Food Traditions

By Tom Roebuck

September 11, 2009 4 min read

There are some things about Christmas that you will see no matter where you are in the United States. Twinkling lights adorn everything from private homes to public buildings; shopping malls are spruced up and ready for the crowds they hope show up with money to spend; and children are on their best behavior, hoping to avoid being on Santa's "naughty" list.

But even though Americans share many of the same Christmas customs, you won't find the same holiday dinner on every family's table. The comfort foods that make Thanksgiving so popular -- turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, vegetables -- remain staples of Christmas cuisine. However, the December holiday often features more regional flair than the one in November.

Baltimore has its own twist on the traditional Christmas turkey: serving it with a generous helping of sauerkraut. It's a tradition that's been passed down proudly through the generations, but the origins are unclear. However, it shouldn't come as a surprise that a city with a rich German heritage, such as Baltimore, would serve sauerkraut with just about anything.

"That may have started it, but quite frankly, nobody around here even knows why Baltimore has a sauerkraut-with-turkey thing," says Gary Hein of the Old World Delicatessen & Bakery. "We here at the store have a strong German background, and I'm sure that's part of the reason we sell a lot of it, but I couldn't tell you why Baltimore suddenly decided to have sauerkraut with their turkey."

Indeed, local heritage plays a part in how Christmas is celebrated throughout the United States. Louisiana loves creole all year, so it's not surprising that creole gumbo is a part of the holiday in the bayou. It can include ham, veal, chicken, crab, oysters and shrimp. In the Southwest, Santa Fe, N.M., is lit up on Christmas Eve by farolitos, which are small sand-filled bags illuminated by votive candles. The area's Native American, Hispanic and Western influences make for a lively holiday meal.

"Christmas Eve is a time for posole, which is kind of a hominy chili stew, along with tamales, both savory and sweet," says Steve Lewis of the Santa Fe Convention and Visitors Bureau. "Also bisquetitos, which are a holiday cookie, and empanadas, again both savory and sweet."

Up in Seattle, the International District is home to the city's Asian-American communities. Most of the Chinese restaurants are open and busy on Christmas night, offering dishes such as Alaskan crab fried in a black-bean or green onion-and-ginger sauce and glazed Peking duck.

"In general, people are willing to spend a little more because it's a holiday," says Theresa Ho of the Sea Garden restaurant. "They might get lobster or crab and spend a little more time than usual."

It's a tradition that the Sea Garden's employees aren't too fond of, however.

"I'm sure they'd rather be home with their families," Ho acknowledges.

Tamales are a Christmas tradition in Los Angeles, meaning it's the busiest time of the year for restaurants like Tamales Liliana's. The holiday rush begins in early December, and by the time Christmas Eve rolls around, people are lined up out the door and around the corner, taking home stacks of tamales that have been a favorite in Los Angeles for more than 20 years. If they could, they would stay open all night as Christmas approaches, but they can't meet the demand, with the most popular being pork with red chili sauce and jalape?o with cheese.

"On the 23rd, we close at 9 p.m. and cook tamales all night," says employee Samantha Martinez, "and open on the 24th at 4 a.m. We have to close so we can make more by 4 a.m."

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