Traditions . . .

This has been a year — or at least a few months — for examining past traditions. When the future seems uncertain, there is something comforting about remembering the past, getting lost in nostalgia, and returning to happier days full of memories of family, friends, fun and tradition.

It has been especially true during all the holidays of the year: Valentines Day, Mardi Gras, Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, Labor Day. Halloween, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas and New Years — many of those special times normally full of family celebrations and traditions have passed us by since 2020.

In the days leading up to fall holidays, few of us would have believed that the “norm” in 2021 would once again be another scaled-down version of Thanksgiving dinner. It may not have been potluck shared by extended family at socially distanced outdoor picnic tables in a state park, (yes, that happened the previous year), but for most it was, once again, a small table not heavily laden.

Many of our holiday celebrations, those that actually were held, have been accompanied by masks and elbow bumps, but no hugs. Who would have predicted that we would spend last Christmas alone, despite the hopeful news in 2020 that two effective vaccines were ready to be delivered nationwide? Who then would have believed that “the abundance of caution” against large family gatherings would continue for a second Christmas? Who could have imagined yet another mutated virus wreaking havoc with family get-togethers and travel plans now and for the foreseeable future? Yet, that is exactly what has occurred.

May you live in interesting times . . .

Depending on your upbringing and mindset, that phrase has alternately been considered a blessing or a curse. Although there is little evidence that it originated with the Chinese, and even less that it stems from a Yiddish expression or a rabbinical interpretation, it persists in the minds of many of us as a warning that we should never get too comfortable. Life is not to be taken for granted.

Our times — this past year and three quarters, and still today — are nothing if not interesting.

Many of us are still hopeful that we will once again be free to travel freely. But, with the return to mandated masking in many places, extensive travel disruption attributed to ill employees, and persistent warnings about travel, gatherings and testing, we are again uncertain. We hope that we will continue to care for others, by being mindful about where we go, what we do and how we act. But, as this last year has taught us, life is fragile. I am now even more convinced that we must savor the traditions that have brought us here.

For me, that means being with friends, not via face time, Skype or Zoom meetings, but up close and personal. It means sharing good times, welcoming the births of new babies and celebrating graduations and promotions. More importantly, it means being together to comfort one another during sadness and hard times. Working remotely may not be a great hardship. But, being continually remote — from family, friends and business associates — is devastating.

This past year, I lost several acquaintances to COVID. Many others in my circle of friends and family have been ill with the virus. Others, both vaccinated and unvaccinated, have tested positive recently, with varied symptoms and severity, with — presumably — the Omicron variant. I am learning more than I ever wanted to know about the SARS-CoV-2, commonly known as COVID-19.

Humans were not meant to be solitary animals. That is only too evident today, with increasing concerns about not only mental health, but the economy.

The path forward seems clear. We must not forget these past months, nor the shutdowns, the fear, the toll it has taken on lives and livelihoods. But, we also must not give up hope. Let’s don’t ever forget what makes life worth living. Let’s all honor those traditions that we missed so much in 2020 and were hesitant to resume in 2021. Let’s not return to the place of isolation and alarm. Let’s be smart rather than complacent, but let’s go on living our lives with confidence

Yes, COVID-19 is a scary disease. But all diseases are scary. And those who are sick need to be comforted, not left alone. No matter what or how you celebrate the special days that are to come this year, may holidays that are meant to bring us together in the coming months continue to bless you, uplift your spirits and prepare you for what lies ahead.

That is my wish this second day of the new year.

Looking back . . .

During the past few months, I have spent many hours trying to organize travel photos and make sense of my travel notes and journals.

I have also spent hours poring over newly-discovered recipe books and cards saved by previous generations of family. They are nothing if not enlightening, filled with tasty treats meant for celebrating with family and friends, and also packed with ideas about how to “stretch” food enough to get through hard times. Some of them surprised me, and a few made me weep.

One — Fried Oatmeal — brought back childhood memories of what I thought at the time was the best breakfast ever, served hot and crispy from my grandmother’s cast iron frying pan. It was Fried Cornmeal Mush, the leftover “raw material” from a Sunday cornbread or stuffing dish or perhaps leftover breakfast grits from a previous morning. Served with butter and syrup, it was a favorite way to start a day. However, cold cereal was much more common!

