I think we can all agree that the 2020 holiday season isn’t anything anyone expected and I’m guessing I’m not the only one who has turned to comfort food over the past nine months. I’ve had my fair share of french fries and ice cream in the stress of quarantines, toilet paper shortages, virtual learning for my first grader, and canceled travel plans.
When it comes to the holidays this year, the comfort food I’m craving is something a bit different. Sure, food can fill your belly. But I’m looking for the food that can also fill my heart and soul. Sure, french fries are great at the end of a rough day, but there aren’t enough french fries in the world for what COVID-19 has done to all of us this year. We need more than empty calories that will make us feel better for only five minutes. This year, we need food that means something more. We need food that connects us to others.
Think about some of your fondest food-related memories – whether it’s food that reminds you of your childhood, your relatives, or your friends. Think about the traditions in your family, whether it’s tamales or the Feast of Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve, latkes at Hannukah, or black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day. Or maybe it isn’t something homemade – maybe it’s your family’s favorite pizzeria or bakery. Foods, tastes, and smells can have powerful emotional connections. And it’s no coincidence – your olfactory senses have strong connections to the parts of your brain responsible for emotion and memory.
For me, I think about the chocolate marshmallow candy my grandma always made at Christmas time. Or the cheeseball my other grandma would bring to almost every family gathering. Or the cocktail meatballs my mom would make for parties. I think about the Texas sheet cake that always seems to be around on the nights we spend with our good friends, laughing until we can’t breathe. I think about the hearty stews and soups I ate with my best friend in Ireland the summer before we went away to college. I think about the pineapple sorbet I ate out of a coconut shell on the side of the road on my honeymoon in Hawaii.
If we can’t physically be together this year, use those olfactory powers to channel the memories and emotions to connect you to the people you can’t be with. Use the power of food to feel those personal connections that we’re all missing. Cook, bake, and eat the foods that warm your heart and fill your soul from the inside out. And feel free to break the rules while you’re at it (not the COVID-19 rules of course – wear your mask, socially distance, wash your hands, minimize interaction with those outside of your household). But all those alleged food rules? Definitely break those – Eat cake for breakfast. Make breakfast for dinner. Have a picnic on the floor. Think about the food that will bring you joy and reminds you of the people you love, and fill your day to the brim with it.
This year, my family’s holiday celebrations won’t be big and grand. But that doesn’t mean we’ll be alone and that doesn’t mean it won’t be meaningful. There will be lasagna made with the spaghetti sauce recipe from my husband’s late grandmother. With the garlic bread that my friend Cheriene taught me to make when we were back in graduate school and would take turns making dinner for each other rather than cooking alone. For breakfast we’ll eat the French toast casserole and hash browns just like the ones my family would make for the giant brunch with all of my cousins, aunts and uncles every Christmas morning when I was a kid. I’ll spend Christmas Eve baking and decorating sugar cookies with my kids, letting them use all the sprinkles they want, and helping them pick out their most very favorite ones to leave for Santa.
It not easy when we can’t be together at the holidays. But find the food that reminds you of the people you love. Take selfies while you’re cooking and let your friends and family know you’re thinking about them. Make goodie bags to drop off on friends’ doorsteps. Put together care packages of cookies to drop in the mail to long-distance family.
And there might be food on your holiday table that reminds you of someone you can’t send a selfie or call up on the phone anymore. That’s ok – snuggle up to those memories like a warm blanket and get cozy. You aren’t alone; just writing about my grandma’s cheeseball brings tears to my eyes. I miss her terribly, but I also crave the things that remind me of her.
I think we’re all craving the things that connect us, remind us of the people we can’t see every day anymore. Lean into it – fill your kitchen, fill your soul.
And eat hearty.