Oh, what a time of year this is for appetites of all sorts, appetites for fun, for merriment, but especially for holiday foods whose tastes and smells evoke as much of the Christmas season as gifts under the tree — or, for our Jewish friends, as the lighting of the menorah for Hanukkah.
Food and the over-consumption thereof this time of year isn’t a tradition that popped out of nowhere or arose from the simple human propensity for all things tasty.
Historians tell us that pagan feasting and overeating at winter solstice were as much a necessity in those ancient, lean, mean, dark, unheated, mall-less times as they were a ritual celebrating the return of light. Something along the lines of stay fed and stay alive and, by the way, have a little something extra for the sheer joy of it, given it looks like the sun hasn’t let us down we’ll all be here another year after all.
In the spirit of the season of all things appetizing, may I present an offering of tasty tid-bits centred round the holiday season. Please sample liberally and enjoy:
Eggnog for your eyes?
I couldn’t believe my you-know-whats when I read a press release from the B.C. Association of Optometrists. According to the association, eggnog is but one of many foods rich in nutrients that help protect your eyes against disease and deterioration. Bring it on, I say.
Anti-oxidants such as lutein (LOO-teen), zeaxanthin (zee-a-ZAN-thin) and vitamins A, C and E can protect against diseases such as cataracts (a clouding or darkening of the lens) and macular degeneration (the loss of central vision). Anti-oxidants also keep eye tissue healthy by protecting it against the damaging effects of high-energy blue light.
Egg yolks are perhaps the best single source of lutein and zeaxanthin, ergo the recommendation to suck up an eggnog or three. If someone bugs you about laying waste to your waistline, tell them you’re working on your vision, and you don’t mean double — unless you’re adding a dash of rum, which may need a little tasting of its own on the side.
On a more sober note, other holiday foods good for your eyes include turkey giblets (liver is high in vitamin A); plum pudding with prunes (rich in bioflavonoids, a good source of vitamin C); mandarin oranges (another excellent source of vitamin C); pumpkin, sweet potatoes, carrots and butternut squash for their vitamin A; and nuts such as hazelnuts (vitamin E) and Brazil nuts (selenium).
A bit of shuitcake with your frerry?
As the English have been telling us for centuries, there’s something perfectly hand-in-glove this time of year about frerry and shuitcake, I mean sherry and fruitcake. Or as we Canadians are more apt to call it, Christmas cake.
Besides drizzling the beverage over said cake or otherwise soaking it lavishly in the weeks leading up to Christmas, a wee glass or two of nice sherry with a slice of same or a bit of plum pudding is an indulgence worth repeating.
While we think of sherry as being terribly English, it of course originated in Spain, in the town of Jerez de la Frontera to be exact, just 40 minutes south of Seville near the southern coast. There they throw one heck of a Christmas party, harkening back to the times when neighbouring houses shared a coal kitchen.
According to Martha Barnette’s light-hearted book of food names, Ladyfingers and Nun’s Tummies , the name “Jerez” entered English as “sherris”. Given everyone misunderstood it to be a plural, it was eventually shortened to “sherry” and enjoyed just as much in the singular form.
Snow for your maple syrup?
While we can’t count it as a purely holiday ritual, the tradition of pouring hot maple syrup over snow and eating the results is as festive as it gets in winter, thanks to the good aboriginal people in the east who taught us how to do it in the first place.
For new Canadians, as in young or new to our country, who may not be familiar with it, the concept is to get yourself a bottle of good maple syrup, heat it up and then carry the steamy results out to the nearest snowbank. Drizzle shapes and puddles across clean snow and, once it’s cool, pick up the results and enjoy.
Personally, I go for a darker maple syrup (medium or amber grade) for its fuller maple taste. The trick, if you want nice chewy maple taffy, is to use a candy thermometer and slowly bring it to 131°-132°C (268°-270°F) before you pour.
Traditionally back east, you’d eat it off a stick, but in Alberta we just used our fingers, or if things got too gooey, a fork or spoon. We’d also make snowballs and pour the hot syrup over them and eat the sweet treat in hand. Just make sure you lay them on the snowbank and don’t try to hang onto them while you pour.
Given how generous Ullr has been to Whistler this year, this might be the perfect time to start your own “sugar on snow” holiday tradition.
Bread for your house?
It may not be readily apparent, but the little and now strategically walled town of Bethlehem is inextricably tied to food, although not in a way you might expect.
In Hebrew, the name comes from “beth” meaning “house”, and “lechem”, the word for “bread.” In Arabic, however, Bethlehem translates not as “house of bread” but rather as “house of meat.” The Arabic name is connected to Lakhmu, one of the divinities in the Babylonian creation myth. Bethlehem was a sacred shrine of that god in ancient times.
Today, a visitor would find plenty of both meat and bread and much more, given the number of restaurants needed to serve the many tourists visiting this holy place. A typical tourist today is just as likely to encounter a Bulgarian cheese and sun-dried tomato sandwich as olives and falafel or meze.
As for Bethlehem itself, the town remains relatively small with a population of only 27,000, about the size of Whistler on a good snow day, swollen with skiers and boarders.
During such times, the village may well feel like “bedlam”, a word also not readily linked to its origins.
According to Barnette, in medieval London, the Hospital of Saint Mary of Bethlehem was converted into an asylum for the insane. Over time, this grim institute was known simply as Bethlehem, then Bethlem, and eventually Bedlam, ergo the word “bedlam” to describe crazed noisiness and clamor.
Hope you avoid same during your holiday festivities, or at least strike the right balance that satisfies your various appetites.
Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning freelance writer who never finds the holidays too clamorous to enjoy a bit of eggnog with her sherry-steeped Christmas cake.