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Connection Stories

Create Joy by Putting Nostalgia on the Holiday Menu

December 14, 2020

How you can honor loved ones with favorite holiday recipes and traditions.


Every Christmas Eve morning, I head to our local Italian market to carefully select what were all of my dad's favorite antipasto items. There's sharp provolone, pepperoni, hearts of artichoke, prosciutto, sopressata, every type of Italian olive I can find, hot peppers, and fresh mozzarella. This year will mark seven years Dad is gone, and the pain of missing him intensifies during the holidays, but he is continually remembered as we arrange and enjoy a platter he would have loved.


For many families, decades-old recipes and culinary specialties are more than just delicious at their holiday tables. “Bringing old traditions into the holiday season allows us to process this loss while still honoring the legacy our loved ones have left behind," says Dr. Robi Ludwig, psychotherapist and author.


Dr. Lise Deguire, clinical psychologist in private practice, agrees. “Engaging in rituals that evoke your loved ones can be healing because those rituals honor them." And while carrying out these rituals might initially feel bittersweet, Dr. Deguire explains, the love that remains will prevail. “That pain is usually accompanied with the deep joy of remembering and honoring those people who are precious to us."


Made with "Extra Love"


For Janene Mascarella, holiday reminiscing begins on Thanksgiving. “As a child, my grandmother Lily would call me into the kitchen with her thick Sicilian accent to be the sampler and taste-tester of the her 'masha-potato.'" After a taste from a small wooden spoon, explains the magazine beauty director and mother of two, her grandmother would ask if it needed more butter, salt or milk.


“Long after she had passed away, I've made my mashed potatoes the same exact way she did," Mascarella explains, “with extra butter, extra salt, extra creamy and with extra love. To this day, I call my kids into the kitchen to sample my 'masha-potato' with a small wooden spoon and the same Sicilian accent — every single year."


Sharing and recreating family traditions allow for dear memories to take on a positive flavor, according to Dr. Julie Davelman of Abrams Psychological Services in Tinton Falls, N.J. “In this way, the family can derive warmth from their loved ones just as they did when they were alive."


The Aroma of Remembrance


Memories of the sights, sounds and especially smells of past holidays provide a sense of comfort to Marina Backes as she recalls her family's big, boisterous Italian Thanksgiving. “I remember walking into my Nana's house, and you could smell the delicious aroma of turkey cooking, and, of course, her delicious chestnut sausage stuffing." 


Over the years, Marina has taken over the preparing of the stuffing, “but it will always be my 'Nana Rina's Stuffing,'" she says. She even shares the recipe on the blog for her family's Southwest Missouri farm, Circle B Ranch.


Sweet Treats, Sweeter Memories


In the Papandrea household, holiday baking season kicks off each year with a very special recipe taped safely inside a cookie press box. “It's my nanny's butter cookie recipe — as in the original, typed on a real typewriter," says Dawn Papandrea, mother of two. “It even has written notes in her handwriting that she added later to improve it."


Every year, the New York-based journalist makes several batches for her family as homage to her beloved grandmother. “Everyone says how they taste just like hers. Those were better, of course, but I'll take the compliment!"


Enduring Desserts That Still Delight


Shaun Davis, a pastry chef who grew up in rural Mississippi, even integrated one of his family's holiday desserts into his restaurant, Cotton Blues Kitchen + Marketplace, located in Hattiesburg, Miss. “Growing up, my grandmother always made her lemon icebox pie for every family holiday gathering," he says. "Thanksgiving and Christmas have never been complete without it!"


After culinary school, Shaun took the family recipe and added a few tricks he learned, so it now features a vanilla gingerbread crust and toasted Italian meringue. “Grandma hasn't been with us for nine years now, but I know she's watching over me and would be thrilled to see some of her baking techniques being shared throughout the country via our desserts."


A Walk Down Memory Lane


Similarly, Susan Walsh credits her family's food traditions to helping fuel her career. “As a kid growing up in Brooklyn during the 1950s and '60s, the holidays meant taking a walk to the local bakery to pick out an assortment of baked goods, including my favorite — the crumb cake. Later, when I had a family of my own, I wanted to recreate those memories for my children."

Back then, good crumb cakes were hard to find, Susan recalls, so she set out on a journey to develop a recipe that captured the essence of the crumb cakes she grew up on. Now, thanks to Clarkson Avenue Crumb Cake Company, which Susan owns with her son, James, people all over the country can enjoy her family's walk-down-memory-lane treat as part of their own holiday celebrations. “It brings me so much joy."


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