The holiday tradition I can rely on.
Good food is worth a thousand words—sometimes more. In My Family Recipe, a writer shares the story of a single dish that’s meaningful to them and their loved ones.
It was nearly midnight on Christmas Eve. With my parents long tucked into bed, my sister Meg and I had the kitchen to ourselves. I folded the sugar and cinnamon and nutmeg into the cream cheese; Meg sliced the bread and whisked together an eggy custard until it was frothy. While I looked for a casserole dish, she picked up one of our dogs, singing and dancing to the Christmas music blasting on my phone. I joined in.
These are my favorite moments: my sister and me. Although she’s two years younger, Meg feels more like my twin. She’s my emergency contact, my go-to for advice, the person who can always make me laugh until I gasp for breath. There’s nothing I can’t tell her. But most importantly, she’s the one person in the world with whom I can be utterly myself—heartbroken, proud, lonely, and frustrated. The good and the bad. No matter what, she’ll always love me and accept me, even when I’m singing "Drummer Boy" very off-key.
And while today we may look like a postcard for healthy sibling relationships, this wasn’t always the case. Between the ages of 6 and 14, Meg and I fought constantly. I’m talking about screaming, slammed doors, and would-rather-let-the-house-burn-down-than-do-you-a-favor fights.
I blame myself. When we were growing up, Meg idolized me. When we played dress-up, I got first dibs. My dolls were always smarter and prettier than hers. When we moved into a new house, guess who chose her room first? Once, I tricked Meg into eating dog food just so I could taunt her: “You eat dog food!” It was only a matter of time before she turned on me.
Our fights were epic. I remember one particularly long, nasty argument, when my mom broke us up by exasperatedly screaming the warning so many parents have uttered before her: “When your dad and I DIE, you will ONLY have each other!”
Another time, when I was 5, in a characteristically dramatic threat to run away, I packed my miniature suitcase with the essentials—an unused diary and a T-shirt—while Meg sobbed and begged me not to leave. My mom called my bluff, so I proclaimed that I was only staying because of Meg.
Which wasn't entirely untrue.
I used to joke that Meg and I became friends because we absorbed parts of each other’s personalities. I shrugged off my moody seriousness; Meg became more focused and grounded. We learned to see our different dispositions as strengths, turning to each other for advice and support.
We grew especially close after college, when I moved 1,300 miles away from Louisiana for an internship in Allentown, PA.
At the time, I didn’t have a name for my anxiety. But even if I did, I wouldn’t have described it as bad. It formed the cornerstone of my work ethic, a trait I loved. I worked hard at my new job. But it was also a completely new and unfamiliar environment, filled with rules and expectations they don’t teach you in school (like how to answer the phone or convince a brand to send you thousands of dollars of samples on their dime). Mistakes happened, mostly mine. And although my safety net of family and friends back in Louisiana tried their best to cheer me up, I felt completely alone.
I called Meg almost every night, describing my failures of the day: I wasn’t confident enough when pitching an article; I didn’t get asked to research an infographic; I had forgotten to record my hour-long interview. I told her how I would never find a full-time job. That my mistakes would haunt me, growing like a disease until there was nothing good left.
She listened as I sobbed into the phone.
Meg is the reason I’m still here today. She didn’t accept my defeat, forced me to keep going. She filled out job applications with me, talked through my cover letters, reminded me each day of the small victories, like walking outside, learning to make lasagna, or reading a book I love.
At my darkest moment, Meg wrote me a letter I still pull out today whenever I need a reminder that things will be okay, that I'm not alone:
You wonder why I believe this sad and anxious version of you is ten times as great as all those people out there who aren’t sad and anxious. That's because you can give me things they cannot. Our talks give my life meaning and fulfillment. Sometimes, just having a really good and genuine conversation with you feels like coming up for air, after having to hold my breath for a long time. I can't get that feeling when I talk to anyone else. You show me depth, you bring me joy, and you better me as a person just by knowing you. -M
The year I needed that letter most, going home for the holidays was a touchstone, a moment of relief to slip back into the comforts of routine and familiar roles. But, as is often the case, home always looks a little different than when you left it. The house was messier, my parents older, more tired. With just days before Christmas, we hadn’t even set up the tree.
I was willing to accept the lack of wreath on the door or the skipping of Christmas cards. But when my parents casually mentioned we weren’t making the French toast casserole on our drive home from our Christmas Eve dinner, I revolted.
I’m not entirely sure when my mom first made the "French Toast with Grand Marnier Fruit Sauce" from Southern Living’s 1991 Annual Recipes cookbook. It caught her eye because it was a crowd-pleasing holiday recipe she could make ahead—perfect for our relative-packed home. Meg and I loved it for the sweet strawberry sauce we would lick off our plates. Every year, after opening our presents, we’d rush into the kitchen to help stir (and sample) the sauce before setting the table. Christmas morning without it seemed unimaginable.
Meg agreed to drive with me to Walmart to grab French bread and cream cheese (we always have a bag of strawberries in our freezer). Just past 10 p.m., the shelves were empty and checkout lines packed with frenzied shoppers. My parents were asleep by the time we made it home, so Meg and I welcomed the first hours of Christmas together, alone, with singing and laughter, and French toast casserole.
A lot of things have changed since that Christmas. It took months, but I did find a job, which is what brought me to New York. Meg helped me with that transition, too, searching for apartments online with me, listening to me complain about the cold (helping me shop for winter coats), and scheduling my first therapist appointment when life overwhelmed me.
I’ve also learned techniques to manage my anxiety when I don't have her near. In therapy they teach you how to develop healthy habits to confront challenges and setbacks. Those are especially useful when I'm in the thick of it. It’ll never be completely easy, but now I can approach life with a more flexible, forgiving mindset. And come up for air when I feel that I'm without it.
Cooking helps, too, of course.
For the holidays, I'm grateful that making this French toast casserole is now mine and Meg’s tradition as adults. Though we grew up with it, in recent years it's gained a different, more lasting significance. It'll be imperative that we keep making it every year as a reminder that—even in the midst of all the Christmas chaos—this one brief, unutterably grounding moment is just for ourselves and for ourselves alone. Just my sister and me.
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