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Savoring the Holidays
by Missy Sheehan
Three local chefs with very different cultural backgrounds share their families' holiday food traditions.
Carmine Schiano Moriello
It’s no secret that Christmas in Italy involves plenty of feasting, and it was no different for Carmine Schiano Moriello growing up Catholic in Monte di Procida in Naples, Italy. Carmine, who immigrated to the United States in 1983, owns Carmine’s Creative Italian Cuisine in Williamsport along with his wife, Rhoda. Every year, Carmine takes the reigns in the kitchen on Christmas to make a traditional Italian holiday feast, while Rhoda, who’s from the United States, prepares a traditional Thanksgiving meal for their family on that holiday.
In Italy, Christmas is celebrated from Dec. 8 through Jan. 6, with the biggest feast held on Christmas Eve. On that day, Carmine’s family would spend hours preparing the Feast of the Seven Fishes, which in reality was a feast of how ever many fishes you could get, explains Rhoda. “It might be seven fishes, it might be nine fishes, or it might be five fishes,” she says. “It was as much fish as you could afford.” It’s traditional to eat seafood on Christmas Eve, according to Carmine. “It was cheap, and we lived by the water,” he says.
After feasting until midnight, Carmine’s family would attend midnight mass, then come back and eat some more, Rhoda says. A traditional Italian Christmas Eve feast might include items like anchovies, octopus salad, clams, calamari, linguine, and a particular favorite of Carmine’s: baccalà, which is salted cod that’s usually served with broccoli di Natale (Christmas broccoli). In fact, Carmine still makes many of these dishes, including the baccalà, every year for his family in Williamsport.
Rhoda, who married Carmine in 1985, has picked up the Italian tradition of making struffoli, a light dessert consisting of bits of fried dough coated with honey and tossed with candied lemon peel, candied orange peel, and sprinkles. “It’s a good ‘picking-at’ type of dessert,” Rhoda says. “His family always would have fruit and nuts and the struffoli and different pastries and cakes on the table that you could just pick at.”
On Christmas Day, Italian tradition calls for dishes like lasagna or roast beef, says Carmine, though Rhoda says the family often will also eat more seafood, like shrimp cocktail, because they don’t eat until late Christmas Eve after the restaurant closes. They also eat seafood to celebrate New Year’s, Carmine adds.
In Japan, where Shinto and Buddhism are the two major religions, New Year is the biggest holiday of the year. “We close every year on New Year's Day because to us Japanese it’s a very important day,” says Masahiro Hirai, who along with his wife, Jun, owns House of Kobe in Hagerstown. “We celebrate that day with food and family and friends.”
The traditional Japanese New Year's celebration includes specific dishes, many that are thousands of years old and serve a symbolic purpose. Only seafood and vegetables are eaten — no meat, says Masahiro, who’s from Kobe, Japan, and moved to the United States in 1974. The celebration begins on New Year’s Eve. “Everybody in Japan must eat buckwheat noodles on New Year's Eve — buckwheat noodles mean long life, so the coming year should be a good year,” he says.
On New Year’s Day, tradition dictates that every member of the household drink sake. Then it’s on to eating traditional dishes like King Dragon (eel garnished with seafood and vegetables), which Masahiro says symbolizes strength, and mochi (a sweet rice cake wrapped in seaweed), which he says signifies the brightness of the new year. Then there’s konnyaku (a gelatinous block made from a mixture of vegetables), shiitake mushrooms, potatoes, and sashimi (a mixture of sliced raw fish served with soy sauce and wasabi paste). Masahiro says it’s also tradition to eat a dish called hamachi kama (the collar of the yellowtail fish). “It’s a special little fish — you change the name the bigger they get, so it’s kind of a good luck fish,” he says. “We have to have them New Year's Day.” Salmon, which symbolize strength, also are eaten.
New Year’s is also an important holiday for Jun, who is originally from Seoul, South Korea. “We would have three whole days of party every day,” she recalls, adding that Christmas was more of a quiet celebration with family.
While Masahiro was raised Buddhist, he became Christian when he married Jun in 1980, and today the couple celebrate Christmas and have a traditional American-style Thanksgiving dinner with family. “We eat turkey, ham, roast beef. We like American cooking too,” Masahiro says.
Germany is known for its festive Christmas celebrations, and for Dieter Blosel, executive chef at the Schmankerl Stube Bavarian Restaurant in downtown Hagerstown, the holiday season evokes many fond food memories. “Gingerbread cookies and gingerbread are some of the foods I associate with Christmas — this is the time of year that you get them,” says Dieter, who’s from a town east of the Bavarian city of Nuremberg in Germany. “Then you have cookies — usually four or five different kinds we’d bake. And also stollen, of course. These are the desserts that really go with Christmas. You don’t have them any other time of year.”
Christmas in Germany isn’t all about the desserts, of course. “I don’t remember any Christmas or other holiday where we didn’t have a big, festive lunch,” Dieter says, adding that holiday dinners usually consisted of roasted pork with potato dumplings, and maybe a salad and one or two other side dishes.
Raised Lutheran, Dieter says that the Advent tradition leading up to Christmas was a central part of his family’s holiday tradition. “You’d have the four candles, and every Sunday you’d light another one. Then you’d have your little chocolate every night,”
he says, referring to the Advent calendar, which counts down the days until Christmas Eve, when his family’s holiday celebration would officially begin. “That’s when the magic happened,” Dieter says. That evening his family would dine on simple fare like bratwurst cooked in vinegar broth (which incidentally, he does not remember fondly) served with potato salad. Bigger Christmas feasts would follow on Dec. 25 and 26 around midday. The Christmas celebration would last until Jan. 6, Dieter says.
Since Dieter moved to Hagerstown from Germany in 1999, his own holiday traditions have changed a bit. While he still bakes Christmas cookies and stollen every year, he says he takes holidays as they come and enjoys them as they are here in the United States, sometimes attending Thanksgiving or Christmas dinners with friends and sometimes staying home and simply putting a pizza in the oven. “I’m very easygoing on the holidays,” he says. “I like to keep it simple.”
While food plays a big role in German-holiday celebrations, as it does in cultures all over the world, it’s important to remember that feasting is not the real reason for the holiday season. “I think that what’s important for holidays is that you come together, because our lives are so hectic and stressful, and everybody runs off in different directions every day. But on holidays, you all come together and sit together and talk, not on the phone, or by texting, or on the computer, but just sitting together and enjoying each other’s company,” Dieter says. “And then yes, have a nice dinner, but keep it simple and easy so you won’t have to stress out.”