Last Christmas, over several nights, my husband read Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol aloud to our two daughters, ages 10 and eight. Propped up on the couch on either side of their father, they were alternately thrilled by time-traveling ghosts and bored by Dickens’ long, wandering descriptions. In the third chapter, in which Scrooge walks the streets of London with the Ghost of Christmas Present, Dickens launches into such an animated, detailed description of food in a Christmas market that I asked my husband, as the girls sighed and rolled their eyes, to reread the passage. I later found myself looking up the history of the unfamiliar varieties he describes, the filbert nuts and Norfolk Biffin apples.
A few generations ago, people spent more time in the field and the kitchen, grew more local varieties of crops, and were conversant with the nuanced use of each. Some apples were best fresh off the tree, others after six months in the cellar. There were specific apples for pie, for cider, and even a variety for frying. These days most of us are only familiar with the apple meant for our lunchbox.
For most of our history, end-of-season feasts celebrated local harvests. Here in North America, we prepared feasts when turkeys were fat, apples were plump, and pumpkins were ripe. But we’re not reliant on local harvests anymore. Nowadays, our festivities often involve opening a can and pouring its contents into a premade crust, ordering a shrink-wrapped factory-raised turkey, and filling it with stuffing from a plastic bag. It’s hard to know when or where these foods were harvested, but it’s likely they’re from far away, and, especially if they arrive frozen or canned, not from a recent harvest. Local varieties and their accompanying traditions fall by the wayside.
From a modern perspective, Dickens’ lavish passage about Christmas food in London can read like a dirge for disappearing foods, dishes, and customs. After hearing Dickens’ description of the Christmas market, I began mulling over the connection between food, place, and literature, and wondering if some wisdom or inspiration about how to eat sustainably over the holidays (and the rest of the year) could be gleaned from old stories that focused on celebration of place and the food of that place.
Using traditional recipes and local ingredients deepens our understanding of what makes our region unique.
My search led me first to The Good Life, by Fabiola Cabeza de Baca Gilbert, a book featuring food local to my place: New Mexico. This book, first published in 1949, combines traditional New Mexican recipes with stories of a quasi-fictional family—actually a composite of the many northern New Mexican families Cabeza de Baca worked with during her years as an agent for the Agricultural Extension Service, which aimed to help rural families make their farms more productive. From 1929 to 1959, when most of her female contemporaries married and stayed home to raise children, Cabeza de Baca traveled to remote corners of New Mexico to show ranching and farming families everything from the latest agricultural techniques to how to use a sewing machine. Her ethnicity, gender and love of traditional ways (most extension agents in New Mexico during those decades were white men who spoke only English), helped her win the hearts of ranching and farming women. But Cabeza de Baca, who herself grew up on a ranch in New Mexico, was conflicted about her success. She knew that modern technology made the lives of rural families easier, especially women’s, but she deplored “the passing of beautiful customs which in spite of New Mexico’s isolation in the past, gave happiness and abundant living.”
Despite passing time and changing customs, Cabeza de Baca’s description of Midnight Mass and posole evokes strong memories from my childhood Christmases. Posole, a stewed hominy, has long been a food staple in Mexico, and most likely came to the Southwest during the colonial period. Over the centuries each region developed its own unique preparation method. Cabeza de Baca’s character prepares hers with ingredients traditional to New Mexico: “There was so much to be done before Midnight Mass,” she writes. “The lime hominy had been cooking all day and it was all ready but the seasoning. Doña Paula who was a proud cook had to have everything well seasoned. From astring of chile in her store room she took three pods; she removed stems and seeds and washed the pods. She took the lid off the kettle, added the chile, orégano, salt, garlic and onion. Now she could get ready for Mass.”
The elderly character Doña Paula could be any of the diminutive, white-haired ladies who brought posole to Christmas-season potluck suppers I attended as a child. They’d arrive lugging immense Crock-Pots of posole, prepared just like Doña Paula’s, to be set among the dishes of pinto beans, tamales, empanaditas, biscochitos, and Jell-O salad on long, sturdy tables in the parish hall.
Hominy is made from dried corn kernels that have been soaked in a mineral bath, usually lime—a process called nixtamalization. Processing corn in an alkaline bath is a 3500-year-old Mesoamerican tradition that makes it possible to make it into masa (the dough used in tortillas or tamales), and makes the niacin in corn available to the body. The women that Cabeza de Baca visited at their post-Depression-era farms processed their own hominy, but I don’t know anyone who does this at home nowadays. Other traditions in New Mexican cooking have likewise fallen out of use: the hype against saturated fats has compelled many cooks to replace lard with margarine in tortillas and biscochitos (my favorite Christmas cookie), despite recent evidence that lard has several health benefits and margarine none. The factory-raised, ungainly, and unnaturally broad-breasted white turkey has replaced the elegant, tastier Black Spanish heritage turkey as the centerpiece of a New Mexican Thanksgiving or Christmas meal.
Noting that the recipes she records “have been passed down in New Mexico households for generations, often adapted to conditions and to the availability of certain ingredients of the locale,” Cabeza de Baca reminds us that using traditional recipes and local ingredients deepens our understanding of what makes our region unique and what our local fields can sustainably produce for our table.
Cabeza de Baca balanced embracing the best of the new and holding on to the best of the old.
