The holidays are so much about food.
The holidays are so much about food.
Especially during chilly fall and winter, those special meals add warmth to our holiday gatherings.
And as we gather family, friends or even strangers, what we serve, what we don’t and why says something about who we are.
We asked three women: What does your holiday meal say about you?
Here, we celebrate their dining traditions.
Before Jan Hodge thinks about setting her holiday table, she’s planning to feed hundreds of others elsewhere.
For five years, Hodge, 69, has served as volunteer coordinator for a dinner for the homeless and lonely at Court Street United Methodist Church in Rockford.
Up to 1,400 people attend the free meal, so Hodge begins rounding up volunteers to cook, serve and otherwise help months before the holiday. They collect donations of pies, vegetables and coffee. They begin roasting the turkeys the Monday before Thanksgiving.
On the holiday, Hodge gets up early to start her own family meal of turkey and the fixings, cheating with instant mashed potatoes. The bird goes in the oven, Hodge “hopes the house doesn’t burn down” and then she’s out the door to check on final preparations at the church.
When she heads back to a house soon to be filled with loved ones, she has an appreciation for the meaning of the day.
“You do realize how lucky you are.”
Her home brims with food and grandchildren.
“I can’t imagine having something serene and quiet,” she said, “with the candlesticks and all.”
Skipping the Turkey
Being vegan — one who eats no meats or dairy products — can be a challenge at restaurants and banquets, said Holly Swanson, general manager at TV51, Rockford’s affiliate of the Chicago-based Total Living Network.
“Sometimes I feel like ‘Am I causing a scene here?’” she said, describing what it’s like to order meals without animal byproducts.
Swanson, 33, was in college when she swore off meat out of conviction that it’s wrong to eat animals. Now she feels health benefits, too.
“Being vegan says I am a compassionate woman who cares about my health and other people’s health. I love making vegan food for others because I don’t think that most people realize how delicious healthy food can taste, especially if it’s made with thoughtfulness, love and care.”
When her family gets together in suburban Chicago for Christmas, she’s in the company of other vegetarians. Plus, she can bring her own dish — such as roasted tofurkey, a loaf of vegetarian meat alternative.
Meat lovers can be skeptical, Swanson said, but she insists that she can make a tasty substitute for most foods found on your average holiday table. She still savors the victory her seven-layer taco dip once had in a head-to-head battle with a relative’s more traditional version.
“They never have any clue that it’s vegan,” she said.
Saving Room for Cake
“If Boria Blankenship don’t cook, it must not be a holiday,” Blankenship said of the feasts so many expect from her.
The menus are extensive:
Besides turkey (deep-fried, not roasted), duck, cornbread dressing and greens, ham, spaghetti and homemade rolls, she sometimes includes gumbo — a nod to her mother’s Louisiana heritage.
Then there’s dessert.
When dozens of extended-family members and friends crowd into her Rockford home for the holidays, they may appreciate the hearty meal and dressed formal dining room, but the meal is not complete without one of her homemade cakes.
Red velvet — a chocolate, dark-red cake popular in the South — and Italian cream cheese are two of her most popular.
“Yes, Lord!” she said. “You put it on the table, and it is gone in 15 minutes.”
Blankenship, 55, has been cooking since she was 11, so even with a recipe, her creations are original.
“Sometimes, I take a recipe, turn it upside-down and see what I get.”
Once a month, she cooks and serves meals at the Red Cross shelter, which she has done for nearly 30 years.
“You’d be surprised how many people in Rockford are in need of a hot meal.”
Edith C. Webster may be reached at 815-987-1394 or firstname.lastname@example.org.