Observe and Report
We asked some Baltimoreans what they look forward to about the holidays other than the holidays. Here’s what they said
Published: November 17, 2010
When it comes to the holidays, everyone knows the drill(s): turkey, Santa, lighting the menorah, Champagne, joining a gym, etc. But what often makes the holidays truly special and memorable are those little moments of togetherness and seasonal ritual, and those tend to be as individual as snowflakes. We wanted to find out about the personal holiday traditions and rites of some of our fellow Baltimoreans, and a number of them were kind enough to share. Perhaps not surprisingly, many of them involved food.
Gabrielle Finck, associate principal horn player, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
About three years ago, I decided to stop eating meat. I’d been thinking about it for a while, but I decided to make the plunge. I was reluctant to tell my family, because they appreciate good cooking, and that usually centers around meat. I was a little bit shy about it, so when Thanksgiving came around, I tried to just stay out of the way. Then I realized there are a lot of opportunities to show off a lot of really great vegetarian cooking.
The idea is I feel sort of competitive against the meat-eaters. I want to have something as impressive to sort of justify my pickiness. I have tried to find things that are really kind of attention-grabbing, and I’ve had the best success with the roasted beets. I peel them and cut them up and toss them in olive oil, then roast them in the oven pretty hot—about 425 degrees—sprinkle some coriander on top, and I like to make a lemon glaze. I find that the lemon and the coriander react really nicely. Even some people that aren’t into beets are into it.
This year we have Brussels sprouts on the menu. They’re underappreciated but very delicious, especially in coriander sauce. I cook with my boyfriend. He’s not a vegetarian, but he cooperates.
Rachel Whang, co-proprietor, Atomic Books
Every year I have a Christmas-cookie swap. Instead of baking a bunch of different cookies for the holidays, you bake a double batch of one kind and then you swap them with friends so you have a variety of cookies without all the work. We have a brief party (because the holidays are crazy) and turn it into a competition with celebrity judges (local food writers, bakers and chefs, etc.) and prizes, because everything is more fun if it’s about winning. I wish I could turn it into a video game.
It can get kind of tense. People are pretty competitive about their cookies. There have even been scandals in the past. In the beginning, one of the rules was everything had to be baked—you couldn’t have a no-bake cookie, ‘cause we considered that a confection and not a real cookie. So one year someone brought a no-bake cookie, but they lied and said it was baked, and it became a scandal, because it was obviously not baked.
We have it at the store, but it’s not open to the public. We don’t want strangers bringing food that we would be swapping and we don’t know who they are.
Glenn Ross, community activist
There are five children in my family. I’m the eldest, and I have one brother and three sisters, and we’re kind of scattered now. I have one brother and two sisters who live in Pennsylvania, and my other sister and I still live in Baltimore, and we really don’t get to see each other during the year. So we all look forward to Thanksgiving and Christmas breakfast at my sister’s house in Pennsylvania. It’s the only chance I get to see them all at one time, and not just my brothers and sisters, but all the nieces and nephews and all the other new generation coming into the family. Each year our family just gets larger and larger.
And it isn’t just seeing your family, but it’s also the great food as well. Everybody brings their specialties and we have a regular smorgasbord. Myself, I love the lamb for the Thanksgiving dinner—we’ll have several different kinds of meats. The turkey, the ham, the spare ribs, the lamb, just a little bit of everything. My family’s also known for making desserts. You’d think you’d have walked into a restaurant.
Marc Steiner, host of The Marc Steiner Show, WEAA-FM
We have a multicultural home. It’s Christian, Jewish, Puerto Rican. So we do all the holidays. And if we’re together Christmas Eve or Christmas Day or even Hanukkah, we sing a song my daughter Maisie and granddaughter Shaina—then 8 and 9, respectively—made up. (I have children of all ages. My youngest daughter is 14. My oldest is 40. I have grandchildren as old as my daughter.) Hanukkah and Christmas were coming and they started singing this song— they created it spontaneously:
Dreidel, dreidel, dreidel
I made it out of clay
Dreidel all the way
Oh, what fun it is
To mold a dreidel
Out of clay
You hang ‘em on a tree
for all the family
in our mixed-up family
Oh, Dreidel bells . . .
