Connecting Through Food, Family and Culture

By Craig Chapman

The holidays are here, and that means it’s time for some of our favorite traditional family foods. It’s a time to celebrate who we are with traditional family recipes and our unique cultural traditions. Food is the one thing we can all relate to, and it’s through these traditional family recipes that we tell and share the story of who we are and where we came from.

Part of what makes living on the Space Coast so amazing is our incredibly diverse community. Food from around the world is available right outside our doors: Japanese, Columbian, Vietnamese, Cuban, Thai, Indian, Vietnamese, and more. During the holiday season, there are celebrations of all types that last through the new year. It’s the perfect time to take family and friends out, or spend a night in trying new foods from around the world. It’s also a great way to learn something new about your neighbors’ cultures and traditions, and probably find a new favorite food along the way. Each year my family certainly has their favorite dishes, but I always like to try something new each year as well.

Sharing a piece of who you are through food is a part of everyday life for some. We reached out to a few members of our local community to find out how they celebrate the holidays and why food, family and friends mean so much to them. 

Toni Elkhouri, the chef at her family’s restaurant Cedar’s Cafe in Brevard, celebrates the holidays with sambouski, a Lebanese meat pie. Toni points out something important: the similarities of foods from around the world. “Every culture has a version of pastry stuffed with meat of some sort,” Elkhouri said. “Sambouski’s are the favorites of my brother-in-law, as well as my late father. It’s a way of keeping him with us during the holiday.” Her restaurant also gets regularly requested dishes during the holidays. “Pumpkins are always a seasonal hit as well as many lamb dishes. Our vegans love the roasted root veg when we make it.” The sentiment and importance of family and food during the holidays resonates deeply, “Holidays are all about family, food and traditions. They bring everyone together and keep those who have passed on alive.”

Caroline Grimaldi, owner of The Shoppes on Strawbridge in downtown Melbourne, is certainly sentimental about holidays and food. When asked how her Italian family celebrates, an immediate favorite came to mind, “Lasagna is very special to me and my family because we’ve made the same lasagna almost every year of my life at Christmas time,” Grimaldi said.  “My grandmother, dad, and now myself are all following the same traditions that we did when I was a child. The little meat balls in the lasagna are especially special as I remember my grandmother frying them and us as children snatching them up as they were fried, and her yelling, ‘Basta, Basta (enough, enough).’ The pasta, ricotta cheese and sauce are all homemade.” Coming from an Italian family steeped in food, traditional recipes during the holidays have always been the highlight for Grimaldi. “The holidays are important to me and my family because it’s a time we all take a little break from our busy lives and enjoy each other’s company. It’s a time to gather and tell stories and, of course, share a meal. It is especially important to include food because sharing a meal is a great way to interact with each other and a great way to pass on traditions by teaching the children to cook. From the cooking in the kitchen, sampling the food and wine before it’s brought to the table, arranging the food on pretty dishes, teaching the children to set the table, to sitting down to eat it’s all an event.” These types of traditions are ones we can all relate to in some way even though our dishes may be different.

There are many different holidays that cooking enthusiast Antonia Santos celebrates during this time of year. Her favorite recipe is a traditional Mexican mole sauce that she uses on a variety of dishes from chicken and rice, to enchiladas. Whether she’s celebrating Christmas or Fiesta of Our Lady of Guadalupe, mole is her ‘go-to’ throughout the holidays. This time of year is especially important to Santos. “Holidays are always exciting to me,” she said. “It’s the time of year my family comes together to practice family traditions that were taught from generation to generation. The traditional Mexican food that we cook has always taken center stage at all our family events. Now I’m teaching my children our customs.” Passing down these cultural traditions to her children is incredibly important to Antonia; for her it’s like passing on a piece of her life to them. “Recipes are how we hand down traditions and family history. For instance, I always made tamales with my abuela (grandmother) for Christmas.”

Passing down recipes and traditions is one of the few “old school” ways that we can all connect today. It’s the moment we all slow down in the kitchen and create and share something together we can all relate to. From big families to small ones, from new to old ones, food, family, culture and traditions are important treasures to share during the holidays. How will you celebrate and share this year?