This is the first year I noticed that people started wishing me a “nice holiday” right before Thanksgiving instead of the usual “Happy Thanksgiving” greeting. What other holiday would we all be celebrating in the United States around Thanksgiving? Why the use of the generic “holiday” in this instance? Why the sudden unease? Were people wondering whether an immigrant American like me celebrates Thanksgiving? (But, isn’t Thanksgiving the quintessential American holiday in certain respects — the holiday allegedly observed by the first immigrants to North America?) Or, had they somehow picked up on the historical baggage of bloody genocide that Thanksgiving comes with, not to mention the current animal ethics concern with the mass slaughter of rather tasteless birds on one day. I’ll never know.
This is also the time of the year when acquaintances and colleagues start showing a sudden interest in what it is I celebrate (if at all) during December. Mind you, this happens every year (you’d think they’d know by know). And, every year, I’ve to come up with a creative way of saying that while I don’t observe Christmas in the traditional sense (but, who does anyway!), I exchange gifts (more as a matter of reciprocity than anything else), put up twinkly lights and prepare festive meals around the Winter Solstice. This year I’m even signed up to volunteer during Christmas week at a cafe that provides free lunches to those in need. Do all of these count as celebrating the American holiday season that is Christmas?
In the past several years, I’ve even created my very own holiday tradition in December with a dear friend. This annual tradition provides the recipe for this post.
No, don’t worry. This is not one of those “war on Thanksgiving” or “war on Christmas” type posts. Nor is it one lambasting political correctness, a useful tool often used ineffectively to give the impression of appearing to be inclusive, while often managing (at the same time) to give offense. No, I won’t go there.
The genericization of Thanksgiving and people’s unease and studied uncertainty about what it is I celebrate in December got me thinking about traditions — Who do they belong to? How do they change over time? When is it time to abandon them? How does one create a new tradition? These are difficult questions for immigrants like me, often because recreating traditions (honoring as much of the original traditional elements as possible) often provides the only purchase we have in a new country that we’ll eventually learn to call home. A special family recipe, for example, and the stories that accompany it could be just such a self-made tradition, as is the case with Jonathan Safran Foer recounting his grappling with the tradition (as a vegetarian) of his Holocaust refugee grandmother’s chicken and carrots recipe in his moving vegetarian memoir Eating Animals. He writes:
“We are made of stories. I’m thinking of those Saturday afternoons at my grandmother’s kitchen table, just the two of us–black bread in the glowing toaster, a humming refrigerator that couldn’t be seen through its veil of family photographs. Over pumpernickel ends and Coke, she would tell me about her escape from Europe, the foods she had to eat and those she wouldn’t. It was the story of her life….and I knew a vital lesson was being transmitted, even if I didn’t know, as a child, what that lesson was….We are not the tellers of our stories, we are the stories themselves. If my wife and I raise our son as a vegetarian, he will not eat his great-grandmother’s singular dish, will never again receive that unique and most direct expression of her love, will perhaps never think of her as the Greatest Chef Who Ever Lived. Her primal story, our family’s primal story, will have to change [emphasis added].”
As the world in which we live deals with an unprecedented scale of war and mass migration of refugees, a similar concern is expressed in this thoughtful op-ed piece I read recently in Al Jazeera in the aftermath of the deadly attacks in Paris: The Hidden Meanings Behind ‘our way of life’: “But who are we, and what exactly is our way of life, beyond personal preferences and timeworn customs? Perhaps most urgent, how do ideas about our way of life change citizens’ willingness to welcome refugees and other new members of the community?” Advocating for a more expansive and changeable (yet sober) view of “our way of life”, the author argues:
“[T]alking about [the United States as] a nation of immigrants is just one among many options that can reflect a collective commitment to a measure of openness. One might choose to speak of our way of life as members of a formerly persecuted group (e.g., Jews), members of groups formerly interned on security-based pretexts (Japanese Americans) or citizens of formerly colonizing empires. One can invoke our way of life as Muslims living in Western countries. The relevant question will be what political alliance will ring truer to constituencies at home and mobilize more support. Questions of security and of culture will inevitably be crucial in determining this, but ultimately who we are remains an open question [emphasis added].”
Refugees and immigrants, by the very fact of their “transmigratory” experiences have to recreate their traditions. Recreate, not replicate. Even those who never leave home may be forced to reimagine a tradition if the tradition no longer comports with their personal ethical values, e.g., a vegetarian eschewing eating Turkey at Thanksgiving, or sacrificing livestock animals during Eid ul-Adha, or passing on a meat-based recipe from Grandma.
