Think Thanksgiving. Think Christmas or Hanukkah. What foods and memories come to mind? What do you really love and miss if it’s not on the table? Be honest, now. For me, Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. I love the whole thing: turkey, stuffing, gravy, sweet potatoes, and, of course, green bean casserole. You know what I’m talking about. Made from frozen French cut green beans, mixed with sour cream and mushrooms and topped with French’s fried onions. Say “ugh” if you must, but I bet you’ve got some similar dish you cherish too.
I asked a host of Bucks County chefs and restaurateurs about their food memories – what they loved about celebrating the holidays and what has stayed with them. What I heard wasn’t exotic, or haute cuisine. What I heard was family and tradition, and a lot of love.
For Drew Abruzzese, executive chef at the Pineville Tavern, holidays began with a trip to Baltimore, where his father’s family is from. Sitting down for dinner at two tables pushed together that didn’t match, and feeling the flour on the floor under his shoes, leftover from two days of making ravioli on the dining room table. Dinner included all of the usual American holiday staples, and then some. Ravioli, sausage with peppers, meatballs. “I hate to bring up ravioli again but most of my memories are filled with Marinara sauce,” he says. They are also filled with memories of hanging out at his Aunt Josie’s house, where both the door and the kitchen were always open. A coffee pot was always on, cookies and cannoli at hand, or leftover veal cutlet, ready to go into a sandwich. “If I was sitting on death row, and had to choose my last meal?” says Abruzzese, “Breaded chicken cutlets, stacked to the ceiling, in my Aunt Josie’s kitchen.”
“Eggnog. It’s not Christmas until I get my eggnog.” This from chef Matthew McPhelin, owner of Maize Restaurant in Perkasie, where local, fresh ingredients take center stage and the menu changes with the seasons. McPhelin, one of five children, was raised by his mother after his father passed away during his childhood. And his father’s favorite holiday food? Eggnog. For McPhelin, a huge part of the holiday time is about family. “My mom raised five of us all by herself. During the year, we didn’t have a lot of time. It was kind of crazy. But the one time we made sure we were all together was Thanksgiving and Christmas.” Now he makes pumpkin lasagne and pumpkin lobster soup at Thanksgiving, both at home and at the restaurant. But his favorite? “My mom made the best sweet potatoes – that’s what I think of.”
For chef Rich Baringer of Dinner’s Done, a personal chef service, it’s about tradition too. “Turkey, stuffing, ham, mashed potatoes, the usual,” he says, adding, “But one I don’t care for. Mashed rutabagas. Mom makes them because her grandmother made them; I’m not even sure she likes them!” Then there’s “Dad’s cole slaw” called such because, well, Dad always shreds the cabbage. “It’s like somewhere along the line someone made something and it meant enough that someone else wanted to continue it.” In addition to “mom’s applesauce,” pineapple stuffing is a given. “If someone didn’t make it, people would ask, where is it?” Then there were the Christmas mornings, stealing downstairs with his sister to take down their stockings where they would always find Slim Jims. Eating Slim Jims early in the morning? Well, it wouldn’t be Christmas without it, says Baringer.
The holidays were a big family get-together for David Zuckerman, too, general manager of Earl’s Bucks County in Lahaska. He describes a kitchen where all the women, all generations were cooking together, all with their place and their job. “My grandmother made stuffed cabbage – raisins, sweet tomato sauce, fresh lemon juice. My father made brisket – no one messed with dad’s brisket.” Thanksgiving was “standard” but with the traditional Jewish dish of tzimmes – carrots, prunes, and honey. Green beans with fried onions, of course, and fresh apple pies made with local apples. Hanukkah brings memories of chocolate coins, or gelt, in little mesh bags, cookies in the shapes of menorahs and Jewish stars, potato latkes and freshly made applesauce. “It was really about the family being together.”
