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NPR listeners share the dishes that are always on their tables during the holidays

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

This holiday might look different for many families as we all navigate changes prompted by the pandemic, but one constant is food. We asked you all what you're looking forward to eating this year and about the meaning behind these meals.

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JULIE PASINI: I'm Julie Pasini (ph), and I'm from Yardley, Penn. A tamale is a ground corn mixture around, like, a protein, typically. And then around that whole thing is a corn husk. And then that is steamed.

We fill ours with pork. People fill them with chicken. My mom doesn't eat meat, so my dad will fill hers with black beans. It's not so much about the tamales or the food. It's the fact that our family that came from Mexico, they moved into a very homogenous area south of Pittsburgh. My great grandfather married my great grandmother, and she was Italian. And that was not OK back then. Basically, a large portion of her family kind of ostracized her.

Food is - it's like our language in our family. And, you know, for me, like, the memories are of my father always retelling us these stories of my great grandfather and my great grandmother and these challenges that they faced being a mixed family in the 1920s in a little coal mining town outside of Pittsburgh. It ends up being this knot (ph), and it stands kind of to remind us of these memories. Whenever the tamales kind of come to the dinner table, it's my dad starting to have that conversation with us, and it's what keeps each generation kind of aware of this history and these hardships that our early family had in establishing themselves in this country. And, you know, this is always going to be part of us.

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JING CHU: My name is Jing Chu (ph), and my favorite holiday food is hotpot or huo guo (ph). I think of it as the Asian version of fondue. You have this pot in the middle, and you cook up this delicious broth, and you have all of these different types of food like vegetables, seafood, meats, and you cook that together. And it's a very communal experience, and you have all these dipping sauces. And it's just this really yummy, beautiful broth/stew that you get to make with other people.

I remember not wanting to eat the vegetables, like bok choy or bai cai (ph), but because that was something that my family wanted to eat, that was always included in hot pot. So that was something that I had to work my way around. And I think for me, that's part of the communal experience because everyone is sharing what is in this one pot in the middle of your table. And so everyone is contributing something and maybe also sacrificing a piece of their taste in order to experience just that communal nature of hotpot.

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FALAN SHASAL: My name is Falan Shasal (ph), and I'm from Cut Off, La. In south Louisiana, when we talk about what our holiday food is, there's always gumbo. Gumbo is like a thick and savory soup. So it starts off with a roux, which is like oil and flour. And then sauteed veggies are thrown in there. And then you kind of have the freedom with whatever else. I think, like, the best ones are the seafood ones.

After Hurricane Ida, I was able to come help out with the cleanup, but then I got to leave. So it didn't feel right for me to be able to be like, so what's the Christmas plans, everybody? Like, what are we doing? Because things are still so uncertain. I called my Aunt Debbie (ph) like, hey, I need some info on this gumbo. But it was also like, are we even going to have this? And so she, like, laughed. And she mentioned, like, yeah, I made the roux that cold day we had in October. There was a cold front. So she opened up her windows and spent, like, all afternoon making tin cups of roux. Her house was still in really bad shape, so she was, like, already hopeful that this would come to fruition. Then she told me that another day in November, she made her vegetables, and then she sticks it in her freezer.

And so when she said the week of Christmas, she was going to assemble it, she had done the steps already to make this delicious meal happen, even though we don't have a plan to, like, gather. So I know every year it matters a lot. But to me, this year, it probably matters more. Like, I do think this might be one moment of maybe forgetfulness of everything that's happening.

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GAZA TATREA: I'm Gaza Tatrea (ph), and I live in Barnard, Vt. Beigli is such a fundamental part of Hungarian Christmas. And there are actually two forms of it. One is a poppy seed filling, and the other is a walnut filling. And the dough is a buttery, eggy roll. And you roll it out flat and then put in one roll. Poppy seed filling - you spread it across the dough. And then the other one, the walnut filling. And then you roll it up and put some egg glaze on it and pop it in the oven eventually. And it's absolutely delicious.

Fifteen years ago, we bought a beautiful house in Vermont. And I thought of adapting this wonderful recipe by using the Vermont maple syrup as the sweetener instead of sugar into both the filling and the dough. And it works like magic. Last year, my wife and I spent Christmas alone in Vermont, but this year I get to spend it with my daughter and her two little boys. They actually were asking for this, and would I make it for them. So yes, of course.

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TOM HUDGINS: My name is Tom Hudgins (ph), and I live in Albuquerque, N.M. My favorite holiday dish is traditional New Mexico biscochitos, which are a very particular cookie. They're made with lard and not butter, and they have some aniseed in them. And there is a little bit of booze, either wine or brandy. And then they're rolled in cinnamon sugar or sprinkled with cinnamon sugar before baking. And I'm very much alone in this. I don't know anyone else who does this, but I like to render my own lard to make biscochitos.

Biscochitos were one of the foods that I held on to, even throughout the many decades that I was away from New Mexico. I live back here now. But even in my many years away, biscochitos were a throughline that I always, you know, every few years at least, tried to make a batch of.

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AMY DALSING: My name is Amy Dalsing (ph), and one of our favorite foods is called rusk. It's kind of a twice-baked bread, sort of like biscotti. So you bake a loaf of it, and then you slice it, and then you bake it again. And the thing that makes it unique is cardamom.

When I was a child, we would all get together at grandma and grandpa's, and we would just know that the rusk was going to be there. Like, you can smell it - that great roasty, toasty cardamom smell throughout the whole house. And then grandma would have this giant bowl of rusk. That was the first place that anybody stopped. Like, before hugs or anything, you go straight to the rusk bowl and pick out a piece.

Walking into a kitchen and smelling that rusk, it kind of flips the switch from, hey, this is just an ordinary day to, oh, this is family, this is home, this is holiday.

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SHAPIRO: Our thanks to all who shared their holiday dish stories. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.