December 2022

A mid-winter Potluck of Rules and Rituals: a digest of the chatline

Rituals and rules for celebrations, particularly those that mark the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere, was (loosely) the subject of our Kitchen Table on Thursday December 15, 2022.  A pot-luck gathering hosted and guided by Ursula Heinzelmann with contributions from Gamze Ineceli and Elisabeth Luard, everyone present brought their own stories of the ways in which we mark moments of change in all our lives. 


I don’t think rituals have or will ever disappear – by which I  mean patterned, repeated behavior – “rituals in the weak sense.” However, what has been disappearing are rituals “in the strong sense,” that is, those that are done intentionally and self-consciously.

Nowadays everything starts three months before the holidays: during my childhood, stollen was eaten in the afternoon – not before – of the 24th which marked the beginning of Christmas. 

I just made my first Elisen Lebkuchen with homemade lebkuchen spice, homemade marzipan and homemade candied citrus!

[This year] I seem to be baking to remember my mother, who passed a couple of months ago:  holidays are my happiest memories of home; my families brought us a German Christmas in Southern California; I’ve never baked this much, at a time when fewer are at home to eat it – I’m drowning inGerman Christmas specialities!

When I lost my father we all decided we couldn’t keep doing the same thing. It was too painful. So we created a whole new set of rituals.  So now it is fondue instead of oysters.

In Provence, the tradition of the Reveillon – a meal that starts with a fasting supper and continues after midnight mass with the setting up of the Christmas crib – with feasting until dawn. On a table by the crib is a kind of open larder, “les treize desserts”, thirteen good things replenished throughout the Twelve Days of the holiday. The centerpiece, a rich sweet bread, fougasse (or maybe a round apple tart) to symbolise Christ, is surrounded by twelve little dishes for the disciples. Choice – varied according to region – includes: Poire William pears, quince paste, crystallized plums, dried apricots, walnuts, grapes, melon, reinette apples, white and black nougat, marzipan calisons (slippers), oranges, tangerines, dates. Plus (or minus, depending on religious preference) four begging-orders of monks:

White  Robed Dominicans (blanched almonds), 
Franciscans (rough-skinned figs); 
Camelites (smooth-skinned hazelnuts); 
Augustines (wrinkled raisins).  

Fascinating background to the nativity set-up. Symbolism everywhere!

The tradition [in Brazil] was not to dine at all on the Eve – and only eat after the Missa do Galo at midnight, around 2 a.m.  

I remember we used to put up a nativity play with all the kids in our building in Rio: there was a lot of fighting as all the girls wanted to play the Virgin Mary.  

Christmas from my childhood, something I seem to have forgotten over the years. A Christian man called John, worked at the factory where my father was a manager. He couldn’t afford a place to stay as he needed to support his family in the village. And so my father offered John a place in our home. John would make me a Christmas tree with a local deciduous tree and make small stars to hang on it.  He set up a nativity scene with figurines he made from clay, and enact a playevery day in December until Christmas Day. 

How wonderful to grow up in Istanbul, a multi-cultural city that connects two continents, Europe and Asia and has been home to Moslems, Sephardic Jewish and Orthodox communities. As a result, so many of the rules and rituals from each community become tangled together that after a certain time they become your own.  A typical New Year’s Eve table in Istanbul will pretty much consist of the same dishes, regardless of race or religion. 

The menu speaks for itself: Circassian Chicken, Russian Salad, Albanian Liver, Armenian Topik, Greek Lakerda (cured bonito), Jewish bottarga (coated in beeswax). 

In Iran, the New Year table has pomegranates – so symbolic! Just like my Tu Bishvat table (Jewish New Year for the Trees) in late January/early February.  If you go to a Persian grocery store this week you’ll find it loaded with dried fruits and pomegranates etc.


In Rio, my mother basted the Christmas turkey with Coca-cola – maybe she picked up the recipe in a package somewhere.  Phosphoric acid [is what would] tenderise it.

My friend swears by coca cola and ketchup for brisket.  There was a trend for cooking pot-roast in coke a few years back.  Nigella has a recipe using coca cola for a Christmas ham…brown and sugary works a treat; a slug of coca-cola also works well in gravy.

A friend who celebrates his birthday on Christmas Day makes a half cake and then makes for another for a summer’s day when he celebrates his other half birthday.  I wanted to celebrate the holidays on the winter solstice (a-religious) but my kids argued “mum, we are weird enough!”

I always begin my [festive] dinner rituals with a discussion of Margaret Visser [Much Depends on Dinner] on cannibalism.  An excellent topic. The real question is: should I serve a white or a red wine with my roasted leg-of-neighbor? An excellent song (The Reluctant Cannibal, Flanders and Swann)about cannibalism has a young man who refuses to partake.

[The point being that] while you don’t eat anyone, you also don’t [want to] kill anyone with food, so there are cookery rituals that keep the food safe.  Which is maybe why you don’t get underdone pork versus beef.  


In Istanbul, when we cross the Bosphorus Strait from Europe to Asia and vice versa, we have the ritual of  buying two ‘simits’(a sesame crusted dough which is sold in every street corner).  One to munch on, the other to feed the seagulls flying over the boat – each bite they catch in the air is a promise of health, good will and prosperity.

There are a lot of New Year’s rituals related to anticipation of prosperity and poverty – Hoppin’ John, coins and so forth.  I grew up having pancakes whenever it rained as a way to celebrate the rain.  My mother used to get upset if we didn’t have sauerkraut at New Year – it means we would run out of money during the year.

OFS Director Ursula Heinzelmann’s recommended reading:

– Gil Marks, Encyclopedia of Jewish Food

– Byung-Chul Han, The Disappearance of Rituals

– Loung Ung, Taking Liberties in Telling True Stories (an anthology);  

– Interview with chef René Redzepi in Gastronomica, 2010