Culinary Anthropology and Holiday Meals

Holidays are a great time to get back into cooking – food has so many associations with happy holidays, warm times at home, and basically familiarity and comfort that it becomes more evocative than in everyday life. (Getting three cookbooks for Christmas didn’t hurt, either.) Christine and I got into a discussion last week about what it is that entices me about cooking. She’s a great cook, but for her cooking is as simple as following a recipe that looks good. I’m much more interested in understanding techniques and their effects on food; what is searing, what is roasting, what is the difference between pan frying and sauteeing, and why we do any of these things. Having a knowledge of ingredients and of techniques, to me, means that I can walk into a store, decide that the tomatos (or bell peppers, or oranges, or sirloin, or tuna, or…) look wonderful and build a meal from that. I don’t want to just follow a recipe, I want to understand the recipe.

Beyond that, though, is the field of culinary anthropology. Look at regional or ethnic foods and see the ingredients that are used. Think about the history of coffee or of beignets. What happened when the coffee bean was introduced into Europe? How about when the peanut spread eastward from the New World? Flavors and techniques are driven by the ingredients at hand as much as they are the evolution of techniques and tools. The history of food itself lends to this kitchen intuiti0n, both in understanding ethnic foods as well as creating new ways of applying one culture’s techniques to another’s ingredients.

Anyhow, like I said, holiday times are great for traditional or special foods. For me, the holidays always meant bourbon balls – a mixture of pecans, chocolate, vanilla wafers, surgar, corn syrup, and bourbon, formed into a sticky paste, rolled into balls and dredged in granulated sugar.

What foods make up your holiday memories?