peanut or vegetable oil, and served with apple sauce or sour cream.
“They are mouth-wateringly fantastic,” said Daninhirsch. “It’s also a license to eat fried food, which we try to avoid the rest of the year. I sometimes also make brisket, but the latkes are usually the main meal.”
While the dinner takes about an hour to make, it becomes more time-intensive when they have guests. “You have to make latkes in batches because the pan is only so big, so when we have company it takes longer,” said Daninhirsch. “The old-fashioned way to make them is to use a grater, but I do it in my food processor—I really appreciate my handy Cuisinart!”
For dessert, the family serves sufganiyot, or jelly donuts, which are also fried in oil. The kids can also collect gelt, which is chocolate candy wrapped in gold paper, as a reward for winning dreidel, a game played with a spinning top.
“I often invite non-Jewish friends over, and they seem to really enjoy it,” said Daninhirsch of the family dinner. “I carry over the tradition from my mother and grandmother, but I probably make a bigger deal out of it. Now that my daughters are getting older, they like to cook, but my husband still makes the best latkes.”
Steve Migyanko and his family celebrate Christmas Eve dinner in the Russian Orthodox tradition.
“Our dinner is meatless, and consists of pea and potato soup, pyrohy made with cheese and potato, sauerkraut, dry/sweet cottage cheese and of course...prune,” he said. “We also have kutia, which is a sweet barley mixture, almost like a Cream of Wheat, various fried seafood including calamari and smelt, and a baked white fish such as roughy, a sauerkraut in a gravy dish, bread, salt, honey and garlic.
“Each has significance,” he laughed. “Please don’t ask me what that is.”
While people love cooking for family and friends during the holidays, one group cooks for the whole community. Light of Life Rescue Mission on Pittsburgh’s North Side has been hosting a Thanksgiving dinner for decades, and they serve about 1,000 meals.
“Every Thanksgiving Day, we serve a banquet at the mission from noon until 6 p.m., featuring all of the holiday favorites—turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, green beans, yams…the whole shebang,” said Kate Wadsworth, assistant director of development, Light of Life Rescue Mission.
“Our volunteers also take Thanksgiving meals to 15 local high-rises for people who might otherwise be alone on Thanksgiving Day,” she added. “Our goal is to make this a positive holiday; to let people know that they are loved and respected and among friends, and to share the hope of Jesus Christ.”
Volunteers begin preparing about 125 turkeys in October for the meal, which also includes 640 pounds of green beans, 640 pounds of yams, 500 pounds of sage stuffing, 35 gallons of giblet gravy, and 140 pumpkin pies. “They take the cooked meat off the bone, put it in big pans and add gravy, and freeze it so it will be ready for Thanksgiving Day,” said Wadsworth. “The day of, volunteers start showing up at 4 or 5 a.m. to get the green beans ready, prepare stuffing and cut pies.”
During the event, volunteers also man a tent set up with winter clothes and accessories, and help those who need coats and gloves find the perfect fit. “We encourage people to build relationships while they’re here,” said Wadsworth, adding that the volunteers who go to the high-rises not only deliver food, but take time to visit with the residents.
The event is so popular that Light of Life doesn’t even need more volunteers. “They started calling us in September!” laughed Wadsworth. She added that they do need volunteers during the rest of the year, as they serve 365 meals a year.
“Everyone is welcome,” she continued. “To be able to provide a place that feels like family for those who don’t have someone to celebrate with is a special thing.”