In a short retrospective on the Thanksgiving tradition (as currently practiced in the United States), the Nerdwriter states: “Traditions like Thanksgiving are not natural by any means, they’re invented, and at the time of their invention they [recalled] a past that wasn’t really there. An imagined, constructed past that serves the purposes of the present…Holidays like these are open to revision. As Americans, Thanksgiving is ours to reframe, just as the country is. That is a responsibility for all of us, a responsibility for which I give thanks.”
Even the culinary traditions that were part and parcel of the horrific slavery economy in the antebellum South are being excavated and salvaged by food journalists such as Toni Tipton-Martin to restore the vast and varied contributions made by women of African descent to the food cultures of America. If something so wondrously rich and profound as Tipton-Martin’s book, The Jemima Code, can emerge from as debasing a tradition as slavery, there is hope for all traditions with a problematic history, outdated cultural referents, religious connotations to which one doesn’t subscribe, or unethical practices, and so on.
When I first arrived in Philadelphia, I was lucky enough to make a friend who has remained a friend through the past, often turbulent, nine years. She’s the one who introduced me to her Swiss German tradition of getting together to bake Zimtsterne or Cinnamon Star cookies for Christmas.
From the Sephardic Jewish tradition in pre-Inquisition Spain: “Almendrados, which date from the 15th century or earlier, are cookies made of ground blanched almonds, lemon zest, egg and sugar. They are left out to dry for a day before baking.” However, as chef and restaurateur Jose Andres says: “Many dishes didn’t belong only to one but to all — Jews, Christians and Muslims, who were living together in the important towns of Spain before the 15th century.” Janet Mendel, an American journalist who has lived in Andalucia for many years and is an expert in Spanish cooking, including having written four books about Spain’s food has this to say about almendrados: “In Andalusia or Al-Andaluz, the kingdom of the Moors (Muslim Arabs and Berbers), who ruled southern Spain from the eighth to the 15th century….Andalusian cuisine was the most opulent of all of Europe, in the use of spices, herbs, almonds, rose water, orange blossoms and other exotic flavourings….While many Andalusian dishes reveal a Moorish legacy, nowhere is it so up-front as in the repertoire of sweets. Flavoured with aniseed, cinnamon, sesame, ground almonds and often bathed in honey, these delicacies are straight out of Arabian Nights.” According to Sweet Treats around the World: An Encyclopedia of Food and Culture, these almendrados or “Moorish-inspired macaroon-type cookies” were most likely to be what Christopher Columbus was dunking in his horchata just before he set off for his fateful encounter with the Americas. I even found a recipe for Magreb Almond Cookies in this online Muslim “Sufi” cookbook!
The best temporary cure I know for all the unease and uncertainties and ineffabilities hinted at in this post is to do something we enjoy with a good friend or close family member or by ourselves (if we’re so inclined) and bite into our favorite treat as a reminder of that good time, however momentary, however fleeting.
Go forth and recreate or reimagine your own or someone else’s traditions! It’s all good.
Zimtsterne or Cinnamon Star (Almond) Cookies
Makes approximately 50 cookies
- 250g powdered sugar (or 200g for a more manageable level of sweetness for those of us who are sensitive to sugar)
- 350g almond meal
- 2-1/2 tbsp. ground cinnamon
- 1 tbsp. lemon juice or 1 oz. Kirschwasser or other liqueur (optional)
- A pinch of salt
- 3 egg whites
1. Beat egg whites with a little sugar (sprinkled in small quantities a little at a time) in a clean electric, stand mixer until stiff peaks form (approximately 2 minutes) like a meringue.
2. Add the salt and lemon juice and carefully fold in to mix.
3. Set aside a tiny bowl (approximately 7 ounces) for icing.
5. Knead into a dough using the mixer.
6. Shape into two to three balls and roll out into 1/2 inch thick flat pieces (using sugar, as needed, on your hands and on a clean kitchen counter to prevent sticking).
7. Cut out star shapes with a cookie cutter. Clean the cookie cutters as often as needed in warm water or sugar to get sharp points on the stars.
9. Let dry overnight or for at least 6 hours.
10. Bake in a 450F oven for 3-4 minutes at most.
11. Enjoy and, remember to share:-)