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Life Arts    H4'ed 12/28/14

What the Classics Can Teach Us About Cherishing Holiday Foods, From A Christmas Carol to Moby Dick

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Last Christmas, over sev eral nights, my husband read Charles Dickens' A Christ mas Carol aloud to our two daughters, ages 10 and eight. Propped up on the couch on either side of their father, they were alternately thrilled by time-traveling ghosts and bored by Dickens' long, wandering descriptions. In the third chap ter, in which Scrooge walks the streets of London with the Ghost of Christmas Present, Dickens launches into such an animated, detailed description of food in a Christmas mar ket that I asked my husband, as the girls sighed and rolled their eyes, to reread the passage. I later found myself look ing up the history of the unfamiliar varieties he describes, the filbert nuts and Norfolk Biffin apples.

A few generations ago, people spent more time in the field and the kitchen, grew more local varieties of crops, and were conversant with the nuanced use of each. Some apples were best fresh off the tree, others after six months in the cellar. There were specific apples for pie, for cider, and even a variety for frying. These days most of us are only familiar with the apple meant for our lunchbox.

For most of our history, end-of-season feasts celebrated local harvests. Here in North America, we prepared feasts when turkeys were fat, apples were plump, and pumpkins were ripe. But we're not reliant on local harvests anymore. Nowadays, our festivities often involve opening a can and pouring its contents into a premade crust, ordering a shrink-wrapped factory-raised turkey, and filling it with stuffing from a plastic bag. It's hard to know when or where these foods were harvested, but it's likely they're from far away, and, especially if they arrive frozen or canned, not from a recent harvest. Local varieties and their accompany ing traditions fall by the wayside.

From a modern perspective, Dickens' lavish passage about Christmas food in London can read like a dirge for disappearing foods, dishes, and customs. After hearing Dickens' description of the Christmas market, I began mulling over the connection between food, place, and liter ature, and wondering if some wisdom or inspiration about how to eat sustainably over the holidays (and the rest of the year) could be gleaned from old stories that focused on celebration of place and the food of that place.

Using traditional recipes and local ingredients deepens our understanding of what makes our region unique.

My search led me first to The Good Life, by Fabiola Cabeza de Baca Gilbert, a book featuring food local to my place: New Mexico. This book, first pub lished in 1949, combines traditional New Mexican recipes with stories of a quasi-fictional family--actually a compos ite of the many northern New Mexican families Cabeza de Baca worked with during her years as an agent for the Agricultural Extension Service, which aimed to help rural families make their farms more productive. From 1929 to 1959, when most of her female contemporaries married and stayed home to raise children, Cabeza de Baca trav eled to remote corners of New Mexico to show ranching and farming families everything from the latest agricultural techniques to how to use a sewing machine. Her ethnicity, gender and love of traditional ways (most extension agents in New Mexico during those decades were white men who spoke only English), helped her win the hearts of ranch ing and farming women. But Cabeza de Baca, who herself grew up on a ranch in New Mexico, was conflicted about her success. She knew that modern technology made the lives of rural families easier, especially women's, but she deplored "the passing of beautiful customs which in spite of New Mexico's isolation in the past, gave happiness and abundant living."

Pozole de Nixtamal/Hominy Stew

2 c. hominy
6 c. water
1 lb. pork ribs or other pork cuts suitable for boiling
1/2 lb. pork rind
1 medium onion
4 dried red chile pods
2 t. salt
2 cloves chopped garlic
2 t. oregano
2 t. saffron


Cook hominy until corn kernels begin to burst; add meat, pork rind, onion, chile pods (seeds and stems removed). When meat is nearly done add seasonings. Cook until well done. If the pressure cooker is used, cook corn without pressure until kernels begin to burst: then add meat, pork rind and chile pods. Close cooker and cook for 30 minutes at 15 pounds pressure. Open, add seasonings and cook slowly for at least 15 minutes--From The Good Life: New Mexico Traditions and Food, by Fabiola Cabeza de Baca Gilbert, Museum of New Mexico Press, 2006.

Despite passing time and changing customs, Cabeza de Baca's description of Midnight Mass and posole evokes strong memories from my childhood Christmases. Posole, a stewed hominy, has long been a food staple in Mexico, and most likely came to the Southwest during the colonial period. Over the centuries each region developed its own unique preparation method. Cabeza de Baca's character prepares hers with ingredients traditional to New Mexico: "There was so much to be done before Midnight Mass," she writes. "The lime hominy had been cooking all day and it was all ready but the seasoning. Doña Paula who was a proud cook had to have everything well seasoned. From astring of chile in her store room she took three pods; she removed stems and seeds and washed the pods. She took the lid off the kettle, added the chile, oregano, salt, garlic and onion. Now she could get ready for Mass."

The elderly character Doña Paula could be any of the diminutive, white-haired ladies who brought posole to Christmas-season potluck suppers I attended as a child. They'd arrive lugging immense Crock-Pots of posole, pre pared just like Doña Paula's, to be set among the dishes of pinto beans, tamales, empanaditas, biscochitos, and Jell-O salad on long, sturdy tables in the parish hall.

Hominy is made from dried corn kernels that have been soaked in a mineral bath, usually lime--a process called nixtamalization. Processing corn in an alkaline bath is a 3500-year-old Mesoamerican tradition that makes it pos sible to make it into masa (the dough used in tortillas or tamales), and makes the niacin in corn available to the body. The women that Cabeza de Baca visited at their post-Depression-era farms processed their own hominy, but I don't know anyone who does this at home nowadays. Other traditions in New Mexican cooking have likewise fallen out of use: the hype against saturated fats has compelled many cooks to replace lard with margarine in tortillas and bisco chitos (my favorite Christmas cookie), despite recent evi dence that lard has several health benefits and margarine none. The factory-raised, ungainly, and unnaturally broad-breasted white turkey has replaced the elegant, tastier Black Spanish heritage turkey as the centerpiece of a New Mexican Thanksgiving or Christmas meal.

Noting that the recipes she records "have been passed down in New Mexico households for generations, often adapted to conditions and to the availability of certain ingredients of the locale," Cabeza de Baca reminds us that using traditional recipes and local ingredients deepens our understanding of what makes our region unique and what our local fields can sustainably produce for our table.

Cabeza de Baca balanced embracing the best of the new and holding on to the best of the old.

I came across another one of my Christmas favorites in Herman Melville's Moby Dick--in this case, a dish local to New England. On a cold winter's evening, after anchoring at Nantucket, whaler Ishmael and his shipmate Queequeg go ashore for a hot meal: "Oh! sweet friends! hearken to me. It was made of small juicy clams, scarcely bigger than hazel nuts, mixed with pounded ship biscuit, and salted pork cut up into little flakes; the whole enriched with butter, and plentifully seasoned with pepper and salt. Our appetites being sharpened by the frosty voyage--and in particular, Queequeg seeing his favorite fishing food before him, and the chowder being surpassingly excellent, we despatched it with great expedition."

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