A Table of Traditions: 6 Oklahomans of Various Ethnicities Invite Us Into Their Homes to Share Their Favorite Holiday Dishes
Who do we think we are, who do we know we are, and how do we celebrate the holidays with food? We are a nation of indigenous people and of immigrants, containing as many variations of flavors and traditions. We have our own unique cultures to remind us of time and families departed, and all celebrate the holiday season in our own distinctive ways. Despite our differences, the one thing we have most in common is our love for family and friends, and how we celebrate that through food.
As the son of a man who came to the United States, specifically Oklahoma, to be educated, start a family and an engineering company—as a proud American citizen—I have always been keenly aware of my Persian heritage. Let’s face it, the government of Iran hasn’t exactly been the most popular when it comes to American politics and interests, but the culture, heritage and people from my father’s side is one that I am extremely proud of. My “Iranian-ness” does not only make up my last name, it's how I cook and eat—not just as a professional chef, but in my daily home life as well. It’s how I welcome guests into my home, and how I strive daily to be the kind, hard-working, generous, and respected man that my father is…and his father and his brothers and sisters also.
I learned a lot of this ethic through his cooking of Persian food, and sitting around the table at Sunday dinner listening to stories of when he was growing up. Most of what I learned in how to be a good person was centered around Persian food—as humans, we are shaped so much by the food traditions passed down to us.
It seems that a lot of immigrants, especially in or around my father’s generation, had a strong desire to assimilate into American culture. They earned citizenship and proudly became Americans. With that came Thanksgiving, Christmas (if they didn’t already have it), Independence Day, and Halloween, with all the other smaller holidays scattered in for good measure. They celebrate these holidays, and a lot of them celebrate with traditional American food. They also celebrate with foods they grew up with, and know. All those exotic flavors, and styles of cooking are now part of that delicious melting pot we call America, Oklahoma City, and holiday food memories.
KOURABIEDES | LISA PITSIRI
First off, in full disclosure, Lisa Pitsiri is one of my favorite people in the world. Not only for her boundless energy and willingness to help with different charitable and civic organizations around Oklahoma City, but also because she takes great pride and owns her Greek heritage.
Whatever season of the year, the Greek flag is prominently displayed at her midtown Oklahoma City home. Lisa and I are part of the same “Dinner Club” group, and this past October it was Lisa’s turn to host a full-on Greek meal. I don’t mind saying her Baklava is the most tender, perfectly sweetened, perfectly textured I have ever had—and makes a damn good treat on Sunday afternoons accompanied with hot Persian tea. (I’m Persian, she’s Greek. Please refer to Persian and Greek history.)
The holidays for Lisa and her Greek family are filled with copious amounts of food; most notably in the past from the hand and kitchen of her late godmother in Enid.
“My godmother was the one who cooked. She passed away this past year, so the holidays are going to be different this year. My brother and I are both vegetarians, and it was always a challenge for her when it came to planning her menu. She would make us okra, roasted tomatoes, but then do these wedge potatoes…that she roasted with lamb au jus. My brother and I turned a blind eye to that on the holidays, and happily ate the potatoes.”
Christmas is more of a secondary holiday in the Greek culture, with Easter being the number-one holiday. Both center around food and family traditions, filled with fond memories and stories. Plenty of drinks too: ouzo of course and retsina, a white (or rosé) wine flavored with Aleppo pine resin.
“I have twenty-three first cousins. Our family would all gather around and my cousin George Ann and I would be the ones to bring the food from the kitchen and start serving and passing to the family; forty-five main dishes! That was always a good time to play around in the kitchen with George Ann and catch up. “
Of all the fond food memories Lisa has at Christmas, the clove cookies, or Kourabiedes, her godmother made, stood out the most.
“Kourabiedes are these buttery, almond, clove cookies that are dusted generously with powered sugar (we didn’t like whole studded cloves in the cookies so those were left out). All the cousins would gather around, and before we took that first bite we would blow powered sugar in each other’s faces. Always covered in powered sugar, and laughing.”
