For many, certain holiday foods say something about us as a person — our history, a family connection or deeper legacy.
I spent some time this week in the kitchens of three Kentucky families as they prepared for the holidays, and discussed how certain foods tie them to their past.
Spread across Sarah Lynn Cunningham’s dining table are six sheets of intricately molded cookies. Nearby is an old wooden panel with a set of inlaid carvings.
“So this particular board is the one that is hand-carved and it was my grandmother’s grandmother’s board in Switzerland and it has been handed down through the family, so I am the fifth generation to use it,” Cunningham says.
And with it, Cunningham will make over 220 traditional cookies for her family’s upcoming Christmas celebration. According to Cunningham, the word “springerle” is dialectic Swiss-German for “little jumper.”
She says it is probably a reference to a horse — which makes sense when you consider the original purpose of the cookies. Historically, pagans would sacrifice animals to the gods in hopes of a mild winter.
“And poor people couldn’t afford to sacrifice an animal,” Cunningham says. “So they made these cookies oftentimes with animals on them to give to the gods, again in hopes of a fast returning spring.”
This is why Cunningham’s mold has shapes like chickens, rabbits and goats.
The taste is unique too.
“You love it or you hate it,” she says. “They taste like licorice, which comes from the anise.”
Cunningham says she first began making the springerle after the process became too physically intensive for her grandmother; pressing the cookies takes a lot of work. She says her youngest niece has taken to helping her now.
“So yeah, my guess is she’ll pick it up,” Cunningham says. “She’ll be the sixth generation.”
In a commercial kitchen across town, Robyn Stuart shows me how to make bourbon balls. Her recipe — which has a dense, nutty center with a Four Roses bourbon kick — is based on the recipe her mother, Johnnye, made every Christmas.
Johnnye died in 2002.
“It was always that closeness with me and my mom,” Stuart says. “So when I lost her it was a big shock.”
Stuart updated the recipe a bit — she covered the bourbon-infused center with chocolate instead of powdered sugar as her mom had done. It was a hit with friends, one of whom placed an immediate order for an upcoming gala she was helping plan.
That was the start of Stuart’s current business, DB Bourbon Balls. And now, her mom’s holiday recipe has been featured in Emmy gift baskets and tasted by President Barack Obama.
“And if anybody had told me I would have been making candy, I would have been like ‘Yeah, right, whatever,’” she says. “But hey, like I said, we don’t know what direction God puts us in.”
Finally, in another home kitchen, Stuart Ungar and his 15-year-old daughter Eden are preparing to make latkes. In front of them they have a pile of potatoes, an onion, an egg and just a pinch of flour and salt.
Ungar says they are definitely a family tradition.
“My grandmother used to make latkes, and she was the real deal,” Ungar says. “In Yiddish we would call her a balabusta.”
Which essentially translates as “exceptional homemaker.” Ungar says she didn’t really have a recipe — it was all just in her head. So each year when he makes them for Hanukkah, it’s kind of a touch and go process.
This year though, they’re frying up beautifully.
Ungar says while Hanukkah is not a major Jewish holiday — though many assume it is because it falls around Christmastime — he says it’s a nice time to gather as friends and family,
And to eat.
“Just like any people, I think Jews love to eat,” Ungar says. “But they love to eat traditional foods, and on a deep level, I think it brings back memories and family stuff.”