LONDON — The lull of January offers me a moment to look back on the weeks that have gone before and to make ends meet. I’m especially interested in traditions: how they almost sneak up on us and surprise us, despite our misguided assumption that we are completely in control. And I can think of no better illustration of the fluidity of tradition, its almost arbitrary nature, than our – and that’s a big our, all humanity, more or less – response to recent times.
In many cultures, family traditions have their big moment at the end of December, when we come together in groups, each with its own customs, to restore the circles that define us. But the colossal disruption caused by a pandemic now nearly two years old has meant that almost everyone has had to adjust their vacation plans to some degree. (That is, if they were lucky enough to keep them at all.)
In my world, the tension between my idea of a “big vacation” and the reality was most apparent in the size of our gathering. My mother, my niece and her husband were unable to get from Israel to Northern Ireland, where my husband’s family lives. It also didn’t feel safe to invite others at the last minute. There were seven of us instead of the usual twelve or more.
So we gathered around half of the long dining table and between meals we played cards and took walks along the windswept coast. Our two boys, the only children in the group, spent more time on their tablets than we usually tolerate, but that was only so the adults could recover from the abundance of food and drink. Our strength was not in numbers, but in the intimacy and acceptance that, yes, this is certainly no ordinary Christmas, but Christmas, modified.
As for the food, it’s always been a point of contention between me and my husband, Karl, but I think we’ve struck a pretty healthy balance between the Christmas traditions he grew up with and wants to pass on to our boys, and my natural inclination to screw things up in the kitchen – to throw ingredients in the air, so to speak, and see where they end up.
The main holiday meal looks almost identical to the one Greta, Karl’s mother, served when he was a child: roast turkey with no fuss; smoked ham studded with cloves and glazed with brown sugar; potatoes roasted in goose fat; slow cooked Brussels sprouts; roasted carrots and parsnips (although we mashed them with nutmeg and marbled them with sour cream); and a lot of condiments and sauces.
But in the days just before or after Christmas there is more freedom to play with tradition. For example, our post Boxing Day feast was a ramen-style broth made from leftover turkey and cooked with ginger, coriander, lime leaves, and chili, served with chunks of turkey, Chinese broccoli (gai lan), bok choy, soft-boiled egg, and soy sauce and chili oil on the side.
In keeping with local custom (we are in Northern Ireland after all), potato managed to materialize in every meal. But even there we found room for fluidity: we tacitly agreed to step away from the orthodoxy of roasting in goose fat. First we used leftovers in a variation on a Spanish omelet, a bit spicy; then in a puree with pieces of cheese from the refrigerator and an improvised spice paste; and finally a gratin, not unlike this one, with brown butter from celeriac and capers, the aim being to use up any orphaned root vegetable and any remaining herbs. Once baked, it tasted like all Christmas had been crammed into every bite.
As I packed for our return to London, I tried to guess which of the games we played to pass the time and the dishes we cooked to use up the leftovers from our smaller feast would survive the pandemic as new family traditions. But then I realized there’s no way I can know what next Christmas will be like, or the one after, and that uncertainty has surprises in store for all of us. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, or a good thing: it’s just the way things are.
Recipe: Potato and celeriac gratin with brown butter from capers