That sounds like the perfect Christmas memory to me. Kalí óreksi!
GRAPE DUMPLINGS | SARAH ADAMS-CORNELL
“The Choctaw women are life givers.” Sarah Adams-Cornell said to me while gathering ingredients for her holiday grape dumplings in the kitchen of the OK Choctaw Tribal Alliance in south Oklahoma City. Today was their monthly “Indian Taco” sale that helps raise money for the group and classes they provide.
“Women have always held an important role in Choctaw society; we are matriarchal. Everything is passed down from the mother’s side. Your linage, property, recipes. I love to make grape dumplings for my large Choctaw family around the holidays. It’s a modified version of our traditional dish because we can’t get muscadine berries. We use Concord grapes instead.”
The Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, one of the “Five ‘Civilized’ Tribes” that were removed from Mississippi to Oklahoma, brought with them these traditions—their food traditions.
“We are farmers. We cultivate the soil, and hunt and gather from the land,” Sarah said while she smiles, holding up a jar of Welch’s grape jelly and placing it next to a bottle of grape juice. Grape dumplings basically start out as a flour and Bisquick combination, then add to that grape jelly and a few other ingredients and preparations, and you have a really tasty dessert.
I like to describe Grape Dumplings as “deconstructed berry cobbler.” There are different versions of the dough recipe (as there are with any recipe), and as with any recipe handed down through generations, it’s all about tradition: tradition for the holiday, in preparations, and in the eating. We had ours a fancy way by spooning the dumplings on top of fry bread, then hitting it à la mode.
It was a real treat spending the day with Sarah and the women of the Oklahoma Choctaw Tribal Alliance. Even better was hanging out with Gabby, Sarah’s daughter, and watching Sarah teach Gabby how to make grape dumplings. Once again, holiday tradition: from mother to daughter, the proud Choctaw way. Ho-miniti impa! (Choctaw for come on and eat!)
LATKES | RUSS ROSENBAUM
“Hanukkah oh Hanukkah let’s light the Menorah.” That little tune was looping in my head on the way to my friend Russ Rosenbaum’s home in north Oklahoma City, where I was anxiously awaiting the delicious Latkes he was preparing for us today.
“Hanukkah isn’t one of the bigger holidays on the Jewish calendar,” Russ tells me while arranging his fresh-out-ofthe- pan latkes. “Passover, now that’s a big holiday! One thing crucial to any Jewish holiday is the schmaltz! There’s no such thing as ‘too much schmaltz!’”
Schmaltz is Yiddish for “rendered chicken fat.” Most everything is cooked with chicken fat and adds a distinctive flavor to Jewish cooking. By the looks of Russ’ glorious, crispy-on-the-outside/tender-on-the-inside Latkes, I can tell no skimping of the schmaltz was at hand.
“You have to get the gribenes right too!” Russ tells me. Great, another Yiddish cooking term, I’m thinking. “Gribenes is cooking onions in the schmaltz. You cook with crispy chicken skin, too, and it makes a pretty good treat! You make your gribenes, then add to the Latkes.”
“Latkes were at every Hanukkah meal while I was growing up. You know, we eat, we light a candle on the menorah, open a present, then we’re done.” Russ smiles, “I still got presents on Christmas Day like my friends. There weren't too many Jews around in Battle Creek, Michigan. Just one other family I think, and my mother didn’t want me to feel left out.”
There was, however, plenty to eat at Russ’ Hanukkah meal today: beef brisket and chopped liver, different salads and relish, too. Latkes however—the tiny pan-fried potato pancakes—were what I was staring at and drooling over in Russ’s kitchen
Russ explains “I like the onions caramelized in my latkes. They are sweeter and have more flavor. Some people just sauté them. You really have to get the gribenes down!”
Taking the first bite of Russ’ latkes, and tasting those sweet caramelized onions, I knew exactly what he was talking about. The potatoes on the inside were soft, but not too soft. The outer edges were rich from frying in schmaltz and wonderfully crispy. Add a bit of sour cream or applesauce to your latkes and it’s pure heaven. Er gezunterheyt! (Yiddish “to your good health!”)
