From Dumpling Feasts to Kitchen Fires: How We Holiday

November 13, 2017

How do we holiday? We cook and celebrate; we give gifts and give back; we burn the turkey and laugh about it; we get on each others’ nerves a little, too. But throughout the season, we come together—in celebrations large and small.

It’s this sense of togetherness that informs How We Holiday: Each week, join our community of home cooks, in their kitchens and at their tables, as we talk to them about their tips, tricks, and traditions. This week, we start with five stories on our favorite topic: cooking.

Learning From Disaster, by Merrill Stubbs

One of the most important things that I think about whenever I’m planning a menu is something that Amanda taught me: The holidays, and when you’re entertaining, is not the moment to be doing lots of experiments. My biggest kitchen-disaster story is a testament to that. I was having a dinner party in an apartment that I had just moved into, and I decided to make a recipe I had never made before. I had seen Martha Stewart deep-frying eggs on her show, essentially poaching them in oil so that you had a crispy outside, and I was like, “That looks like a great idea.” So I heated up a huge pot of oil on my stove, and forgot about it, and then remembered and was like, “Oh man, better turn that down.” So I turned off the heat and decided to take the lid off the pot, thinking that would help it cool down faster—but instead, it ignited. It spontaneously combusted. So I had a chute of fire coming up from this pot, and my microwave was mounted over my stove and started to melt this black plastic goo. The fire department came within five minutes, but even in that short amount of time, my kitchen was totally ruined. I couldn’t use my kitchen for two months. So my advice is: Never make something new for a dinner party.

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Instead, I make holiday recipes that are tried and true, or that I've at least made a couple of times. The thing that I have to make every year, and that everybody in my family always needs to make, is what we now call Tuscan Onion Confit. My mom brought back the recipe from Italy: She was at a restaurant in Tuscany, and along with the antipasti, they served this sweet-sour pearl onion/raisin/pine nut concoction. She loved it so much that she asked the waiter how it was made. This was all in her broken Italian—my mom is not shy. And he was like, “Come back in the kitchen, the chef will show you!” So she goes back and the chef shows her how to make it, and writes down a recipe in Italian for her. It became our companion to cranberry sauce. She’d call it “Tuscan Onion Goo”—the onions, vinegar, sugar, raisins, and pine nuts all cook down into this sticky, delicious thing. The holidays wouldn’t be the holidays without it.

Merrill Stubbs is a co-founder of Food52 who likes to spend her time outside of the office either at home or gallivanting around Brooklyn with her husband and two small children.

Photo by Bobbi Lin

Creating New Traditions, by Cynthia Chen McTernan

The first Thanksgiving that my husband spent with me was actually in Hong Kong; I happened to be abroad for the semester, and he visited me. We didn’t do too much cooking in that apartment—it was a tiny studio with only one burner that worked (and I was terrified of cockroaches). So we ended up cooking a big batch of frozen dumplings, because the frozen dumplings are so good there. It turned into a tradition: For Christmas or Thanksgiving, if it's just us, we’ll make dumplings. I make homemade ones now; making the wrappers is a nice, relaxing thing to do over the course of the day, and they freeze really well. And then you can have a lot of friends over to stuff them.

When I’m with my family for Thanksgiving, my mom goes all-out. She likes to make a roast duck instead of turkey—they're smaller, and they stay so moist and tender. She glazes it with a soy-sauce glaze. The rest of the meal is a hybrid of Chinese and American food: She makes a sticky-rice stuffing with Chinese sausage and wood-ear mushrooms, and then maybe I'll make a Western cornbread dressing, and then we'll have a pumpkin pie or sweet potato pie. We also like to braise pumpkin or kabocha to serve as a savory dish, which is one of my favorites. You chop it up into chunks and then simmer it with chicken stock, a lot of scallions, and salt and pepper. That’s all it is; it’s incredibly easy.

My biggest tip for the holidays: Don’t stress out about being perfect. If everything goes wrong, you can just order pizza—and that’s still delicious.

Cynthia Chen McTernan is a Los Angeles-based lawyer and the blogger behind Two Red Bowls, a space devoted to recipes inspired by her Asian background, her childhood in the South, and everything in between.

Photo by Mark Weinberg

Keeping It Simple, by John Birdsall

With menu making, it’s important to radically edit and simplify, to have the confidence to narrow your focus. There’s a feeling that you have to stretch out a bunch of traditional dishes, but there’s much more genuine pleasure in two or three things well done than a dozen things thrown together. So do a couple of dishes that are striking and meaningful in some way.

One dish my mom was always very proud of was her holiday stuffing; I feel like that’s an inherited thing. The holiday stuffing I make and love is an acknowledgement of the fact that I live in the Bay Area, at the center of a great American bread community. For many years, I’ve been a fan of the Levain loaf at The ACME Bread Company: I’ll go and buy it days before I make the stuffing, so it’s at exactly the right staleness. That then has to be de-crusted and pulled into irregular cubes, not cut. I would’ve already made a stock, just for the stuffing, and from there it’s pretty straightforward. I just make the traditional mix with the bread, butter, and stock, and then add some sausage.

For me, I use holidays as a way to feel at home with my true family. I’ll usually see my mom, but it’s really about my husband and me; it’s a chance for us be in a more private space. We actually try to leave town for part of it. We drive from the Bay Area to LA every year at the end of December, as our way of enjoying the holidays on our own terms. Being with a bigger group sometimes is great, but I try to do that during the holiday month, not necessarily the holiday. Getting to the point of celebrating with one, or two, or three people in my life that I really like feels like a big achievement.