Chef Justin Kaplan, of Palate in Newtown, grew up with two traditions – his mother’s side was Greek, his father’s side was Jewish. In his aunt’s house – that’s the Greek Orthodox side – Christmas meant tyropita – buttered phyllo triangles filled with salted feta, leg of lamb and moussaka. On the Jewish side, Kaplan’s memories include fresh applesauce made from Terhune Orchards’ apples, the smell of potato latkes, and fresh horseradish, lingering through the house. And, pies, lots of pies. Pecan pie and apple pie, made from Stayman and Empire apples. But his favorite? “My mom makes these mashed potatoes, with a crisp and crunchy top layer, dusted with paprika and butter,” he says, “We’d always scrape off the top layer until there’d only be the last two inches left.”
Kate Barker and Louis Giliberti, owners and chefs at 1821 Steaks and Cocktails in Upper Black Eddy, also mix traditions. Barker hails from the Pacific Northwest and Giliberti is North Jersey Italian. She makes the turkey which comes from Bolton’s in Silverdale. “We always drive together to pick the turkey up at least two days ahead of the holiday in order to properly brine it,” says Barker, “I also make the gravy. My mother didn’t have a wide vocabulary of dishes that she could cook — she never used a fresh herb in her life — but she had an amazing gift with gravy and she taught me well.” Louis’ mother and father are both from Italy so they always celebrate the Feast of the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve. That first involves a “white knuckle” trip to Newark with Louis’ father to the Portuguese section to buy the freshest shrimp, cockles, clams, baccala, capetune (eel), and lobster. Louis’ mother starts baking like crazy just before Christmas so there are all kinds of traditional Italian sweets to enjoy: bowties, struffoli, and zeppoli. “And then there is the box of sweets and goodies that arrives from Italy with candy-coated almonds,” says Barker, “and hard cookies to have with coffee that will take a filling out if you’re not careful.”
“My family are connoisseurs of JELL-O,” explains Eben Copple, chef at the Yardley Inn, when I ask him about holiday food memories. Copple is Kansas born and bred, and is proud of his Midwestern roots, if not JELL-O per se. “All of our celebratory meals were the same: Turkey and ham, candied yams with melted marshmallows, several different types of salads – bean salad, green salad and JELL-O salad,” he explains. All kidding aside, growing up in the middle of farm country made a great impact on Copple and his relationship with food. “I remember being at my grandmother’s house, helping her put up apple butter, walking down the steps to her basement, and seeing the shelves full of canned goods she had put up for the winter.” Now he holds that attitude towards food as a kind of platonic ideal, considering how food should be treated and respecting where it comes from. “Food should be good and honest,” he says, wondering if we are losing our food traditions in the American heartland, far away from the ethnic influences of the coasts. Then there are the peanut butter balls, made by his aunt. “It’s creamy peanut butter mixed with Rice Krispies – sort of like a peanut butter fudge – rolled into small balls and dipped in chocolate. I’d eat handfuls of it.”
For chef Theo Petron, co-owner with chef Melissa Wieczorek of A La Maison personal chef services, the holidays were influenced by his German heritage. “Growing up in Minnesota, we were and are fairly traditional,” he explains. “One dish that was usually at our table during the holidays was a beef roulade of sorts. Thinly sliced beef seared and then rolled up and secured with tooth picks. It was then braised in a sauerbraten-like sauce until tender. My grandmother called them ‘Beef Birds.’” And not to be outdone by Eben Copple, but quite impressive, was the JELL-O dessert a la Petron. “My other grandmother made this wacky dessert. Green JELL-O in a casserole dish with 6 – 8 canned pear halves sunk in, and inside each pear was a maraschino cherry! Imagine the festive colors. It was refrigerated until set, scooped out and served atop a piece of iceberg and a dollop of cottage cheese – to keep the JELL-O from sliding off the lettuce.”
Maybe, just maybe, some traditions can fade away.
This article was originally published in Bucks Life magazine, November 2011.