I came across another one of my Christmas favorites in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick—in this case, a dish local to New England. On a cold winter’s evening, after anchoring at Nantucket, whaler Ishmael and his shipmate Queequeg go ashore for a hot meal: “Oh! sweet friends! hearken to me. It was made of small juicy clams, scarcely bigger than hazel nuts, mixed with pounded ship biscuit, and salted pork cut up into little flakes; the whole enriched with butter, and plentifully seasoned with pepper and salt. Our appetites being sharpened by the frosty voyage—and in particular, Queequeg seeing his favorite fishing food before him, and the chowder being surpassingly excellent, we despatched it with great expedition.”
Like his characters, Melville whaled and ate chowder during the mid-nineteenth century, the golden age of Yankee whaling, when marine life was plentiful. Ishmael describes the inn where he and Queequeg eat and sleep as the “fishiest of all fishy places,” and he cheers for the profusion of clam and cod chowder: “for the pots there were always boiling chowders. Chowder for breakfast, and chowder for dinner, and chowder for supper, till you began to look for fishbones coming through your clothes.”
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Today in Nantucket, clams and other mollusks do not pour forth from great cauldrons as they did for Queequeg and Ishmael. Chef Brian Williams of the aptly-named Nantucket bistro, Queequeg’s, is “concerned about the lack of local harvests,” and says he has to outsource clams for his chowder. He suspects global warming is to blame, and adds that the supply has grown so sparse that Nantucket fishermen simply cannot bring in enough local clams to supply his restaurant.
In the 200 years since the advent of the Industrial Revolution, human activity has released about 500 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The world’s oceans have absorbed a good deal of that, becoming 30 percent more acidic. Ecologists, hatchery staff, and fishing communities all along the Northeast coast are concerned about ocean acidification, which kills mollusks by dissolving their shells.
I envy Ishmael and Queequeg as they steep themselves in chowder. My aunt Susan makes a creamy Christmas oyster chowder that I have loved since I was little. If I take Cabeza de Baca’s wisdom to heart and consider the “availability of certain ingredients of the locale,” I have to accept that oyster chowder is a special treat, honor that mollusks are a strained resource, and for the rest of the year stick with my posole, which, for where I live and the time I live in, is more sustainable.
Why don’t we get excited about the miracle of citrus in our stockings or grapes on our holiday table anymore?
The, Grocers’! Oh, the Grocers’!” beckons Dickens: “The poulterers’ shops were still half open, and the fruiterers’ were radiant in their glory. There were great round, pot-bellied baskets of chestnuts, shaped like the waistcoats of jolly old gentlemen, lolling at the doors, and tumbling out into the street in their apoplectic opulence. There were ruddy, brown-faced, broad-girthed Spanish Onions, shining in the fatness of their growth like Spanish Friars; and winking from their shelves in wanton slyness at the girls as they went by, and glanced demurely at the hung-up mistletoe. There were pears and apples, clustered high in blooming pyramids; there were bunches of grapes, made in the shopkeepers’ benevolence to dangle from conspicuous hooks, that people’s mouths might water gratis as they passed; there were piles of filberts, mossy and brown, recalling, in their fragrance, ancient walks among the woods, and pleasant shufflings ankle deep though withered leaves; there were Norfolk Biffins, squat and swarthy, setting off the yellow of the oranges and lemons, and, in the great compactness of their juicy persons, urgently entreating and beseeching to be carried home in paper bags and eaten after dinner.”
This is the passage I asked my husband to reread, that had both of us giggling at Dickens’ playful verbal romp; it made me realize that we lose this joy when our holiday foods are shipped over oceans and across continents, with no distinguishable or relevant cultural starting place. In Dickens’ time a Christmas orange was a special treat. Grapes and lemons came from far afield to London grocers in the winter season. Why don’t we get excited about the miracle of citrus in our stockings or grapes on our holiday table anymore? Can we find our way back to treasuring what comes from far away while reveling in local, abundant foods, whose proximity makes them affordable and sustainable?
My friend Janet has a rogue apple tree, of no distinguishable ancestry. The apples are pithy, hard and small, undesirable as snack apples. Many of us would have considered them a nuisance, swept them up, and chucked them out with the trash. But, as Janet happily discovered, these tart little apples are perfect for pie.
We don’t always have to spend a lot to enjoy local abundance, we just need to look at what grows locally, is often free, and is wasted otherwise.
The Norfolk Biffin Dickens described is a localized endangered variety, now rarely seen in English orchards. Like Janet’s apples, it is wonderful for cooking, but less for snacking, which is all we expect of apples these days. Janet’s apples, the Norfolk Biffin, and all the other local varieties that spill uneaten fruit into our yards and roads need new fans. A little culinary creativity can transform a seemingly undesirable food into apple pie. We don’t always have to spend a lot to enjoy local abundance, we just need to look at what grows locally, is often free, and is wasted otherwise.
In her work in the field and in her writing, Cabeza de Baca balanced embracing the best of the new and holding on to the best of the old. Although she brought new methods to isolated villages, she was always appreciative of the local traditions and the people who still understood them: “As you use the recipes I hope you will think of my people and the occasions in the lives of those people who added ‘un poquito de … y un poquito de …’ to produce savorous and nutritious New Mexico foods.” She speaks specifically of northern New Mexico but her words ring true for anybody’s people, home place, and traditional foods. As we tuck into our holiday banquet, let us consider Cabeza de Baca’s behest to remember the food history of our place, wherever we live, and, be it posole, Christmas chowder, or Norfolk Biffin pie, to honor the sumptuous food on our doorstep.
Nina Bunker Ruiz wrote this article for Cities Are Now, the Winter 2015 issue of YES! Magazine.