WORLD ON A PLATE: Honoring family heritage during the holidays


With Thanksgiving behind us, it’s time to start thinking about the next round of holiday celebrations.

Holiday traditions vary from family to family, but most customs seem to center around food.  I enjoy learning about what my neighbors and friends have planned for the holidays. It’s like being a part of their history, if only for a little while.

My family is Irish (my father) and Italian (my mother). I love hearing the stories about how each side celebrated the holidays, and I’ve incorporated bits of both into the tradition created for my nuclear family.

For example, Thanksgiving for my mother was never based solely on turkey and stuffing, but rather a smorgasbord of Italian dishes including homemade raviolis, Italian wedding soup, antipasti and fish and they celebrated with about 28 people. For my mother, the “American” thanksgiving with the turkey was an afterthought. For dessert, they had an assortment of homemade pies and cookies.

My father, on the other hand, celebrated with his parents and his 11 brothers and sisters and they had turkey, cranberry stuffing, mashed potatoes, Waldorf salad and squash. All finished with some pumpkin pie.

In our family now, we celebrate Thanksgiving with turkey and all the fixings much like my Irish family, with the addition of my mother’s famous antipasto and a large array of desserts that honor my Italian side.

Christmas Eve was a meatless meal for my mother growing up, so they had an assortment of seafood — calamari, snails, haddock — as well as vegetarian entrees like eggplant parmesan, spinach pizza, and antipasto.  We follow their example, but focusing on seafood we know our family will eat — such as substituting crab cakes for snails.  Like in my mother’s family, Christmas Eve is bigger for us than Christmas Day.

I decided to compare holiday cooking notes with Chef Diana Davilla-Boldin of Jackie’s Restaurant in Silver Spring. Chef Diana is a first generation Mexican-American who grew up on the south side of Chicago. She’s been at Jackie’s since 2010 and to Diana, who has been cooking ever since she can remember, traditions are important.

“You look forward to important events and I believe it makes your family stronger in bond.” Growing up, Diana’s parents helped shape her love for cooking. “My mother is a great cook and is always trying new things. My parents would always take us to nice restaurants and little ethnic joints so when Christmas dinner menu planning came around there would always be an array of cuisines – but always with a Mexican twist!”

Diana’s favorite dish to prepare around the holidays? Tamales. “You can always get creative with them,” she says. So many different things you can stuff into them: duck with mole, goat adobado, corn and poblano, wild mushrooms and queso oaxaqueño. The whole family always gets involved in wrapping them as well and it’s almost like another tradition!”

Not all traditions are based on someone in the family cooking.  [Many Jewish families “celebrate” Christmas by going out for Chinese food. ]  Coming from a background in the hospitality business and working my fair share of holidays, I asked Diana her opinion on whether or not restaurants should be open on holidays.

“I’ve always done what was asked of me in all the restaurants I have worked. 70 percent of them usually close. When I have my own place I think I will definitely be closed. I think it is important to be home or celebrate with loved ones.”

And who will she be celebrating with this year?  In the past Diana would celebrate Thanksgiving with her husband’s family, Christmas Eve with her extended family, and Christmas Day with her in-laws.  Now far from her Chicago roots, Diana will be celebrating with her husband, dog Maya, and the latest addition to their family, six-month old daughter, Adriana.

No matter what you celebrate during the holidays (or what you will be eating); there is one thing that everyone can agree on: spending time with family and friends is the most important tradition of all.


by Lisa McAllister

About the Author

Lisa McAllister
Lisa McAllister is a writer, publicist and 2-year resident of Silver Spring. Originally from Syracuse, NY, Lisa loves traveling, reading and spending time with her dog, Finn.