I think I am breaking a commandment.
OK, well, not a commandment, but probably more Jews worldwide probably honor this tradition than many others.
Eating Chinese food on Christmas eve or Christmas day has become a cliche actually. I grew up doing it and so did lots of the people I grew up with.
Actually like many Jewish traditions, this one was born out of necessity. Americans tend to go crazy over Christmas, drive down the street and practically every house tries to outdo the other with lights and decorations, sometimes it is so overdone that it looks like Santa and his elves puked all over someone’s house and yard. But hey, that’s part of the fun.
When you were a kid growing up in the 1970’s, before Adam Sandler gave us our dignity back, before Menorahs and Christmas trees shared (semi-equal) time in town squares, before people started going postal about being wished Happy Holidays, pretty much every Jewish-American kid I knew (except the ones with earthy-Health-Food-Store parents who didn’t own a TV, and let’s face it, were lethargic due more to a lack of protein than anything else), gazed out the window. They felt sadness at seeing the twinkly lights, The tacky plastic snowmen and Rudolphs, imagined the tree inside and the excitement of all the other kids trying to go to sleep knowing that in a few short hours, they would wake up and it would be Christmas and they would be showered with presents, stockings and fun for days to come. Us Jewish kids would turn around look at our empty fireplaces and sigh with sadness.
So, what did our parents do? Mind you, it was the 1970’s and our parents grew up in the Depression, so no, they didn’t talk to us about our feelings. They piled us in the car and took us to the only restaurants that were open and served decent food on Christmas eve – Chinese. There, among szechuan beef, lo mein and and Peking Duck, would be a room full of Jews, laughing it up, ingesting MSG, and having a great time, sans twinkly lights or elves. These were the days of you-ate-what-was-served-and-I’ll-give-you-something-to-cry-about, so there were no tupperware containers of mac and cheese or plain pasta for the kids. We all dug in and after we were done, the kids and adults played musical chairs until the kids were seated together eating ice cream and our parents drank coffee and sipped Kahlua, talking politics or gossiping while the ashtrays filled up with stubbed out Benson and Hedges, Salems and Virginia Slims. When the young kids were just about slouched enough to almost fall asleep, they brought us in the car and took us home. It really was a Merry Christmas.
Now that I am grown up and have my own family, I try as much as I can to bring my traditions into our own home and that includes going out for Chinese food at Christmas. It’s been a tough tradition to recreate here in Europe though, because most restaurants in Amsterdam, including Chinese restaurants, are open on Christmas and offer special holiday menus of dressed-up food, including our go-to Chinese in Amsterdam which kind of sucks, because you are not going to the only place open that also doesn’t celebrate Christmas, you are going to a place dressed up for Christmas. So not the same thing.
So, onto plan B. I’ve struggled over the years to find a plan B every year and I have not found one yet which has stuck with us. But this year, I am going with (wait for it), stuffed cabbage.
I am the youngest of 3 kids and the only girl, and as a kid I was often around a lot of adults. I often preferred to be in the company of my mother, aunt and grandma as they cooked rather than out in the living room getting picked on by my older brothers and boy cousins. It was safer there, they gossiped in the kitchen, and that was way more interesting than seeing who-head-butted-who in the living room.
I love to cook, mostly because it brings back these memories of time spent with my grandmother and my mom. I make a lot of my mother’s and grandmother’s recipes. I spent so much time with them in the kitchen that I never had to have the recipes written down, watching them being made over and over again, as I grew up etched them in my memory.
Except for stuffed cabbage.
My mom made really good stuffed cabbage, but I always ran like the wind whenever she was making it. Her stuffed cabbage was good because unlike a lot of other Jewish recipes, it wasn’t too sweet. We were the odd Jewish family that didn’t like sweet food, my mom’s stuffed cabbage had a hint of sweetness, but was equally tart and delicious. The problem was I never watched her make it because when I was a kid, I didn’t like the smell of cabbage cooking and that always chased me out of the kitchen. Once it was cooked I loved it, so my mom mainly made stuffed cabbage during the week while I was at school, so that when I came home, the cabbage smell was perfumed by her tomato sauce and the smell of the meatballs she added in after stuffing all the cabbage leaves.
So, problem is, I don’t know how she made it. The last time she made it for me was the last summer we visited her before she got sick and true to form, she made it while I was out. She pushed me to go out shopping that day, so she could spend time with my daughter and after I came back, full of bags and refreshed from lunch and shopping and with a Starbucks iced latte in hand, I walked in and smelled it, stuffed cabbage, already made. She made it as a surprise which was great, but that’s not doing me any good now.
I’ve been combing recipes for weeks and I think, using my memory, the Internet and the vast forensic skills I have developed by watching too much CSI, Dexter and Criminal Minds, I have managed to find something, which is actually a combination of 3 different recipes (2 for the filling), one for the sauce which might help me recreate her culinary excellence.
So, I will be spending Christmas eve experimenting, making meat mixtures and sauce recipes until I find exactly the right one, that gives me the smell and feeling of youth and warms my kitchen and my heart with those memories of all those days spent in the kitchen with the women who raised me.
Wishing all my fellow Jews out there a Happy Jewish Christmas however you choose to mark the day and all my Christian friends, a wonderful Holiday.