John Birdsall is an award-winning food writer.

Photo by Bobbi Lin

Updating The Classics, by Jessica Goldman Foung

Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday, but strangely it became my favorite holiday even more once I had dietary restrictions. At first, I tried to recreate classic dishes from a low-sodium perspective. How do you make over green bean casserole, a dish that’s mostly made out of canned ingredients? How do you make over a brined, roasted turkey, which really does rely on the brine to stay moist? Over time, I started realizing that you can’t just take out the salt; you have to add different flavors, different spices. You can't just take away the fried onions on the green bean casserole; you need something else to give it that crunch, whether it's toasted almonds or even toasted coconut flakes. When you have dietary restrictions, you can always try the traditional route, but you may end up being disappointed by the flavor. As you get further away from what a dish once was, it may not really be the thing your grandma used to make anymore, and it doesn’t have the same memories attached to it.

So now I say, go ahead and come up with your own classic. Maybe it’s a shaved Brussels sprouts salad, or green beans topped with pickled fennel, or fish or even pork tonkatsu instead of turkey. I've started looking internationally to include one or two dishes on the table that either adds color or flavor, or green vegetables that wouldn't otherwise be there—and suddenly, your classic carrot soup becomes curried carrot soup, or posole. Recently, I’ve gotten excited about the idea of flexible feasts. Several parts of the Thanksgiving meal work really well for this: salad, stuffing, mashed potatoes, root vegetables. Let’s say you have a bunch of roasted acorn squash. You can serve a couple of dressings on the side, like pesto or balsamic vinaigrette or mustard vinaigrette; you can set out toasted nuts, balsamic-soaked raisins, maybe parmesan cheese. Then, everyone gets to make it exactly how they want it, and it can fit almost any dietary restriction. Use the garnishes as part of your décor—put out bowls of herbs for people to sprinkle—and you’ve just hacked your way through the holidays.

Thanks to Lupus and two failed kidneys, Jessica Goldman Foung found herself in the kitchen, determined to prove there's flavor beyond salt. She's all about low-sodium cooking and allergy-friendly swaps, and she'll always pick “grocery store and shop” over “Netflix and chill.”

Photo by Rocky Luten

Feeding The Community, by Michael Twitty

Food is a vehicle for narratives about people, narratives about history, narratives about identity, narratives about justice and healing. It carries a conversation. It’s important that I cook traditional foods, that I keep recipes and ingredients alive. It’s one of the things we African Americans have that grounds us.

When it comes to holidays, I have two recipes I keep coming back to: my mother’s macaroni and cheese and her apple crisp. I’ve preserved them, but I add my own twist. I add cream cheese to the macaroni to make it tangy and creamier. My mom used to buy apples from the store, but I make sure to get apples from the farmers market or go pick them myself.

For Hanukkah, I make sweet-potato latkes with cayenne and green onions. I also make beignets. This year, for Kwanzaa I’ll probably make some jollof rice because I’m going to Nigeria. I have a recipe for jollof rice in my book, but I’m eager to learn some tricks to bring back. In between the two holidays, instead of a Christmas roast, I’ll do a Jewish holiday rib roast.

I have a lot of friends and family, and I also tend to make a lot of food and give it to the people who don’t have time, the people who have to work. I’ve learned to make a ton so everybody is well satisfied. I make my deliveries and in a way, that’s become more of a holiday tradition for me than having people over.

Not every foodie is rich. There are ways to celebrate other human beings without being Daddy or Mama Warbucks. Quite frankly, as black people we’ve been doing this for quite some time. I tell people to get organized, to check your pantry before you go out shopping, because it’s easy to waste money and food. But also, if something is really important to you, don’t skimp on the quality. There’s a balance between being financially responsible and making sure that your food tastes up to the standards at which you want to serve it.

And don’t make too much—make just enough. If you have a little extra, make sure you give it to the people who don’t. And make sure that the people in your community—in your apartment building, in your church, in your synagogue—have somewhere to go. That they have a family, that they have a purpose. That’s the most important thing we can do during the holiday: Feed the soul.

Michael Twitty is a culinary historian, the writer behind Afroculinaria, and the author of The Cooking Gene.

Interviews conducted and edited by Brette Warshaw, Valerio Farris, and Eric Tao.

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ahpha November 14, 2017
What an excellent piece! I really appreciate the range of reflections on food, family, and tradition on display here. And I especially appreciate Michael Twitty's call to place the holidays in the larger context of caring for community, which I think is unfortunately a point too often lost amidst the deluge of tips, questions, and recommendations that tend to make up the content of other food publications whenever a holiday rolls around.
JeremyK November 14, 2017
I love these different traditions and inflections of the holidays, food and beyond. For us, straight-forward savory herb rolls (with too much butter) are one of the few things that's made it from year-to-year, the ritual of kneading what is surely one of the world's stickiest doughs probably being more fun and pleasurable than eating the rolls themselves. But with Lynne Rossetto Kasper playing while we cook, it has said Thanksgiving, year in and year out. Would love a dumpling recipe from Jessica Goldman Foung to add to the mix: prepping those too sounds like the kind of ritual of cooking together that could become a new tradition.