Everyone knows that certain foods are associated with certain holidays, but did you ever wonder why that is? Thanksgiving is fast approaching, and then we enter the Christmas/Hannukah/Kwanzaa/Festivus/New Year/Saturnalia season, so maybe this is a good time for reflection on (and digestion of) some of our holiday dining traditions.
Thanksgiving seems pretty obvious — it’s a typical harvest celebration, as old as agriculture itself. It was recast as a specifically American event by Abraham Lincoln, who had a vested interest in reminding us that ALL Americans had something in common (there was that Civil War going on at the time). There is only one contemporary account of the pilgrim’s first Thanksgiving. In a letter written on December 11, 1621, Edward Winslow listed the foods they ate: “the fruit of their labors,” unspecified types of fowl, and venison. It seems odd that he would not have included green bean casserole and marshmallow-topped sweet potatoes — maybe they were so obvious that he didn’t need to mention them. Seriously, that first Thanksgiving was — and all subsequent Thanksgivings have been —a classic harvest feast, consuming as much of the season’s bounty as possible. Remember, before modern food storage methods were invented, many foods were only available at certain times of the year.
The ancients celebrated the New Year at around the
same time (January only became the year’s first month with the
advent of the Gregorian calendar in 1582).
At the other end of the year, we have Easter and Passover. Both holidays occur, not coincidentally, at the same time as earlier pagans celebrated the Spring equinox, the rebirth of the year. The ancients celebrated the New Year at around the same time (January only became the year’s first month with the advent of the Gregorian calendar in 1582). The Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, atypically, occurs exactly half a year after Passover — so it comes around the Autumn equinox (the dates for Jewish holidays are not as accurately tied to the equinoxes because their lunar calendar doesn’t sync well with the solar calendar).
But back to the table — think of the foods associated with Easter and Passover. Specific religious reasons aside, what do they have in common? Lamb and eggs become available in the spring. The bitter herbs of Passover are among the earliest fresh “vegetables” available after the long winter. Charoset may symbolize the mortar used by Egypt’s enslaved Jews — but it’s made of dried fruits, honey, wine, and nuts (foods that could have been stored through, and survived, the winter). Many Easter dinners include ham, a cured meat that, in times past, would just be coming into its own after the butchering in the coldest part of winter.
—quintessentially calorie-laden winter foods—
along with a medley of spices that hearkens back to the
cooking style of the Middle Ages
And the Christmas/Hannukah/Kwanzaa/Festivus/New Year/Saturnalia feasts?
When we think of Christmas, we think of “figgy pudding” and fruitcake, even if none of us actually eat them anymore. Those desserts, like mincemeat pies and Dickensian plum pudding, are made with lots of dried fruits, nuts, and fat (often suet) — quintessentially calorie-laden winter foods — along with a medley of spices that hearkens back to the cooking style of the Middle Ages.
Traditional Hannukah foods (at least since Medieval times, and the discovery of the New World) include potato laktes and lots of dairy dishes. Potatoes store well through the winter in root cellars and, during those cold months, milk products don’t spoil as quickly as they do in summer.
“kwanzaa” comes from a Swahili phrase meaning “first fruits of the season” —a late-in-the-year harvest celebration
The very name “kwanzaa” comes from a Swahili phrase meaning “first fruits of the season” —a late-in-the-year harvest celebration. It is, of course, a holiday created in modern times, but like all holidays it looks to the past for inspiration. For American blacks, that means the foods of the south: greens, especially collards, black-eyed peas, sweet potato pies — all foods that would have been easily available in winter in the south. New Year’s Day often includes some of these same foods, for good luck in the coming year; Hoppin’ John (black-eyed peas and rice) symbolizes pocket change, while collards are supposed to bring folding money — but ONLY to those who eat them on New Year’s Day.
winter holidays are superimposed on the much older pagan
holiday, Saturnalia —which, in turn, was based on celebrations of the solstice that probably go back to the neolithic
All of these winter holidays are superimposed on the much older pagan holiday, Saturnalia —which, in turn, was based on celebrations of the solstice that probably go back to the neolithic. The thing to remember is that seasonal holidays depend on some kind of calendar, whether it hangs on the kitchen wall, or is a circle of stones that track the movements of the sun and moon. Calendars only became essential to our existence when we invented agriculture — because farmers need to know when to plant, so that crops will have time to ripen, and the vagaries of weather are not as reliable as the regular progression of the seasons.
I have no idea what kinds of foods Kramer had in mind when he invented “Festivus: the holiday for the rest of us.” Perhaps it was just extra helpings of whatever it was that Jerry and friends ate at their Upper West Side diner. And, before you ask, how can we explain the food traditions of the Fourth of July?
It can’t be a coincidence that those celebrations occur just as the hot dog harvest is coming in.
Gary Allen’s most recent book is Can It!: The Pleasures and Perils of Preserving Foods, his third book from Reaktion. You can find more of his speculations about things he has been known to (but really shouldn’t) put in his mouth — his own foot being a prime example of the latter — on his website: onthetable.us