Here at East Fork, we love making pottery, we love people and we love food. During this holiday season, social distance measures have kept us from our customary after-hours revelry (and that makes us all very sad) but in its place, we found something that could become a new tradition: sharing holiday memories of family and food (via email this year, at least), and later, some of the meals became our staff lunches.
Here are a few stories about those meals and traditions, along with a few of the recipes, too.
Polish Christmas Eve Dinner
Emilja Tokarski leads our mug team. In Michigan, where she grew up, her Polish grandparents always hosted Wigilia, traditional Christmas Eve dinner, before everyone headed to Midnight Mass, which was spoken by the priest in Polish and only understood by Dziadzia and Busia, Polish for “grandfather” and “grandmother,” respectively. Emilja recalled sitting in the beautiful, old, cathedral-style church half-asleep as she stared at the stained glass windows, after those big meals with family.
Many Polish families wait until the first star appears in the night sky on Christmas Eve before everyone gathers around the table. Before sitting, they are given Oplatek, a thin, unleavened wafer that’s similar to the altar bread found in Roman Catholic churches. In fact, churches commonly sell Oplatki, though it can be purchased online as well. The ritual is to extend your wafer while reaching for another person’s and as you both break a piece, you wish one another a Merry Christmas. Repeat, working your way around the table or across the room until you have greeted everyone in the crowd.
Then it’s dinner time. While there isn’t an ironclad menu, this meal is traditionally one that omits beef, pork and poultry. That goes back to a now-defunct Church mandate about abstaining on Christmas Eve. Fried fish and pickled, creamed herring are mainstays, as are boiled potatoes, pierogies, beans, sauerkraut and kapusta, a cabbage dish that Emilja’s family eats as a side dish (here’s the recipe) while other Polish families eat it as a first-course soup. You’ll often also find pickled beets (maybe as borscht), a Polish noodle soup called kluski, light rye bread, among many other dishes. Abundance is a theme, as you can probably tell, and Wigilia is often served in courses rather than buffet-style. Desserts include babka and other pastries, compotes made of dried fruit, nuts and candies. In Emilja’s family, there was also her Busia’s pecan pie, which she noted isn’t traditional but always damn good. “Nothing beats Polish Christmas!” she said.
Christmas at the Beach
The next lunch we shared comes from Manny Ayala, our values manager, who grew up in Ponce, Puerto Rico, where his Christmases began at his grandparents’ house, moved to his other grandparents’ house, “meal-hopping” as he describes it and drinking Coquito mixed by his dad in batches that contained rum and batches that did not. Here’s his recipe.
And the food. The food! Manny immediately mentions pernil, a slow-roasted marinated pork leg or shoulder that’s a Christmas tradition in Puerto Rico and many other places in the Latin America and the Caribbean. The meat is roasted whole for several hours and covered, though toward the end, the cover comes off to ensure that the skin crisps. As for the marinade, each cook has a recipe for that, and many guard that recipe closely (!), but here are some standards: sofrito (diced garlic, onion, peppers, cilantro, and sawtooth coriander), salt, pepper and maybe adobo.
As for Christmas side dishes, arroz con gandules will be on the table, as it is at parties year-round. For this signature Puerto Rican medium-grain rice dish, saute some diced salted pork or ham hock in olive oil, then add sofrito along with, and again, it varies by the person making the dish, bay leaves, tomato paste, cilantro and annatto, for its earthy, peppery flavor and the golden color it will give the rice. Some recipes include capers or olives. This makes a base for cooking the rice, pigeon peas and water or broth. Manny said his Christmas table always had fried green plantains and yuca al mojo (cassava in garlic sauce). When cooks got inspired, he said, there was mofongo (smashed green plantains in a garlic sauce), empanadas, and pasteles, a dish sometimes described as the Puerto Rican version of tamales, the masa made of a mash of green bananas and plantains with yautia and yuca, wrapped in a banana leaf and typically filled with seasoned meat.
What do you do after all that feasting? Manny and his family would hit the beach, and inevitably fall asleep. He said, “The sun was our alarm clock. This usually meant we would hit a local bakery for a toasted hangover sandwich followed by more sleep at someone else's house—whoever lived closest to the beach at this point.”
Highly Specific Traditions
Shoutout to my late grandmother, who always made sangria on Christmas, and not some holiday version with cranberries and pomegranate, either, just because she liked it and because it felt indulgent to her to make on any other day. It became a holiday tradition for us and a great, goofy memory of a beloved person.
What’s your family’s answer to sangria? For Devin McMillen, our ceramic engineer, it’s Grandma Joann’s cheesy tacos that hit the table every Christmas. Devin describes it as “a wild spicy, beefy, cheesy concoction that went over Doritos, lettuce, and tomatoes and was served with a light beer.”
A seemingly out-of-place thing that becomes an enduring family holiday classic—sometimes it’s so ingrained that it takes a newcomer to the table who gets curious about it, or maybe you find yourself the guest in another’s home and there you are, searching fruitlessly for the creamy tacos, the sangria, and you suddenly realize those quirky little things might mean as much to you as the headliners, the movie star dishes that, let’s face it, lots of other families are eating that day, too.
As for Devin, Christmas cheesy taco salad is a dish that immediately came to mind because, as he said, “It was so weird and unique to our Christmas experience because we grew up on typical Midwestern, well-balanced kind of meals.” Here’s the recipe. Don’t forget the light beer!