15 Feb Winter Celebration Meals
February has always been a month of extreme differences for me. It can be a long, cold, miserable month, despite being the shortest of the year; snowstorms, blustery winds and staying indoors for most of the month can give us cabin fever. However, it’s also a month for celebrations, at least for my family, since we have some birthdays this month (including my own), and of course that of The Gilded Fork!
While I was in college, I discovered a long-standing tradition on campus called “Feb Club,” in which there was a huge party every night of the month, in a different location on campus each time. This seemed to be the only way to endure the misery of the coldest month in Connecticut. It was also long before I had much culinary sophistication, and the available libation choices usually came out of a tube attached to a metal canister.
Now that I do celebrations for a living, I’ve learned quite a bit more about how to have a good time in the cold winter months – in a way that celebrates gustatory pleasures and doesn’t end in a wicked 28-day hangover!
One common theme that I’ve noticed in winter celebration meals, regardless of where or in what context they take place, is the notion of conviviality. We gather together to get out of the cold and to partake of foods that we can share, reminding ourselves how fortunate we are to have food and drink and a warm room to share them in. A great example of this is the Alsatian tradition of the Choucroute garni, which we detailed in ReMARKable Palate Podcast #77 earlier this month. This dish is all about conviviality: A heaping platter of gently braised sauerkraut topped with a variety of meats and sausages by its very nature brings people together and encourages sharing (of course, the huge variety of Alsatian wines also helps to encourage this sense of conviviality).
In my native New Mexico, we also know how to celebrate the winter with our own traditional foods. One of my favorite winter meals, perfect for an informal gathering of family and friends, is a pot of posole that has been simmering away on the stove for days. Posole is a New Mexican dish originally created by the Pueblo Indians and adapted by the Spanish settlers: a hearty stew of hominy, pork, and either red or green chile, and for me, always a healthy dose of oregano. It’s great washed down with a bottle of Corona to curb a little of the heat from the chile. When I arrived home a few weeks ago, I was also happy to see a steamer basket full of my stepmother’s shredded chicken tamales on the stove. Smothered with extra hot Hatch red chile, they were a great way to welcome me home, and served as a nice appetizer for that posole. We had about twenty family members passing through that day, and the common theme was the enjoyment of our New Mexican foods.
February is also a month for huge celebrations like Mardi Gras and The Chinese Lunar New Year. The Fat Tuesday celebrations leading up to Lent in New Orleans, as well as its southerly counterpart of Carnavale in Brazil, are a huge excuse to get drunk and eat lots of fattening food, because the next several weeks (at least for the Christians who started these parties) will be about fasting and deprivation. Look no further than our Mise en Place section for a Mardi Gras menu to get a sense of the celebratory nature of the foods of this party. That King Cake looks like it’s having its own party!
And no one can party like the Chinese at the Lunar New Year! Fireworks, colorful confetti, dragons, drums and colorful paper envelopes filled with coins for the children are the hallmarks of the actual celebration, but additionally, the prodigious foods of the New Year meal have symbolic significance, evoking the hope for good luck, a bountiful new year and the good fortune of being around family. A whole fish represents togetherness and abundance, a whole chicken or duck complete with head, tail and feet symbolizes completeness, and long, uncut noodles represent long life. It’s considered bad luck to use knives or cleavers at this celebration, as you could “cut off” the family’s fortunes for the year. (There is some practicality here as well, since it helps to prepare all the chopped foods a day or two in advance.)
A very common Chinese greeting, “Chi fan le mei you?” means “Have you eaten yet?” In this culture, it is assumed that if you have eaten, you are well, and if not, they are going to make you happy with a bowl of food! Many of the dishes are eaten at this time because the sounds of their names are homonyms for phrases such as “good luck,” “wealth and good business,” “togetherness” and “profit.” You may wonder why you see so many tangerines and oranges at this time of year, and it is because their names mean “gold” and “wealth.”
So although February is nearly over, there’s still time in the winter to enjoy a celebratory meal with family or friends. Try out our Birthday Celebration Mise en Place menu for yourself, whether or not you have a reason to celebrate. And be sure to save a place at the table for us!