Cookie swaps, gingerbread, peppermint, and more: Holiday food history uncovered
Safe from the biting cold, a group of Virginia Tech students gathered in early December to exchange cookies, sip hot cocoa, and reminisce about their favorite holiday traditions. The cookie swap, held Dec. 1 in Harper Hall, is one winter tradition that has grown in popularity in the United States over the years. This one was organized by Food Studies Program Director Anna Zeide and program affiliate Courtney Thomas.
No matter the holiday, winter celebrations tend to have at least one common thread — food.
Zeide and Thomas recently shared their favorite holiday traditions and the reasons behind popular foods that people eat during this time. Also, Kira Dietz, assistant director of Special Collections and University Archives and an affiliate of the Food Studies Program, shared her yearly tradition, interesting historical tidbits, and the history behind three winter holidays and the foods associated with them.
Q: Why are cookie swaps popular this time of year?
Zeide: In contrast to other holiday foods, which may be messier, more temperature- or time-sensitive, harder to scale up or serve or make ahead of time, cookies are perfect little packages of sweetness that can be made ahead, made in an infinite variety of flavors and textures, and can serve as discrete units that lend themselves to trading and gifting. Cookie swaps bring together these positive qualities of cookies with the desire to give gifts in the winter months. It’s a way to create connection in the darkness and bring a special occasion to look forward to in the shortest and darkest days of the year. We wanted to offer something similar to students, to give them something sweet and bright to anticipate.
Q: Why is food such an important part of winter holiday celebrations?
Zeide: Food is an important part of holidays at any time of year because of its ability to comfort and satiate, to connect and break the ice and give people something to do with their hands and their mouths that eases social tension. But I also think that winter holidays take place in moments where people gather indoors, huddle close, and try to preserve warmth and lightness. In these contexts, foods are especially welcome in their ability to warm and concentrate pleasure.
Q: Why are flavors like peppermint and ginger associated with the season?
Zeide: A lot of winter and cold weather foods come down to preservation. These spices have preservative properties that make them commonly used in wintertime, when the harvest is but a distant memory and foods often need to be spiced, salted, dried, and sugared — or later, canned, frozen, boxed, etc.
Q: What is your favorite holiday food tradition?
Zeide: My family celebrates Hanukkah, so I have taken to making latkes [pancakes] during that time. I once tried to do eight nights of latkes in which I made a different kind of vegetable or bean "pancake" each night. But I let myself go into the realm of veggie burgers, johnnycakes, Korean pancakes, crepes, blintzes, and so on. But when I do go the more traditional potato pancake route, I like to use a trick that my childhood friend taught me. Let the shredded pancakes sit in a bowl for a while before carefully removing them to reveal the liquid beneath, which, when carefully poured off, leaves behind a gummy white paste of potato starch. If you add that starch back into the potatoes, discarding the liquid, it helps give the latkes structure and crispiness. My kids now make latkes with me and look forward to the process each year.
Thomas: When my twins were young my husband, Chris, and I realized that our Christmas tradition of visiting both his parents and my extended family on Christmas Day wasn't sustainable — or fun. We decided that we'd invite his parents to join our household for Christmas dinner. The first year we prepared a "traditional" Christmas dinner with a glazed ham and numerous sides, but when we started talking about the menu for the second Christmas, Chris asked me, "What do you want to eat?" And I said, "Tacos."
So he started working on a special recipe. This was the birth of our "Christmas tacos." He only makes them for Christmas dinner, which has now expanded to include us, our three young children, our elder daughter and son in law, his parents, my parents, and my grandmother. The tacos are the highlight of Christmas Day and the reason for the growth of the event. Our son-in-law makes the guacamole, and Chris's Christmas taco recipe is a carefully guarded secret that he hasn't yet shared with anyone else. For our kids, Christmas tacos are an essential part of the holiday.
Dietz: The season between Thanksgiving and Christmas is serious cookie baking time for my family. We have a long tradition of making cookies to share with family, friends, and just about anyone who walks by our homes. I will happily bake year-round, but there's something about this time of year, even when I'm not around my family usually until closer to Christmas, that I can't wait to get out my baking sheets and cooling racks and fire up my oven. I think my personal record was 80 dozen cookies one year, but most years I average closer to 40 to 60. I have certain cookies I make every year for sentimental reasons, but I take some time to experiment and try new cookies, sometimes combining my explorations with one of my other food passions: cocktail history.
Q: What are a few of the food traditions behind three of the major winter holidays: Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa?
Dietz: Hanukkah traditions typically include foods cooked in oil to represent the history of the holiday. Foods like potato pancakes, fried desserts like round doughnuts and puffs dipped in honey or sugar, hamantaschen [triangular, filled cookies], challah [a special, braided bread], apple cake, beef brisket, cheese, and dairy — are commonplace. More contemporary celebrations include butter cookies or pretzels in traditional shapes.
Kwanzaa food imagery is prevalent in celebrations, and feasting can include different regional cuisines from the African Diaspora. Karamu feast [a communal feast that includes dancing, readings, and other forms of cultural expression] on Dec. 31 has no set menu, but typically includes African and African-influenced foods. These include black-eyed and pigeon peas, cassava, yams, chilies and peppers, coconuts, dates, eggplants, gifs, leafy greens, okra, groundnuts, and rice. Other foods can include hearty stews, fish, chicken, cabbage, couscous, sweet potato and bean pies, and coconut cakes. Some dishes have a folklore significance, such as Hoppin’ John [black-eyed peas and rice] on New Years’ Day.
It's a little hard to pinpoint Christmas foods, despite iconic images we might have in our minds. We had a big shift in the mid-19th century to a large, central Christmas dinner, but because there was so much variety leading up to it, a model came from literature — as you might guess, Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” published in 1843. Dickens probably took his cue from English and American homes celebrating with turkey and once he wrote about it, late 19th and early 20th century American food writers locked on to turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, stuffing, and plum pudding. As Christmas became a secular holiday for some, new recipes came about in early 20th century America. These were salads that looked like Christmas trees, candles, poinsettias, or wreaths, colored with food colorings, and an increase in red and green dishes.
Q: What’s the deal with eggnog?
Dietz: While there isn’t a published recipe for what we think of as eggnog until the 18th century, its origins are noticeable in several much older beverages, which date back to the 13th — and later 16th — century in Europe. In England, “posset” was a hot drink of egg white and yolk with ale, cider, or wine. Starting in the 16th century, the Tudors invented syllabub. Its defining characteristic is the mixing of white wine — or cider or fruit juice — with sweetened cream, which curdled the cream.
Eggnog comes a little bit later, with the first written reference to eggnog in an account of a February 1796 breakfast at the City Tavern in Philadelphia. Beginning in 1839, American cookbooks included recipes for cold eggnogs of cream, sugar, and eggs combined with brandy, rum, bourbon, or sherry, sprinkled with nutmeg. Some southern recipes called for a mix of peach brandy, rum, and whiskey.
Interviews lightly edited and condensed for clarity.