Rodney C. Burris, activist
one of the things I look forward to is the canisters of popcorn, the tri-colored caramel, cheese, and butter. Yeah, that’s something that you only find at this time of year, and I love it. My parents weren’t very big on holidays, and the popcorn was one of the few things about the Christmas holiday that they allowed us to really do for a while, and that became our Christmas tree. This is gonna date me, but one of my fondest memories as a child was having two of those cans floating around the living room and watching the first Home Alone movie on VHS. That really solidified as something warm in my childhood, and we did it every year. I got married, and one of the things that I told my wife was that I didn’t know about this Christmas stuff, cause I didn’t do that much as a child, but if we do anything, we gotta get a can of popcorn.
Aaron Henkin, co-creator and co-producer of The Signal, WYPR-FM
My grandpa came over on the boat from Sweden when he was like 13 years old. He and my grandma would eat Swedish meatballs, pickled herring, lots of boiled potatoes with dill. The Swedes are not known for their culinary flair. Once in a while we’ll get Swedish meatballs frozen from IKEA, but the torch that will be carried on will be the Swedish pancakes.
When I was little we’d always go to my grandma and grandpa’s for Christmas, and she would always make Swedish pancakes. She was a French grandma, but my grandpa was Swedish, so she learned how to make them for him. She made them for him and then as they passed on, rest their souls, my dad kept the tradition alive. I think I might have gotten a skillet for Christmas one year, and that was sort of the official, OK, it’s on you now.
You need a 12-inch iron griddle and you can never wash it. You only can wipe it afterwards. It’s pretty much just flour, milk, sugar, a stick of butter, and then you just whip it into this really thin batter that you ladle into the skillet. And then sort of spread the skillet around until it’s like this paper-thin layer of batter, like a crepe. And then you have a special long thin spatula that you learn how to get under that thing and then flip it over and roll it into a roll. There’s a real Zen to making them. You get this certain wrist action to getting the batter spread perfectly all around the pan and there’s a special rolling technique.
It is a project that immediately follows the tearing open of presents on Christmas morning. And I remember sort of being more interested in the presents than the Swedish pancakes. Maybe it’s a rite of passage in our family, when you get to an age where you start looking more forward to the Swedish pancakes than the presents.
Sharon Green Middleton, Baltimore City Councilmember, D-6th District
When I was young, my mom always had Christmas breakfast, and I try to keep that tradition and get up in the morning before my husband and son and try to have a nice home-cooked breakfast. We rarely eat breakfast together because of our schedules. I make things that you don’t normally have because we usually eat breakfast on the run. My husband loves grits with butter, my son tends to like the fried apples and waffles, and we have sausage, and bacon—I really kind of do it all out it.
I’m a former family studies and home economics teacher, so I taught food and nutrition and international cooking, so I do try over the holidays. One of my favorites is the apple cake, and I only make it once a year. That’s the culminating activity for everything. You gotta have food for discussion and whatever activity you’re doing, even if it’s just kind of a snack. There has to be some kind of food that opens up conversation.
Cullen Stalin, DJ
This year marks the seventh installment of my favorite holiday tradition, the Baltimore Bass Connection Xmas party. Initially a Morphius Records party, in subsequent years it became a sort of homecoming event organized by Emily Rabbit and Spank Rock for a family of DJs and musicians who share a similarly diverse set of tastes. Djembe drums and punk rock, electronic dance music and psych all crank out of a (sold out) annual party that brings together the Baltimore Bass diaspora—the original nucleus now scattered in Philly, L.A., NYC, and Boston. It’s especially poignant for those who (like myself) were regulars at the weekly “Tensday” party, which served as a rallying place for fans of diverse and forward-thinking dance music at a time in Baltimore where there were very few places to experience such things.
Jana Hunter, singer/songwriter/guitarist, Lower Dens
I left Baltimore just before Halloween, and won’t be back till just before New Year’s Eve. My significant other and I were significantly bummed about missing Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas together. Three days before I left, we struck upon the idea of uprooting those celebrations from their temporal constraints, and decided to cram them all into a 48-hour period. The next morning we got some pumpkins, put on costumes, carved a no-faced jack-o’-lantern, cleaned up, bought the next day’s feast, all the while jamming to Suspiria, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, etc. Day two, we cooked like demons, set up the tree and lights, had some friends (including the band) over, poked up a fire, ate to the point of anticipated discomfort, exchanged animals, and passed out. It ended up being incredibly satisfying, immeasurably so, and for someone who spends an awful lot of time away from home, it felt ultimately necessary. Best Christmas ever.
