Jolly Holly Traditional Festive Foods

by Tammera J. Karr, PD

As with most, our family has traditional holiday foods we look forward to, on Christmas Eve, my mother would serve oyster stew, and on new year’s it was black-eyed peas and ham for good luck. Others in my family may have made tamales like my great aunt, using her mother’s recipes. All of us have foods that inspire warm memories or tears; it is food that invokes memories through taste, smell and color. Without a doubt, we are proud Americans, but we also use the holidays to remember who came before us and what gifts they brought with them that flavor the season.


The cake-like consistency of gingerbread bears little resemblance to bread, it was originally, in the thirteenth century, gingerbread, a word borrowed from Old French which meant ‘preserved ginger.’ But by the mid-fourteenth century,…-bread had begun to replace -bras, and it was only a matter of time before sense followed form. (sorry I can’t help but laugh as I know a few of you will have way to much fun with the bras …hohoho) One of the earliest known recipes comes from the early fifteenth-century cookery book Good Cookery, and directs gingerbread be made with breadcrumbs boiled in honey with ginger and other spices.

“…most early American cookies were referred to as “cakes,” and gingerbread was assumed to be a form of cookie, as in Lebkuchen, a gingerbread cookie made with honey…Of all the Christmas pastries, the gingerbread cookie was the most loved by early American children. In American cookery, there are two distinct families of gingerbread cookies, the honey-based gingerbreads of Middle European origin–mostly Germany–and the molasses shortbreads that developed in England or Scotland. The other developed in the late seventeenth century, using molasses as a substitute for honey…The Germans in this country were the best honey cake bakers–they called the cookies Lebkuchen.”


According to food historians, mincemeat pie dates back to Medieval times. In the Middle Ages and into Renaissance times and beyond it was commonplace to spice up or eke out meat with dried fruit, and it seems likely that the earliest mince pies contained a generous measure of such raisins and currants. The recipe did, indeed, include meat as did the mincemeat I grew up with; my mother would only use venison and suet; today I leave out the suet and dried fruit and use thickened apple juice, sliced apples, blueberries, and currents. It also often contained dried fruits, sugar, and spices, as was the tradition of the day. The distinction between mincemeat and mince was drawn in the mid-nineteenth century when meat began disappearing from the recipe, leaving the fruit, nut, sugar, spice, brandy and suet product we know today.

Oyster Stew

Fish (including shellfish) plays a critical role throughout the Christian calendar. “Meatless” day/periods were proscribed from ancient times forward for practical reasons: they regulated small early meat supplies and unified church members. For traditional Catholics in most countries, Christmas Eve, as with Lent, features fish. In Italy, the traditional Christmas Eve table features Seven Fishes. Baccala (salt cod).  Oyster Stew is part of the Irish Christmas Eve tradition. Oyster dishes of all sorts are regularly found on French tables, so it is conceivable that oyster stew is a French tradition also with Northern French cuisine features many creamy, butter soups and stews. Until recently (last half of the 20th century forwards), oysters were commonly consumed, especially by people living close to ocean shores.

On Christmas Eve, many ethnic cultures enjoy seafood to save their appetites for Christmas Day dinner, according to food historian John Mariani. But oyster stew also is uniquely Celtic because it is a holiday connection to the old country — an Irish-American adaptation of a traditional Christmas Eve stew that was made in Ireland with a chewy Atlantic fish called ling. The ling was stewed with milk (or buttermilk), parsley, salt, and pepper because it was tough. It was similar in texture and flavor to the prized oysters that were an autumn delicacy of the Irish gentry.

When the Irish began flocking to North America during the Great Potato Famine, during the 1840s and 1850s, they couldn’t find ling in American fish markets. So they picked oysters to remind them of their families and Ireland on Christmas Eve. Americans, in general, were “oyster mad” in the 1800s, according to Mariani. Oysters were plentiful and were a big part of urban life, especially in East Coast cities where hundreds of thousands of Irish immigrants settled.


The name eggnog and recipes for it first appear in print in the 17th century. Food historians confirm English recipes for posset (esp. sack posset) were very similar to later eggnog a popular and accepted American term to denote an old traditional English holiday beverage. “By the mid-1760s patrons were drinking eggnog, juleps, sling, and sanger in addition to the punch and toddy already available.”

In 1796, “Rich and creamy dessert drinks, such as eggnog and syllabub, reflect the English heritage in America, especially in the South. In England, posset was a hot drink in which the white and yolk of eggs were whipped with ale, cider, or wine. Americans adapted English recipes to produce a variety of milk-based drinks that combined rum, brandy, or whiskey with cream. The first written reference to eggnog was an account of a February 1796 breakfast at the City Tavern in Philadelphia. Beginning in 1839 American cookbooks included recipes for cold eggnogs of cream, sugar, and eggs combined with brandy, rum, bourbon, or sherry, sprinkled with nutmeg. Southerners enjoyed a mix of peach brandy, rum, and whiskey.”

The earliest reference to eggnog cited in the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1825. The beverage is defined as “A drink in which the white and yolk of eggs are stirred up with hot beer, wine, or spirits.”

And since I am in Americas largest Irish community while writing this I bid you ‘Nollaig faoi shéan is faoi shonas duit.’

