Holiday food is the food of home, full of memory and meaning. People who cook for a living, who immerse themselves in food and flavor, experience those meanings as profoundly as anyone.
Here, seven North Fork professional cooks talk about their childhood holiday food memories, and what those memories mean to them.
Chef Sixto Coronel made wood-oven inspired rustic Italian fare alongside chef Frank DeCarlo at Peasant in New York for years, and now creates the handmade pastas and richly-flavored risottos at Isola on Shelter Island. But at holiday time, he’s dreaming of a special bread his mother used to make for Christmas at his family’s farm in Ecuador.
There, Christmas dinner was cooked outdoors, in a wood-fired oven that his father constructed from earth and rocks. The bread was a baguette-like loaf rolled around a sweet papaya jam made with fruit grown on their land. Coronel remembers eating the bread with hot chocolate made by his mother from the cacao his father farmed and milk from their cows. “I don’t think the bread has a name; it’s something she made up,” said Coronel. “It’s a beautiful thing that I remember; my mother, making this bread.”
Cheo Avila of Kon-Tiki in Greenport, who grew up in Venezuela, says his earliest memory of cooking centers on hallaca, a Venezuelan dish that is prepared in different versions throughout the country, and is only made at Christmas. Hallaca probably originated during Venezuela’s colonial period, when enslaved and native people saved bits of meat from banquets and wrapped them in cornmeal. “It’s like tamales with meat and raisins inside and wrapped in plantain leaf. The whole family is involved, the whole afternoon, it is a process. I was a kid, I tied up the hallaca with twine,” Avila said. “It was one of the first times I got to do something with food. A very happy memory.”
For Mustafa Gulsen of Turkuaz Grill in Riverhead, holiday food memories elicit strong emotions of faith and family. His family observed Ramadan, a practice of fasting and sharing food with neighbors, of exerting self-control during days without food and water, and expressing gratitude when the fast is broken. During the month of Ramadan, Gulsen remembers a lentil soup that his mother made, similar to the soup that is served at Turkuaz Grill today — except not really. “After ten or twelve hours starving — nothing could taste as good as that lentil soup that broke the fast,” he said. “Even the water tastes better than any water you have ever had. When you are drinking it, every part of your body is tasting that water.”
The food of Gulsen’s childhood Ramadan was not fancy, and there were no special dishes served only at holiday time. “During Ramadan you share a plate with a neighbor, another sends a plate to you, so all of a sudden you have seven different things, and everyone makes it a little different,” he said. “It may be the same dish, but even your mother and daughter won’t make it the same way.” The end of Ramadan culminated in a feast of sweets, and for that Gulsen’s mother made her own unique baklava, with large pieces of walnut and thick layers of paper-thin pastry soaked in honey.
Chef Yuki Mori of Stirling Sake still celebrates the New Year as he did in Japan, where he lived through his college years before moving to the U.S. The centerpiece of every Japanese family’s celebration is osechi, an elaborate three-tiered set of bento boxes filled with up to 30 different dishes. “The gorgeous bento boxes contain special dishes that symbolize wishes for the new year,” Mori explained. “Each food has meaning. There’s shrimp, always bent, symbolizing a long life. Black beans symbolizing hard work because you get dark when you work hard outside. The black beans take a couple of days to prepare. I helped my mother cook beans.”
Aki Goldberg cooks and caters at Aki’s Kitchen and is a regular presence at the Riverhead Farmers Market. She grew up in Belgium and fell for the East End of Long Island when she visited with her parents, both Holocaust survivors, when she was 10 years old. Food was at the center of life for her family, and her memories of her mother’s hearty chicken soups, served every Friday night to family, friends and strangers, are reprised in Aki’s own rich soup — the centerpiece of her Hanukkah feast. “It’s a stepped-up chicken soup with chicken, short ribs, marrow bones; it has a dark gold color. I often serve it with seasonal vegetables such as a big piece of celeriac.” she said. “Cauliflower was one of the few vegetables that my father liked so I love to serve a cauliflower latke, and I elevate it a bit, I serve it with smoked salmon and mixed greens. Oh, the aroma that it brings in the house! That is part of the holiday. To be together with friends and family. Whoever wants to join us, it’s an open door.”
Holiday time is exciting enough when you are a chocolatier, but for Ursula XVII of Disset Chocolate in Cutchogue it was also the time of the annual trip to Catalonia to reconnect with family and food. Born in the U.S., she grew up speaking Catalan and her parents kept close to their roots in the countryside outside Barcelona, where the tradition of caga tió made a strong impression on Ursula.
Caga tió is a decorated log that is “fed” for the month before the holiday. When you sing to it, and hit it with a stick, out comes turron, nougat candy made with nuts and egg whites. “My favorite food was the variety of torró available that time of year,” Ursula recalled, nothing that it’s “very different from the Italian torrone that’s more common here in the USA. We’re excited to bring some of these traditions to Disset, where we’ll be offering three different versions of nougat this holiday season.”
Holiday food memories for Amanda Hayward of Commander Cody’s on Shelter Island involve big family gatherings at her aunt’s house in Brooklyn, with turkey frying in the back yard, and her father, Jim Hayward making hoppin’ john, a tradition from his boyhood in South Carolina, and roast beef — a pot roast that cooked low and slow, falling into tender pieces as it was sliced.
“We ate in the afternoon, and brought enough to feed everyone and take a plate home,” she said. “I always made cookies or a pie. My cousins loved my linzer cookies — a shortbread with raspberry preserves — so I usually brought them. I started selling them at the Island Food Center when I was 13, and I have them at the store for the holidays.”