PORK ADOBO WITH GARLIC FRIED RICE | TODD NALAGAN
Here in the United States it seems Christmas comes earlier and earlier every year. There is something unsettling about seeing Halloween decorations on one aisle of a store, and then prelit Christmas trees and do-dads on the next. According to local Oklahoma City attorney, Todd Nalagan, people in the Philippines like to celebrate Christmas as long as possible. That means starting mid September and concluding at Epiphany on the first Sunday in January.
“Christmas is a big deal in the Philippines. It’s a big deal, and there’s always food…like buffet food. The kitchen counters are always covered with something to eat.” Todd recalls.
“For two weeks or so, it’s Filipino custom that all the kids move back home. It doesn’t matter how old you are—the entire family is under one roof. Most of my family (my siblings), live within five miles of our parents. We all move back in. Shoes off, food everywhere, the whole bit.”
Family is very important to Todd, and you can see it in his eyes as he recalls stories about Christmas with his family—and the food.
“On Christmas Eve, the entire family would go to midnight mass. Then we come home and have Noche Buena. That’s the big feast, and that would last until three or four in the morning. Then we sleep for a few hours and get up for presents… and then more food!” he said, laughing.
Lechon (roasted pig), spaghetti (yes, spaghetti), pasta salad, and fruit salad are some of the traditional items for Noche Buena. “Fruit Salad is big for us. Every mother thinks that their fruit salad is the best,” Todd explains. “Each Filipino mom has her own version of the infamous ‘fruit salad.’ My mom’s is very sweet. It’s a mixture of fresh fruit, fruit cocktail, and native fruits like Jack fruit and nata de coco. The cream (sauce) is a cream cheese base mixed with evaporated and condensed milk, sugar and something else, I can’t remember. Some just use tropical fruit, fresh fruit juice, and sweet milk base. Very runny and not thick at all. Mom’s is much better.”
Walking in to Todd’s home the day of his interview, we were immediately met with smells of home cooking: garlic toasting, fragrant rice, soy sauce, and rich spices. That’s a great thing about food—it can take us back to being a kid and those fond memories of being home for the holidays. Smelling Todd’s pork adobo and garlic fried rice cemented an olfactory memory in my brain—I know I will always remember that as a Filipino Christmas. Kainan na! (Filipino for Let’s eat!)
AMERICAN OF AFRICAN DESCENT
BLACK-EYED PEAS | DANNE JOHNSON
Professor Danne Johnson’s beautiful smile and her 1927 family home in Lincoln Terrace were the first things that made me excited about this meeting, and the delicious smell of home cooking permeating throughout her home was a close second.
Long before Danne was a professor at Oklahoma City University’s School of Law, she was a little girl in Detroit living with her mother and great-grandmother, and learning the family food traditions of the holidays.
“My great-grandmother taught me how to cook. Up until I was seven years old, she lived with my mother and me. She was the oldest of 16 children, and her grandfather, Nathan Edwards, was a former slave. I learned how to make collard greens and ‘Hoppin' Johns.’ I didn’t care for black-eyed peas then, probably because of the mushy rice they’re mixed in with for Hoppin’ Johns. Black-eyed peas are a family tradition at every holiday meal, especially New Year’s Day, so I came up with my own way of doing just black-eyed peas, without rice! “
We’ll get to that in a bit…
The fun stories and memories of family holidays past were a treasure to hear. Yes, there are some food traditions with the Johnson family, and being the supreme and experimental home chef Danne is, not every holiday meal that she has a hand in is necessarily “traditional.”
“We celebrate everything in my family—Thanksgiving, Christmas, Kwanzaa… we even once celebrated the Italian- American Feast of the Seven Fishes. The whole meal is fish and seafood on Christmas Eve!” Danne laughs while stirring her black-eyed peas (we’re still getting to that).
