Family Food Traditions

In mid-December, I added a bag of mixed nuts – in their shells – to my holiday shopping list. My husband, the shopper in the family, called to verify, “Do you want salted or unsalted?” I tried to explain that you rarely find nuts salted while still in their shells. Finally he understood and brought me a bag of mixed nuts – still in their shells – unsalted of course. They were dumped into my fluted snowman pie plate. I searched high and low for my little metal nutcracker but it was nowhere to be found. It was always in the white lazy susan utensil holder on my counter top. 

My mom always had a bag of nuts in their shells in a bowl around the holidays. I can remember sitting with my dad, sharing the nutcracker, passing it back and forth, cracking and peeling walnuts, almonds, pecans, and whatever else was in the bag. Somehow, dumping those nuts in my snowman bowl means the holidays have officially begun, and I am whisked back to that activity with my dad. 

We all have food traditions that we inherit from our parents, and for those who are lucky, from our grandparents. Three of my four grandparents died long before I was born, and I have only limited memories of my dad’s mother who died a month after my sixth birthday. “Big Mama,” as she was called even though she was pretty small, would give me a little treat if I ran the gauntlet from the driveway to her door without crying. Many a day I was pecked by the rooster in her yard, which always won me a few squares of a Hershey Bar, because it was my favorite candy at the time (still love them), but also because a square of “chocolate flavored” ExLax could be mixed in with the real thing and I would fall for that every single time. Is it just the south (or perhaps just Louisiana) that a person’s overall state of health is judged by whether you had a bowel movement today?

Another food tradition was sharing an avocado with my dad. He would cut it in half and twist it, taking out the pit, and putting each half on a saucer. He would drizzle a little olive oil and red wine vinegar in the little hole, sprinkle it with salt and pepper, and hand me a saucer and a spoon. We’d have that as our “salad” before dinner. No one else in my family liked avocados so that was always our shared treat. I still eat mine that way today, and I never fail to think of my dad when I do, symbolically offering up the other half to his memory. Boy, do I miss him.

My mom’s favorite snack wasn’t something I liked, so I never had a handful of Cheez-Its on a paper towel, which she liked to balance on the arm of the sofa while she watched Ellen in the afternoon. I don’t know for sure if I dislike Cheez-Its or not, but the overly cheesy smell of them in the box put me off so I’ve never actually tried one. Anyway, I have too many things on my list of snacks that I love (too much) to add anything new to that list. 

Afternoon coffee was a big thing in my parents’ home, especially if one or both of them had taken a nap. Coffee was always made fresh post-nap. Sooner or later, my dad’s sister, my Aunt Helen, would drive up, or my dad would call her and tell her to come over for coffee. Something was always found to be put out with the coffee, a few store-bought cookies, some pretzels, or if we were lucky, a slice of cake my cousin Penny had baked. We also had fresh coffee after dinner most nights, when my mom would have an extra piece of French bread, with butter and a little jelly, and if no bread was left, she’d have a few Chips Ahoy chocolate chip cookies, with a light smear of butter on top of each one. Don’t gasp, just try it. Store-bought cookies need all the help they can get, and my mom believed a touch of sweet butter was just the thing. Boy, do I miss her.

Somehow, though, the Cheez-It gene skipped me and went straight to my younger daughter, who shocked me when she requested a box of them when I asked her what snacks to buy for her trip home this Christmas. Rest assured they were purchased; she could have asked for dust from the moon’s surface and I would have found a way to have it here for when she arrived. She had not been home since Christmas of 2019, as fear of covid forced us to cancel her trip home Christmas of 2020. Her asthma put her in a higher risk category, and as much as we missed her, we just wouldn’t take that chance. Of course we Facetime’d and Zoom’d all of this time, but loading up the kitchen counter with her favorite snacks was a small price to pay for actually hugging her and holding her close. Thank you science, it was because of her two doses of Moderna and the more recent booster, that we felt safe enough having her fly in from Los Angeles. We are back to Facetime and Zoom for our visits, with hopes of seeing her again in person this summer.

Speaking of that younger daughter, a few days in during our Christmas visit, an Amazon package arrived for me. Inside, a complete set of nutcracker tools. Even though she doesn’t sit and crack and peel nuts with me, she ordered this set for me, and now these new (and much improved) tools will remind me each holiday season of her as well as my dad. Boy, do I miss her.