My friend Lisa likes to talk about her Italian family's Christmas tradition. Every year her parents prepare a dish called bagna cauda, a hot dip made from olive oil, butter, garlic and anchovies. The dip is served like a fondue with accompanying vegetables such as cauliflower and peppers, and occasionally meats.
The bagna cauda is placed in the center of the table, and the whole family gathers together to eat communally, hands brushing against hands. It highlights the best parts of Lisa’s family: an ability to come together and celebrate not only a holiday but the heritage they share.
As important as this simple tradition is to Lisa, watching her bring this to her own table along with her husband's, who is Mexican, has been inspiring. Bearing witness to the evolution of something as intimate as tradition has made me see my friends more three-dimensionally. Of course, I've also witnessed something similar in my own little family.
Over the past few years, my husband and I have tried different things as part of our holiday celebrations. Our traditions have evolved from traveling all over the place to spend time with family to simply opening our home to loved ones. We've also incorporated things from our childhood. I've brought booze to the table while my husband has contributed Jell-O. It's a work in progress.
This year, in order to honor my husband's Italian heritage, I'll serve a drink from the old country. Called Sambuca con mosca, it's simply a glass of iced Sambuca with three roasted coffee beans—the moscas, or flies—floating in the anise liqueur. Though not traditionally a holiday drink, the anise goes well with other holiday spices, and the coffee beans are said to symbolize health, wealth and joy. What better things to wish your guests on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Eve?
My original intention with this story was to suggest a few specific dishes to broaden and enrich your holiday traditions; but that would be missing the point. Instead, as you rush around shopping and making plans for this holiday season, I'd like to encourage you to take a moment and ask a friend, or your butcher or baker, about where they come from and what they look forward to most this time of year. Perhaps your Russian neighbor, your Indian sister-in-law, your Greek best friend or your Japanese roommate will let you in on what makes these last two months of the year so special to them. And maybe you'll bring a part of their tradition to yours, adding their dishes, drinks and stories to your own.