“I once made this Mexicaninspired Thanksgiving. Everything was chocolate, and cinnamon, and chili peppers. My mother said ‘This looks great, but where’s the turkey? Where’s Thanksgiving?’”
We all still need those traditional dishes though, so the black-eyed peas, the collard greens, the baked macaroni and cheese her son likes to make, and even a pineapple upside-down cake her daughter likes to make, are also fair game for the feast.
“Yes, the food is important.” Danne says “but it’s also about a home full of laughter, and dancing, and family. Before we eat, though, we pray for peace and aid for the needy. We thank God for another opportunity to be together. My mom's brother as an adult once said ‘rub a dub dub, God bless this grub.’ I thought that my grandfather was gonna stroke out. Instead he glared and said another prayer.”
Yet another fine example of a wonderful holiday meal-time memory from a fine Oklahoma City family. Okay, now you can have the black-eyed peas… and make some cornbread to go with them!
You know whatever it is that we think about the holidays—the shopping, the parties, the drama in every form—one thing remains happily constant, and that is the memories we have surrounding the food of the season.
Talking to these six wonderful people and learning about their rich cultural heritage, you could see their whole aura come alive when recalling their own holiday food memories. It was Lisa, looking up towards the sky with a smile and kid-like giggle, remembering her godmother roasting potatoes with lamb au jus for her and her vegetarian brother. It was Todd, talking about how his Filipino mother’s creamy sweet fruit salad was the best, and how some unfortunate people use mayonnaise in their fruit salad instead of sweet cream. It was also Russ, laughing about how “you can never have too much schmaltz” at Hanukkah.
We all have those special food memories, the one special thing that was always at our table whether we liked it or not (*clears throat* mashed turnips) and the one thing we know our holiday would not be the same without it on the table. The people we love and have loved, and those that love us back, are tied in to those recipes. The people made the holidays for us, not with just their presence, but with their food. Food is such a sentimental thing, like a gentle hug telling us “Merry Christmas, baby.”
Whoever you are, whatever you celebrate, and however you eat, I wish you great health and joy this season, and may it carry you through 2016. Most of all I wish you happy food memories. Befarma’id! (Persian Bon Appétit)
THAI GREEN CURRY CHICKEN | SERENA PRAMMANASUDH-GREENWELL
The photographer for this story, Aaron, and I arrived at Serena’s home to find her father and stepmother busy over a stove, and Serena setting up the dining room table. The aroma was magnificent as we walked in. Smells of curries and pan-grilled meats, fresh ginger and Kaffir lime aromas, with the heat steam and grill smoke rolling on top. Aaron and I loved this Thai holiday idea!
While Serena’s parents rushed around with what seemed like several dishes being prepared at once, Serena was laying out small condiment dishes filled with beautiful, meticulously cut bites of lime and finely grated toasted coconut. Next to those two small dishes was a colorful dish of sliced red and green chilies, dried shrimp, and a sweet brown sauce called nam chim. There was also a small dish of roasted peanuts and small bites of fresh ginger. The idea is to take a leaf of fresh cha-phlo (bitter green leaf) and make a cup to fill the inside with any or all of these wonderful ingredients. Roll it all up like a sausage and pop into your mouth. One. Glorious. Bite.
“We don’t have Christmas in Thailand,” Serena’s father explained to me. “It wasn’t until we came to the United States and the children were born that we celebrated Thanksgiving and Christmas.”
On Thanksgiving, Serena remembers having her favorite Chinese food from her mother’s side, combined with Thai food from her father and stepmother’s side, along with a roasted turkey her father receives every year as a gift from his job. “It was really good,” Serena and her family laughed.
Christmas time was the same when it came to the tradition of a holiday feast.
“Yes, Christmas meals are important. It wasn’t Christmas unless we had a large meal with the family,” said Serena.
As with all of us during the holidays, there has to be one or two certain items on the table. For Serena and her family that is Thai Green Curry Chicken. “Most Americans think ‘pad thai’ when they think of Thai food. In Thailand that is a snack for us. If you go to Thailand and ask for the traditional Thai dish, they will serve you green curry.”