This particular card — one of a collection of recipes in a box that was obviously a promotional effort for Gold Medal Brands — notes that “This is a good way to use left over porridge.” I could not help but remember my grandmother’s refrain, “Waste not, want not,” as I pored over other cards in the sturdy wooden box.

Interspersed with the printed cards, there are traditional Scandinavian treats, some no doubt passed down from generations past. There are Polish and Russian dishes with beets, cabbages and potatoes. Many are hearty and filling, healthful and full of vegetables, but not overloaded with meat. Some are simple egg dishes. The desserts, I found, tend to be less sugary than today’s versions, and many rely on fresh fruit and spice for flavor and punch rather than chocolate and refined sugar.

There are many recipes for sweets made rich with butter and cream. Some of the old recipes required spending hours in the kitchen, and intensive preparations for holiday observances. Others were quick and easy, no doubt meant for times when there were more important things to think about, when food counted only as simple sustenance.

Hand-written recipes sometimes had notations — “easy or fine, or from Aunt Ida, or Papa’s favorite,” and I have found interesting notations even in familiar well-used hard-cover cookbooks, the standard reference for any cook back in the day. One made me smile: “Too much work!” Another simply bore a single word: “NO.” Many of these recipes are reminiscent of “Sunday dinners” and holidays, and of life well-lived in small towns or on farms throughout the flyover states. That is my heritage.

Others of those tattered recipe cards, however, bear the stigma of more difficult times, when food and funds were scarce, resources and pantry reserves were slim and many of the men were off fighting wars in foreign lands. There are notes about sugar substitutes — sugar was one of the first products to be rationed during WWII. But rationing followed in 1943 for meat, butter, margarine, canned fish, cheese, canned milk, fats and oils. Fresh food was often in short supply simply due to the season or to transportation snags.

From the war years, there are numerous ideas for Jello molds, salads and simple puddings. And there are “ration recipes” for meats.

Celebrations were more somber and homemakers “made do” in innovative ways in the effort to use available food stocks and to preserve a sense of hope during those lean days. Epidemics, wars, weather, the economy and a shift from farms to cities all seemed to align against a comfortable existence during much of the 20th Century. But family life continued.

A “Hard Times” Recipe for Cinderella Crisps

The Secret: Magically turn ordinary white bread into extraordinary tea crisps. Scrumptious!

The Recipe:

6 slices trimmed white bread, each cut in 4 strips

1 can (14 oz.) sweetened condensed milk

2 2/3 cups (about) Baker’s Angel Flake Coconut

Using two forks, roll bread strips in sweetened condensed milk, coating all sides. Then roll in coconut. Place on well-greased baking sheet and bake at 375 degrees for 8 to 10 minutes. Remove at once from baking sheet. Makes about 24.

I will confess that this is one I have not, and probably will not, try. Please let me know if you do!

Moving on to New Experiences

Today I take it as a personal challenge to try to make healthful, good-tasting meals out of simple ingredients. I also have some recipe cards that became my “go-to” resource when I was a young bride with little kitchen experience to guide me. Perhaps not surprisingly, I still occasionally refer to them. I read recipe books with as much delight as the latest novels, but I tend to make up recipes as I go along, instead of adhering strictly to the directions. Although I like good food, I do not love spending unnecessary hours in the kitchen.

I collect recipes from my travels and love recreating the tastes of faraway places when I return home. I like to experiment with new flavors and seasonings, and I think meals should look appetizing, smell wonderful and taste great. Most of the time, I think meals should be prepared fresh, not pre-packaged or ordered as take out. I take as much delight in preparing a meal for two as I do planning a holiday open house. Those holiday gatherings have been in short supply this past year, haven’t they?

Perhaps before too many more special days pass, we will once again be able to celebrate together, with hugs and laughter, with old folks and babies, with new-found friends, and especially with family. This pandemic year has taken its toll. Hopefully we will get beyond it and look forward to the good times to come!

For now, it’s enough to remember.