This time of year, it is frankly discomfiting to be a Jew, possibly a Muslim, indubitably an atheist. One puts aside personal traditions and cultural baggage and makes way for the big white-bearded guy with a sack of toys.
Then there are the tiresomely saccharine tunes (Santa Claus is Coming to Town, Jingle Bell Rock) or sad but wistful songs (I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas, No Place Like Home for the Holidays) cascading from shop windows and outdoor speakers.
That noted, I do appreciate individual efforts such as well-decorated Christmas trees and the efforts my neighbours put into lighting their houses; and a blazing Yule log is always welcome. After all, Chanukah is also known as a festival of lights as is the fall Hindu festival of Diwali. In fact, most religions show that light can overcome darkness.
As a Jewish kid, however, it seemed easier to ignore Christmas. I fantasized about Judah Maccabee coming down the chimney or fending off the Greeks in Ogilvy’s holiday diorama. And, we would brag that we had eight days of getting gifts versus the one day allotted to Christian friends. I learned later that the main reason we got gifts was because Chanukah is usually close to Christmas and that it is a relatively minor festival in the Jewish canon.
Like someone peering through the shop window, I especially enjoy Christmas Day – originally a Holy Day not just a holiday. However, I would prefer it perhaps pre-Dickensian, if we simply met it in passing, greeted it with respect, doffed our hats, and then passed on to the next, rather than have it continuously confront us right after Halloween.
What gets us through the holidays, of course, is food. We all believe in something good to eat: endless offerings of fruitcake slices, shortbread, candy canes, Chanukah’s doughnuts and potato latkes, and Kwanza’s collard greens and sweet potato pie.
With so many holidays colliding at this time of year, I’d like to propose one without religion.
As the dish for this holiday, I would nominate the dumpling and its equivalents. Every cuisine seems to have something that is basically “stuff” cooked or wrapped in dough. Sometimes steamed, sometimes baked, often fried. Most fridges have plenty of stuff to put inside dough so the ingredients are easily available and nobody has to go broke making them. Besides, does anyone really need another 20-pound turkey?
When it comes to dumplings, I propose an inclusive approach. For Italians, it might be ravioli or gnocchi; for Chinese I’d suggest jiaozi and pot stickers. German friends could bring potato filled Knödel to the table, Ashkenazi Jews would nosh on a knish, and South Africans serve sweet steamed souskluitjies. And then there are empañadas, samosas, pasties, pierogis… the list goes on.
Making dumplings an official holiday dish has other benefits. Many of us have grandmothers who made them so each dumpling dish would inevitably be delivered with a good story. Easily transportable, they are great as gifts – inexpensive and come in a variety of textures, tastes and traditions. If you don’t like one version, just push it to the side of your plate and try another. I think we would all agree that this is something to chew on. In the meantime, I wish everyone Happy Challah Days.
Challah is traditionally served for Friday night Shabbos dinners and on festivals. It is usually a twisted loaf made from a slightly sweet and fairly light, not dense dough and may include raisins. While great fresh, it is best when it is a little stale and served Sunday morning as French toast.
Challah French toast
- Heat a frying pan over medium heat.
- Make an egg batter with eggs, milk, a little melted butter and a dash of vanilla extract.
- Slice the challah at least a half-inch thick; otherwise it will fall apart in the batter.
- Let the bread soak until it just absorbs the batter.
- Put a knob of butter in the pan. The butter should sizzle but not brown.
- Fry the bread until it is golden-brown, flip and fry the other side.
Serve with yogurt and jam or dust with powdered sugar and have maple syrup on the side.