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The Chef’s Perspective

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By Murray Schulman

Unbelievable! Astounding! Amazing! I’m not sure what happened. We suddenly find ourselves in the 12th month of the year. December has arrived and I for one had better get it in gear. Hanukkah is so early this year. It begins on Dec. 2 and runs through Dec. 10. Christmas falls on Dec. 25, a Tuesday. Kwanza starts the next day and runs right through New Year’s Eve ending on New Year’s Day.

As you all know, I really enjoy the traditions that we have built into our family through the years. Like I said last month, it all begins with the traditions that we stick to for our Thanksgiving feast. This desire to keep traditions alive plays a major role in the way we celebrate during this month.

Like many of you with grown children and rapidly growing grandchildren, I wonder about our traditions. How do I keep our family identity relevant in this cyber- focused world? Truthfully, the cyber thing isn’t half bad. I have our adult children to thank for that. We can video conference with my son and his family in California. My daughter calls me on one of those echo spot thingies.

It freaks me out when Alexa beeps and announces that Heather wants to talk with us. Now what? I am standing in the kitchen with one device and the other device is in the TV room. With the “deer in the headlight stare,” I call out, “Hello?” Then I race into the TV room to see my daughter’s face in this little round spot device. OK, it’s weird, yet it works. I can’t complain about this new technology. It is a way for us to bring the special and traditional moments right into our more distant family’s homes.

In recent years as I watch the grandchildren growing up, I want them to remember the special moments with fondness and smiles. I am thrilled and happy to know that our crazy busy children have our backs. They make it a point to pause all of the usual activity. They are actually passing the traditions of family and celebration down to the next generation.

Our kids do this with their enthusiasm and support. Liz does it with her unlimited capacity to share her love and attention with each and every one of the family members. She is without a doubt the glue that holds us all together. I do it with food. Did you expect anything else? The really cool part is that the entire family get just as excited as I do about the traditional meals that I put together for them.

For Hanukkah, I make it a point to have the grandkids participate in the candle- lighting each night. There is gold-wrapped chocolate coins, latkes, rugelach and sufganiyot. Plus, those kids rake me over the coals and empty my pockets playing dreidel. I want them to know about my side of their heritage. Now, after years of following this tradition, it is heartwarming when they announce to me that Hanukkah is coming. Are we going to light the menorah this year? What could be better than that?

Our family celebrates Christmas for nearly the entire month of December. Again, Liz steps up to organize and pull things together. In our thoughts, we feel the need to fight to keep the great family traditions alive for the grandchildren’s memories. When I interact with the family, I realize that there is not much fight needed. Liz works out the plans for “Cookie Day.” This traditional event takes place about two weeks before Christmas. The moms and the grandkids all get together to bake literally mountains of Christmasy-shaped sugar cookies, melty chocolate chip cookies and our secret family recipe for snickerdoodles. Everyone prays for a miracle that will keep our snickerdoodles from falling flat instead of tall and round. Those prayers are answered every time, almost.

Another tradition is the Campana family Christmas get-together. This is Liz’s side of the family with roots back to Acquapendente, Italy. We eat shrimp, pasta, meatballs, sausage and a whole array of finger foods and desserts. This is another opportunity to make long-lasting memories for the grandchildren. We hope that they will continue this tradition with their siblings and cousins long into the future.

Finally, the day arrives. Christmas Day starts early in our family. Liz and I drag ourselves out of our nice warm bed, throw on our cuddly duds and step out into the frosty cold morning to watch the youngest of the grandchildren open their presents. We have a couple of kids that are young enough to still believe in Santa. We drink coffee and take photos as wrapping paper flies and the children still squeal with delight.

By 9 o’clock, we head back to our house for that huge brunch event that I tell you about each year. This has become a family tradition for close to 15 years now. This is my big event of the season.

The menu never varies and has become a tradition in and of itself. I have the preparations down to a science and can and often do put it together in my sleep. The family has the timing down pat. They all arrive at once, pile out of their cars and push their way into my home. They come laden with packages. But, when they come in my door, they are assaulted with a huge tree that touches the ceiling with an angel overlooking the entire scene. There is a mountain of gifts that overflow their boundaries and pour out into the room.

Then the aromas hit. Warm maple syrup and sweet French toast flows through the air. Mingled with the sweetness is the heady scent of frying bacon and sage sausage. Onions, peppers and potatoes combine for a completely different punch to the senses. This is mellowed out by the aroma of baking biscuits and Christmas cinnamon buns. Of course, there is no escape from the combined scents of perfectly scrambled eggs and freshly brewed coffee. Quickly, I load all of these culinary delights on our oversized table. Everyone fills their plates to capacity and tucks in to this morning feast.

I keep all of this food on warmers to allow for the gift-opening interlude. This is a frenzied ballet with our children and grandchildren spread all over the couches and floor of our living room. Dozens of gifts are exchanged. Each gift specifically chosen with intent and purpose for each individual family member. Some are practical while others are whimsical. In between, a few hearty souls return to the table for second helpings of the food. Everyone pitches in with the cleanup and in the end, hugs abound and everyone goes on their way.

I think about all that has transpired in past years and all that will take place this year. Hope and confidence is clearly apparent in our family. We uphold our traditions and continue to make memories that will last for generations of family members to come. My wish for all of you is that you experience the fullness of this amazing season. Keep your traditions and make wonderful memories for yourself and each of your families.

Greg Mathias
Author: Greg Mathias

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