Joe MacLeod, Mr. Wrong
We’ve always been an open-presents-on-Christmas-Eve family, which meant when I was a little kid my big brother and I would stay up into the wee hours of Christmas Eve/Day, evaluating our haul and OD’ing on Holiday Snacks (the once-a-year use of the nutcracker and cheese slicer) with the Electronic Hearth blazing. Since we are Roman Catholics, it made sense for us to check in with the Midnight Mass broadcast from the Vatican, not because we wanted to join in a ritual conducted by a millennia-old religion that taps into the beliefs of millions of human beings around the planet connected by a shared Faith, but pretty much to goof on the Pope and all the weirdos with fur coats and whatever sitting in the VIP section. We would wonder, Why is there a VIP section if we’re all Equal before Soul Brother No. 1? Plus, it has always been our Theory (still unconfirmed) we could fulfill the requirement of attending mass on a Holy Day of Obligation if we watched it on the teevee. Also, the Vatican really is an amazingly ridiculous place, the pillars, the artwork, that little house-frame they put the Pope’s chair in, the armies of guys in robes, the priceless baby-Jesus sculpture they march down the aisle, it’s crazy. Take a look at the first 10 minutes of the Major Motion Picture Dune by David Lynch, and compare that to the scene at Midnight Mass. This is probably the only regularly occurring Religious Service that comes complete with a play-by-play announcer on the broadcast, seriously, no matter what your Religious Affiliation or non-affiliation is, you should check it out. For us it was highly Educational seeing where some of our dough from the collection basket at mass went, for the upkeep of all that stuff. Somebody’s gotta clean those giant, twisted pillars, right? Anyway, it never gets old, even though the popes do, and that’s when we get really deep, trying to see how feeble he is, like, how much of the mass is he doing, is anybody holding stuff he would normally hold, and also, we scout the room, checking out the red-capped Cardinals, who are all one step away from being pope, all trying to figure out who’s gonna be next in line for the Big Chair. No matter where we end up on Christmas Eve, my brother and I always find time to check in with the Holy Mother Church and the healing power of Television. And snacks.
Raymond Winbush, director of the Institute for Urban Research, Morgan State University
I’ve been celebrating Kwanzaa for about 30 years. Most holidays have a religious significance or a political significance, but Kwanzaa is a cultural holiday. I call it a black family reunion at the end of the year. It brings people together to celebrate the endurance that African-Americans have had to have to simply survive in this country. And I think we’ve not only survived, but prospered. Christmas is so commercialized right now, among black people as it is among white people. We buy all these Christmas presents and go in debt for three, four months. Kwanzaa is a quieter holiday than Christmas. It’s more reflective, it’s more inner.
This year I’m going to London, England. I’m going to be giving a program to a group of African-Britons about Kwanzaa, and it will be the second time that I’m celebrating it outside the United States. Two years ago some black people way up in Nova Scotia in a tiny town had read something I’d written, and they asked me would I come and bring them their first Kwanzaa celebration. It was in a place called Weymouth, Nova Scotia, and it had the distinction of being the mink capital of the world. The whole town was built around the mink industry. I learned a lot about the mink industry, probably more than I ever would want to know.
The African-Canadian population up there is one of the oldest settlements of black people in the Western Hemisphere. One of the reasons they wanted to celebrate Kwanzaa was because when slaves were punished—like in South Carolina and Maryland—the biggest threat was we’re gonna ship you to Nova Scotia, because it was terribly cold up there. It became like a scare tactic. I just planted a seed there in 2008. And they told me in 2009 that they had bigger celebration. So hopefully that will happen when I go to London this Kwanzaa.
Caleb Stine, singer/songwriter
Growing up in Colorado, we had a tradition for New Year’s Eve that my dad still heads up today. Every year he prints out a two-sided sheet of questions. The front of the page prompts you to reflect on events from the year past, and the back side asks for hopes and prognostications about the one to come. And it’s become this tradition, which I think is really cool, to have New Year’s Eve a sort of more focused holiday. It makes sense to have that as a point where you’d think about time itself and its passing.
Some sample questions: Who did you become friends with this year that brought a lot of joy to your life? What was your favorite movie this year? Who would you pick to be the Time magazine Person of the Year? What major world event do you predict will take place this coming year? Do you have any personal goals you’d like to share? So then we sit around and all read the answers to each other.
You can see how this is a great springboard for conversation, and a chance to ruminate on where you’ve been in your life, during this rotation around the sun. It’s a tradition that really personifies my dad, a deep, generous soul who loves nothing more than diving into meaty philosophical conversation. There’s some stuff you just don’t want to talk about in front of your family. But that’s a whole other issue.