A prosperous and Happy Christmas season to You.


Our Journey With Food Cookery Book



Now Available for the holidays through and digital through

Excerpt from Our Journey with Food Cookery Book by Tammera Karr

An A-Z of Food & Drink, John Ayto [Oxford University Press:Oxford] 2002 (p. 142)
The Christmas Cook, William Woys Weaver [Harper Perennial:New York] 1990(p. 102-4)
A Very Merry Christmas to all and Blessings in the New Year
An A-Z of Food and Drink, John Ayto [Oxford University Press:Oxford] 2002 (p. 214)

It is beginning to smell a lot like Christmas

by Tammera J. Karr, PhD

One of the magical things about this time of year are the smells – cinnamon, cardamon, nutmeg, clove, allspice, ginger, fruit fillings and festive colors swirled around on cookies. Many of these powerful aromas stimulate memories and affect brain chemistry in positive ways.

All of these spices that add to the flavor of the winter holiday season have a warming quality, and in medieval times they were valuable for their food preservation effects. Known as “pie spices,” these flavors are indeed wonderful compliments to pies and other baked goods, but they’re also excellent companions to root vegetables, roasted meats, sauces, gravies and more. When flavoring, it helps to think of allspice, cinnamon, and nutmeg as sweet; cardamom, cloves, ginger and star anise as pungent; and coriander as peace-making.

The flavors we call Spices’ come from the volatile oils they contain in the seed, berry, and bark.  These oils dissipate when they are left out in the open air or a bad quality storage containers.  Spices should be stored in airtight and tinted glass containers away from light, heat, and humidity. Whenever possible, buy small quantities and grind your whole spices to ensure fresh flavor.

According to A Guide to Buying and Cooking with Winter Spices

Ginger has been flavoring foods and beverages from antiquity forward. Ginger is versatile with a range of flavors from fresh, zingy and lemony to spicy and hot. It is one of the oldest Asian spices. Gingerbread, as we know it today, descends from Medieval European culinary traditions. Ginger cookies feature prominently on Northern European Christmas tables. Of all the Christmas pastries, the gingerbread cookie was one the one most loved by early American children.  A large part of gingerbreads popularity hinged on gingerbread being cheap, and easy to make; a small batch would yield many cookies, and gingerbread dough stood up well under the vagaries of both brick-oven and cook-stove baking.

Cloves are the dried flower buds of a tree native to Indonesia. This aromatic spice is found in kitchens across the globe. The word clove comes from the Latin clavus, which means “nail.” Its “nail heads” can be spiked into foods for a dramatic presentation. Ground cloves lose their volatile oils quickly, so it’s best to grind your own in a coffee grinder. Use pungent cloves sparingly when cooking. They are perfect for roasted meats, baked beans, split pea or bean soups, citrus, stewed and baked fruits, desserts, and pickles.

Allspice is the cured berry of an evergreen tree found in Jamaica.  When buying this spice look for dark, red-brown spheres with a rough surface. You should hear the inner seeds rattle when shaken. Ground allspice should be rich, dark brown, highly aromatic but not musty, and a bit oily, never dry. When using them for cooking select whole berries to avoid adding a brown tint to foods. Try allspice in sweet baked goods, Jamaican jerk seasoning, tomato and barbecue sauces, seafood, red meat and curry blends.

Cardamom is called the “Queen of Spices” in its native India. It comes in brown and green forms. Green cardamom is the traditional winter spice. Cardamom pods should be whole, slightly oily and lime green, not pale.

The flavor of cardamom is perfect for sweet and savory foods, especially curries and rice, and citrus. Ground cardamom loses its volatile oils and flavor rapidly. For the best flavor add whole pods, slightly bruised, to dishes cooked with liquids (remove pods before serving). Or split pods to remove the sticky, black seeds and grind seeds in a coffee grinder.

Star Anise as winter spices is beautiful and has a strong licorice flavor. Popularized in the 16th century, it is a relatively new spice to many parts of the world coming from China, Vietnam, India, Japan and the Philippines. Look for whole, reddish-brown stars with little splits that contain a shiny brown seed. When popped, the seed should release a strong, spicy aroma. Ground star anise should be fine and dark; purchase it in small quantities to retain freshness. Star anise pairs perfectly with many savory Asian dishes, most famously Peking duck. It also works well with pork.


Do It Yourself Spice Blend

—Adapted from The Spice and Herb Bible by Ian Hemphill

This blend is the popular way to flavor fruitcakes, shortbread, sweet pies and all kinds of delectable pastries. Mix the following ground spices together:

4 teaspoons coriander seed

2 teaspoons cinnamon

2 teaspoons cassia

½ teaspoon nutmeg

¼ teaspoon green cardamom seeds

½ teaspoon allspice

½ teaspoon ginger

¼ teaspoon cloves


To impart a deliciously aromatic, sweet spice flavor to cakes, biscuits, cookies and pastries, add 2 teaspoons of mixed spice per cup of flour to the dry ingredients. Fruitcakes, mince pies, and rich or sweet foods require up to twice the amount if a distinct flavor is wanted.


Happy Holiday Season filled with Spice, laughter, and love.