Any musical theatre geeks among you are now singing to yourselves; I’m particularly gratified by the mental image of those select few who are actually going “bum bada dum bum bum, Tradition!” along with me. But I digress. As much fun as it would be to go off on a tangent about Zero Mostel right now, my intentions lie elsewhere.
I’ve been thinking about the word, and the meaning, of “tradition” a lot lately. Certainly as we count down to Thanksgiving (2 weeks? Really? Cue poultry panic attacks nationwide), the concept of traditions and food is on everyone’s minds. I just had a very entertaining conversation with a bunch of coworkers about the way holiday food traditions have changed and evolved for each of us as we’ve grown; married, in some cases; moved far from home, in others; and had to start creating the “adult Thanksgiving” experience that will separate our grownup lives from our childhood memories. (Wow, that got sort of heavy at the end. It was actually a pretty sprightly and amusing conversation. Not as reflective as I made it sound.)
One thing I’m contemplating as I look ahead at the VERY rapidly approaching holiday season is whether or not I feel like the “traditions” I’m upholding in our household are, in fact, the traditions I want to raise my kids on; are we doing things the way I imagined we would, back when L. and P. were just lovely, misty aspirations, and J. and I were fresh-faced newlyweds imagining that we’d someday have a big, rambling old farmhouse full of kids and dogs and Pottery Barn-worthy decor? (Fresh-faced: not quite, anymore. Newlyweds: bloom’s off that rose. Big, rambling: not so much. Old: decidedly. Farmhouse: Pfffft. Kids: yup. Dogs: do the neighbor’s dogs count? Pottery Barn: I think P.’s quilt is from PB Kids. Clearance. With free shipping.)
The short answer is, of course not. Of course we’re not doing things the way we thought we would, because naturally, the realities of life change the course of your imaginings; just as the children you actually have are completely different, and certainly far better, than the ones you imagined, the way holidays and special occasions unfold will be different (and probably far better, in a way) than in your visions. The Norman Rockwell ideal of falling snow, crackling fires, perfect decor, and hot cocoa gives way to that charming sludge forecasters euphemistically call “wintry mix,” accompanied by a breakdown of your 100-year-old home’s heating system, the realization that the $50 you spent on holiday decorations at Target managed to earn you precisely one nicely decked-out windowsill, and a pot of boiled-over milk scorched permanently onto your stovetop, because you were too busy changing a diaper blowout to remember you’d turned on the flame.
Not that I’m cynical. In fact, I speak from experience, and I’m actually giggling as I type this — because naturally, as with all things in life, it’s all about perspective. J. and I have had to apply that same perspective to our desires to build lasting holiday food traditions (or rather, I have — I lump him in with me, probably unfairly, because he and I are a package deal; but I doubt he cares as much about being picturesque as I do). We’ve learned a few things along the way:
1) Turkey is not essential on Thanksgiving. When my poor mother-in-law slaved over the turkey last year, only to have it come out raw in the middle due to a thawing snafu, it didn’t ruin the holiday. It didn’t even ruin dinner. And it made for a darned good story.
2) Swedes and Italians can co-exist at the buffet. My family has always — and I mean, for about 80+ years, so it’s really “always” — had a big Swedish smorgasbord on Christmas Eve. (For the uninitiated, “smorgasbord” translates loosely to “sandwich board” — it’s just a really, really big buffet.) Some things, like the Swedish meatballs and the smoked salmon, are non-negotiable. Others have evolved over the years, making our family’s smorgasbord a semi-ridiculous hodgepodge of foods; when J. joined the clan, I started making arancini (Italian rice balls, stuffed with cheese and meats and then fried) to put out on the table alongside the pickled herring and the brown bread.
3) If you don’t have anything nice to say, just shut up, eat it, and make what you like another time. Obviously this is a golden rule at any time of the year, but honestly, I think it’s worth reiterating every time the holidays and food traditions come up. J. and I have started a mini-tradition of making Thanksgiving sides at our Sunday dinners throughout November and December; we developed this strategy to help us cope with the fact that the actual Turkey Day dinner never seems to quite live up to what we would do in an ideal world. Of course, that’s not a dig at J.’s mom, who does all the cooking (which we appreciate greatly!) — it’s just a fact that she has to please a wide variety of palates and ideals on that day, whereas if we cook for ourselves, we only have to please the four of us. Likewise, we’ve begun an unconscious semi-tradition of eating primarily pasta, seafood and vegetarian dishes in the first week of the New Year, to compensate for the fact that after a Christmas vacation spent at my folks’, we’ve usually consumed far more meat and potatoes than we’re used to having.
This year, I think I’ll try to be more purposeful about creating real food traditions with my own little family unit for the holidays. I’m excited for the upcoming weekend, which has always been the official start of my holiday baking season — what with vast legions of cookies and specialty breads to make and either give away, freeze, or consume, it takes many weekends of hard-core kitchen time to get everything ready for the big events. But beyond the baking, I want to challenge myself to find a few moments…just a few…where we can all stop and gather for an unexpected time-out together. Maybe I’ll create a Thanksgiving breakfast ritual, or something special for Advent. Maybe it’ll just be hot cocoa every Friday night, or a slow cooker full of oatmeal every Sunday morning. Whatever it is, though, I’m craving just a touch of that misty holiday vision — in the real world, with my real, beautiful family — and without the Pottery Barn pressure for perfection.