by Bruce Beaty
Each December, when the holidays descend upon us, I'm intrigued by the ways people of different religious and ethnic backgrounds celebrate the social events of the season. One of the cool things about working in a restaurant and living in a diverse community is the opportunity to witness these divergent practices and see what makes us different and what makes us similar. Over the years I've had the fortune to see the holidays through a very different lens than the one my Protestant, Southern upbringing provided.
I've learned about the Catholic tradition of a meatless Christmas Eve dinner called Cena della Vigilia , or dinner of the vigil, a multi-course dinner consisting mostly of fish and running anywhere from 7 to 13 courses. I've watched the Mexican and Ecuadorian cooks in my kitchen prepare Bacaloa, or salt cod for Christmas Eve, in a thin sauce of tomatoes, peppers and olives. I've also been served that same salt cod as a salad on Christmas morning at my in-law's house, reflecting their Trinidadian culture. A very good Chef friend of mine makes the best potato latkes I've ever tasted, like the ones his mother would serve from Hanukkah right through New Years, manifesting his Eastern European Jewish heritage. I've also been in Austria during the holidays and tasted the most delightful selection of pastries, strudels, and cakes imaginable.
Despite the fact that December is probably the busiest month of the year for most of us, we always seem to make time for, and look forward to the times spent around the table with family and friends. Breaking bread and communing together are among the strongest ties that bind us together.
The following recipes represent conventions and customs I've discovered while traveling and living abroad, and working with a truly amazing mosaic of people from around the world. These recipes are not meant to represent a single menu. But each could be a very strong contribution to any pot-luck you might find yourself at this holiday season.