Cooking up memories: Food connects students with culture during holidays

Students who come from a Hispanic background often look forward to a variety of foods, such as tamales, during the holidays. Kassidy Tsikitas | Photographer

By Olivia Eiken | Staff Writer

Holiday dishes reflect a culture’s values, geography and traditions. They serve as a tangible link to history and past loved ones while helping people who may feel removed connect back to their cultural heritage and celebrate important occasions.

Pharr graduate student Victoria Brewster-Martinez grew up in a Mexican-American household. In her culture, Martinez said it is extremely common for holidays and family gatherings to revolve around food and spending time with family in the kitchen.

“Cooking is a very important part of the Mexican culture that embraces tradition and quality time together,” Martinez said. “Some of my favorite memories with family were made in the kitchen, whether it was making buñuelos with my grandmother, learning to make tamales with my mother-in-law or even watching my mom and aunts set the table for guests to arrive. The kitchen holds strong traditions and has been the place to make memories for as long as I can remember.”

Martinez said her favorite holiday dish is a botana platter.

“It’s a large platter that includes a bed of nachos with grilled vegetables, grilled chicken and/or beef, avocado, quesadillas and salsas spread on top of them,” Martinez said. “This dish is often served at large gatherings and can be ordered in most Mexican restaurants. It can also be called a picadera, botanera or a parrillada.”

Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, junior Jose Chirivella-Román also comes from a household with Spanish influence, and he said his Puerto Rican, Cuban and Catholic upbringing played a role in how holiday meals were prepared growing up. Typically, this looked like attending large parties put on by different families in the neighborhood and indulging in the delicious food each family had to offer.

“It’s a lot of food — and often, way too much,” Román said. “For starters, my family loves serrano ham and different fried foods like alcapurrias, empanadillas and pastelillo. Then we have pasteles [Puerto Rican tamales], arroz with gandules, tostones [fried plantains] and roast a whole pig.”

Román said the best part of the celebration is always the roasted pig, also known as lechón a la vara.

“Lechón a la vara is the food I would do anything for,” Román said. “It’s a whole roasted pig, and it has arroz con gandules [Puerto Rican rice with pigeon peas} smoked inside of it. It’s the mix of flavor, juicy pork and crunchy and savory skin. If ever given the chance to try this Puerto Rican delicacy, you must do it.”

Like so many, Román said ultimately it’s food that makes Christmas so special in his culture.

“There is an obvious bond between cooking, enjoying drinks, music and conversation with my family during the holidays,” Román said. “It’s my favorite time of year and has left me with so many good Christmas memories.”

Edinburg senior Vivek George has a South Indian and Catholic upbringing in which he celebrated a variety of holidays, from Christmas to the annual Hindu festival of Onam. George said his favorite dishes from the holidays are the ones most common in South Asian cultures.

“My favorite dish that is usually made during Christmas is palappam and mutton stew,” George said. “Palappam can best be described as a thin fermented rice crepe, while mutton stew uses a young lamb to prepare.”

For other holidays like Thanksgiving and Easter, George said potluck-style dishes are more commonly served.

“It’s common to have potluck dishes where the host family makes the main dish, but everyone else brings something for themselves,” George said. “For the main holidays like Christmas and Onam, it is more common for all the adults to come together to cook the dishes.”

Olivia Eiken
Olivia Eiken is a junior journalism and public relations major from Tiskilwa, IL, studying within the Baylor Interdisciplinary Core and minoring in civic interfaith studies. Outside of the classroom and extracurriculars, she enjoys playing a quick 9-hole round of golf when the weather is nice. After graduation, she plans on moving to Chicago to pursue a job in media writing or public affairs.