Email subject line: “Xmas dinner positively sucked.”
Ah yes, Christmas 2008, our first holiday season abroad. I remember it was bad, but a scan of my email archives confirmed how bad. It sucked. Positively.
December in South Africa is beautiful, of course: summer vacation, barbecues, long swimsuit-and-slushie afternoons. Beautiful—but for us, not traditional. In the weeks prior to Christmas that first year, I unpacked our box of decorations (still sealed in packing tape from the move) and hauled out strands of tree lights, paper snowflakes, and sparkly icicles. The lights went straight back into storage: wrong voltage and no need for lights with the sun blazing into the evening. And while the snow-and-icicle motif clashed with our flipflops and bellowing floor-fan, we hung them nonetheless—on our shrub-sized PVC tree, the only Christmas tree I could find.
As temperatures crept higher and kids traipsed through the sprinkler, my thoughts turned to Christmas dinner. Fresh mango sounded good, as did watermelon, iced tea, and cucumber sandwiches. But this was Christmas after all, so off I went to the grocery store. Bypassing picnic displays, I searched for turkey, cranberries, and sweet potatoes. I came away with yams, a miniature jar of imported cranberry sauce, and a wad of turkey-like substance the size of a football.
You know how it all turned out.
My boys were young in 2008 — the twins had just turned three and Thomas was four. They sat at our semi-festive table for approximately 30 seconds, ate nothing, then raced back to the sprinkler. Only my husband and I remained, picking at dry, prefab turkey. Despite the spectacular weather and many other reasons to be thankful, I felt adrift. No twinkling lights, no scrumptious meal, no close friends or relatives. In short, no tradition to tether me to family history—to the family story—the story we create and re-tell, especially during the holidays.
In her memoir, The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken, Laura Schenone plumbs the notion of food and family tradition. She asks questions I asked myself in Cape Town in 2008. Can tradition be transplanted across oceans, seasons, and generations? Can immigrant and expat families uphold tradition when surrounded by vastly different foods and cultures? What, in the end, makes tradition so meaningful?
Descended from immigrants of many countries, Schenone feels most drawn to her Italian origins. She loves food she “was never fed, yet craved nonetheless,” chestnuts, anchovies, and olives; she inherited her great-grandmother’s ravioli press and her penchant for traditional Christmas ravioli. Not satisfied with hand-me-down Americanized recipes, Schenone embarks on a quest for authenticity, to create the true ravioli of her ancestors. She travels back and forth to Genoa, rolls and re-rolls pasta late into the night, and grows Italian herbs in her New Jersey garden. Though neither she nor her husband fully understand this obsession, Schenone senses a need to find her place as a mother, partner, and great-granddaughter, as a woman in a tangled and sometimes broken family lineage. She believes that the old recipe—the real, authentic recipe—will provide a link.
Finding your “ravioli” is no small task, however, especially for families grown from many cultural roots. We have returned home to Canada, but my boys, now second- and third-graders, have spent most of their lives in South Africa. They’re Canadians with French, English, South African and Welsh heritage. And every Christmas Day that they remember has been bright, hot, and capped with icy juice and a swim.
So I wonder, this first year back in Canada, as I wondered that first year in South Africa, what is our family tradition? What customs and recipes will my kids pass down to theirs? Do we have a ravioli?
We do. Sort of.
When I was very young, maybe five, my mother taught me to roll pastry with a wooden pin, to lift it from the floured surface, and crimp the borders, just as she learned from her mom and just as I’ve taught my son Jon. My mother baked pies with that pastry: apple pies stacked with chunks of McIntosh; lemon pies topped with caramelized meringue; and every Christmas eve, French Canadian tourtiere with beef, pork, and cloves. Just as her mother had baked, and just as I…. well, here things get complicated.
I do make pie several times a year. I think of my mother as I flute the pastry with two thumbs, but no ancestral rolling pin, no great-great-grandmother’s pie plate hangs from my kitchen wall. And while I often check my mother’s hand-written recipes for apple pie, lemon meringue, and tourtiere, all safely stored in a black leather binder, I don’t always heed them.
For our second Christmas in South Africa, I revamped my mother’s tourtiere to suit local ingredients and weather. I kept the cloves but exchanged the beef and pork for a lighter and indigenous meat, ostrich. The result was delicious and perhaps a first: Capetonian-Quebecois Christmas pie. We baked pie for dessert, too –lemon, but not quite like my mother’s. This pie distilled the juice and rind of seven fresh lemons into the taste equivalent of a backyard pool-plunge. Utterly summer—utterly festive, Christmasy summer.
These two recipes, ostrich tourtiere and lemon pool-plunge, became holiday staples over our years in South Africa. The zing of shredded citrus and mellow scent of clove and ostrich blended with the swish of sprinklers, end of school year, and crumpled paper snowflakes on our PVC tree. Will these pies suit a frosty Christmas Day in Canada? Not likely. Are they authentic? Who knows? Are they traditional? I have to say yes. In fact, I’m relieved to say yes.
As Laura Schenone came to accept, tradition lies not in painstaking replication but in graceful adaptation to a time and a place. Had we moved to another part of the world, the far north or Eastern Europe, had we stayed in Canada, I may have tweaked those old recipes nonetheless, not to improve them but to add ourselves to the story. It’s almost a coming-of-age for mothers to see ourselves and our families as a new incarnation of something very old. Yes, we perpetuate a history, we gratefully borrow, learn and share, but like a fresh taste added to a time-honored recipe, the blend of genes and circumstance that creates our children and our motherhood is unique. And reason to celebrate.
Reader-mamas, what’s your ravioli? Do you have a recipe that holds special meaning, one that has been handed down, tweaked or faithfully preserved over generations? What food is synonymous with family tradition in your home?