- Honestly, Dara -

Holiday Food Hazards

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Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl

Enough already with the artificial substitutes in traditional dishes. Let’s stick with the real stuff.

What’s the worst holiday recipe? This is a parlor game that’s easy to manipulate — for instance, take 12 live alligators, add fresh thyme; serve right away. Insert freshly unwrapped Twinkie into T-shirt cannon, fire; add fresh garnish if desired. Freeze eggs in Popsicle molds; run.

I could do this all day!

I kid, but let’s be honest: The holidays really are the time when the worst recipes of the year rear their terrible, no-good, very bad heads.

For instance, have you ever had tiramisu made with supermarket bagels and nondairy creamer? I hope not, because that is a horrible way to cap off a traditional Feast of the Seven Fishes Italian Christmas dinner. But it is a recipe I have seen with my own eyes — my forever frightened eyes.

I don’t know why this was invented, but my best guess is that it was dreamed up to adhere to the long-held belief that dairy fat is bad for you. In fact, recent studies show that it’s the trans fats in nondairy creamer that pose the real danger to your health.

I’ve also seen recipes for Christmas Splenda gingerbread men, pans of holiday dressing lightened up with microwave popcorn that’s been drenched in butter substitute, and a chocolate cake made with sugar-free pudding and Diet Coke.

A friend’s grandma once welcomed her home from college for winter break by using fat-free cheese in her famous lasagna, assuming the advanced-tech substitute would behave like ordinary cheese. They had to order pizza after the lasagna came out of the oven all brown and leathery.

And one time I was given, by kind and generous people, a traditional bûche de Noël Christmas cake made with applesauce instead of butter. It had the texture of dry sand, and tasted of apples.

Holiday Performance Anxiety

What is it about the holidays that makes people go bananas for these awful updates?

I have a theory. I think it’s mainly due to something I call Happy Holiday–Related Performance Anxiety. The holidays are the one time of year when we absolutely have to get it right — these are memories, folks! We want to create the best centerpieces, send the cutest cards, use the best wrapping paper, and offer only the most thoughtful gifts. You knew it was coming, so there are no excuses. Get your six-pack abs into your custom Santa suit and make with the Olympic-caliber happy.

Secondarily, I think Americans are uniquely vulnerable to that particular whispering shame that we’re doing it all wrong — that the old ways, the old places are bad, and we have to get with the newfangled. After all, many of our ancestors ditched their Old World for this New World. They looked around wherever they were and said, “You know, let’s blow this Popsicle stand.”

Once you blow the whole Popsicle stand, why keep the traditional tiramisu?

Real-Food Traditions

If that’s the why, then the big question remaining is this: What are you to do when perfectly well-meaning people present you with Frankenfoods you’d normally never eat? How do you tell your Aunt Sue that you know she’s trying to both show you her love and take care of your health, but that the new wisdom actually suggests that real, whole foods in moderation top the fake stuff? That one whipped-cream-filled cream puff beats a whole tray of cream puffs filled with a nondairy, fluffy, spray-foam type of substance?

To minimize the run-ins, I recommend creating your own real-food holiday traditions. Stovetop popcorn is an old-fashioned treat that deserves a comeback, with everyone gathered around a big pot in the kitchen, listening to the kernels pop. For a neutral flavor, use grapeseed oil to pop the corn. Or make like a hipster and use clarified butter or bacon fat.

Figgy pudding was a Christmas tradition for generations. It’s a dense sort of steamed fruitcake that can be easily updated. Keep it simple by standing a ripe fig on its base, slicing from the top to make an X, and filling the X with fresh ricotta. Finish it with a drizzle of honey and a few pistachios on top.

Pomegranates are also in season during the holidays, so drop a few jewel-like seeds into your champagne or lemonade with a splash of pomegranate juice for a drink as red and festive as Santa’s suit. Or make overnight oatmeal on Christmas Eve, with pie spices like cinnamon and nutmeg. The house will smell like heaven all day.

And if your well-meaning loved ones still insist on baking? Try telling them that it’s the gift of their time and presence that matters most — not what they’re serving on the holiday table: “Grandma, Aunt Sue, I love you just the way you are. And I love you just the way you were. Want to make gingerbread people together, the way we used to? I’ll bring the raisins to make the eyes; you bring all the things you’ve known so long you hardly know you know them, like what your own grandma made at the holidays. We’ll talk. And we’ll never speak of the bagel-nondairy-creamer tiramisu ever again — unless we need a laugh.”

This originally appeared as “Holiday Hazards” in the December 2017 print issue of Experience Life.

is a James Beard Award-winning food and wine writer.

Illustration by Paul Hostetler

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