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Stonehenge Twinkie pilots

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The song goes, "Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat!" But when is the last time you had a goose during the holidays? My family's tradition was beef fondue on Christmas Eve. Mom would dice up some nice tenderloin, and dad would get the hot oil going. Mom would spread out condiments from which we could make sauces: homemade mayonnaise, peanuts, coconut, chopped capers, scallions, mustard, and curry powder. We'd also have a nice Caesar salad and would drink copious quantities of Beaujolais Nouveau.

            There are plenty of interesting holiday food traditions. New Orleans chef Greg Duva suggested I research King Cake, part of a tradition that goes back to Roman Saturnalia festivals. These days, a NOLA King Cake would be like brioche in a doughnut shape, rolled in cinnamon, covered with colored sugars, and iced. Inside would be a "king cake baby," and the person who gets it would win something (it used to mean you get to be royalty and host the next party). For a fascinating history, visit www.mardigrasunmasked.com/mardigras/king_cake.htm.

            Related only by a strained act of convoluted logic, we find Rob Tyler and Patricia Pauly of Pittsford throwing a yearly Solstice party. Tyler says they picked the Solstice because "it's equally pagan for everyone." To aid in navigating the multicultural waters, Tyler searches for "the ultimate druid fluid," which means a trip to Beers of the World for Polish mead and whatever odd ales catch his fancy. Hen's Teeth is a favorite (Nick Park would approve). Further stretching the theme, Tyler and Pauly serve food in the shape of Stonehenge. One year it was Twinkies, another it was gingerbread.

            Celebrating where traditions meet is of particular importance in families of mixed heritage. My childhood friend Caroline Levy describes hers this way: "One parent Jewish, one parent Protestant, both parents really would have been secular humanists if they'd felt like getting together in any kind of group at all, which they didn't." With both families primarily German, Caroline says her Jewish grandmother's recipe for lebkuchen "speaks volumes to me about the blending." Her mother called her grandmother's recipes "a small measure of immortality." Lebkucken is a cake-like cookie, honey-sweetened, very spicy, lemony, and iced. (Write to foodguy@rochester.rr.com for this or other recipes mentioned here.)

            Salt fish, usually salt-dried cod, is common to many cultures' holiday traditions. Most folks of Italian ancestry have a preparation of baccalà --- the French say morue, the Spanish bacalao --- that figures in their holiday mix. Any use of saltfish starts by soaking it for a couple of days in several changes of water. My friend Brandon Heffernan wrote to rave about his Italian grandmother's soup, in which the fish is cooked with onions, garlic, parsley, tomatoes, and white wine.

            Vince Giordano, owner of VM Giordano imports at the Public Market, grew up in the Basilicata region of Italy. His family holidays were about seafood: Spanish mackerel, pan-fried in olive oil with garlic and rosemary; smelt, fried or in a casserole; baccalà, fried or cooked with onions and peeled tomatoes; and stuffed squid. For the kids, there was pettole, strips of fried dough dusted with sugar or dipped in vino cotto (cooked wine). Vince's mother would also make fried ravioli stuffed with her own chestnut jam.

            Karin Cross, wife of City writer Dave Cross and a very fine cook, is happy that baccalà has disappeared from her family's holiday menus as the older generations have passed. One tradition she maintains is serving fennel which, she says, "is damn good stuff, unfairly overlooked by many but not us Italians." She likes to munch on it like celery, but also sent a fabulous-sounding recipe for a salad of thinly sliced fennel and blood oranges with shaved parmesan or Romano.

            My friend Sarah Webb says her fondest memories are from the blossoming tradition of our families spending New Year's together, especially my daughter Iris cleaning the bones of Sarah's apricot-soy chicken wings (another recipe available on request).

            And that's just it: you have to eat, and at the holidays, it has to be special. Whether you're creating your own neologistic holidays like Rob Tyler, participating in something with a 2,000-year-old history like King Cake, or just doing what you're parents' parents did, keeping a tradition in food can be a most blessed sacrament.

Food tip

Try the Dutch Market at 257 Park Avenue for unique holiday treats. Where else would you find Borrelnootjes, Gevulde Speculaas, Mergpijpes, or 30 flavors of licorice? Owner Betty French also serves the only Indonesian food in town. Info: www.park-avenue.org/dutchmarket.

Michael Warren Thomas

Tune in Michael on Saturdays for gardening, restaurants, and travel (9 a.m. to noon); and on Sundays for antiques and wine (10 a.m. to noon) on WYSL 1040 AM. Listen live on the web at www.SavorLife.com.

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