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Eating is the reason for the season 

Rochesterians share their favorite cultural holiday meals

One of Olena Dilai’s favorite memories of growing up in Ukraine was caroling during the Christmas season. Dilai, an assistant professor of mathematics at Monroe Community College, and her family now sing the same carols at their home in Webster after Christmas Eve supper. She says the tradition reminds her family of their heritage.

"Christmas Eve is by far my favorite holiday," Dilai says. "It takes me four days to prepare all the food."

The Rochester area is home to many immigrant families that preserve elements of their home-country culture through traditional foods, bringing them closer to their native celebrations, even if they can't be there physically.

A traditional Ukrainian table for Sviata Vecherya (Christmas Eve supper) consists of 12 dishes, none of which include meat. "There are other dishes people will make, but they will vary from family to family," Dilai says. "The important thing is to have 12 different dishes, and for every person to taste every dish." The supper begins and ends with kutya, a porridge made from boiled wheat, poppy seeds, walnuts, and honey.

click to enlarge Borscht is part of a traditional Sviata Vecherya meal on Christmas Eve. FILE PhOTO
  • Borscht is part of a traditional Sviata Vecherya meal on Christmas Eve. FILE PhOTO

Kolach — bread that is braided and shaped into wreath — is a centerpiece of the table. As the kolach is broken into pieces by hand, everyone eats a piece with honey and garlic. It's believed that this combination gives one good health and strength for the upcoming year.

Next comes a bowl of borscht (beet soup) followed by a course of pickled herring and fish. This is followed by varenyky (perogies) and holubtsi (cabbage rolls) stuffed with rice and fried vegetables. Both are accompanied by mushroom sauce. Pampuchy (donuts), makivnyk (poppy seed roll), and kutya are served for dessert. Traditional fruit juice drinks accompany the meal.

"As we share this traditional meal, my heart warms up," Dilai says.

"In Chile, Christmas is in the middle of summer, temperatures are in the upper 80s," says Juan Contreras, president of Juan & Maria's at the Rochester Public Market. So in the southern hemisphere, Viejito Pascuero, better known to Americans as Santa Claus, "is sweating a lot," says Contreras.

Contreras emigrated from Chile several decades ago and remembers that holiday gift giving in his native country is focused on children; adults do not usually exchange presents. But like in many places, Christmas is a time for family gatherings and food. "I remember as a child, right after dinner, playing outside with my new toys and my friends until very late, and there were fireworks [almost] all night," Contreras says.

A large dinner is served in the late evening with roasted turkey as a traditional main course, although many people also grill steaks outdoors. Mashed potatoes, rice, and ensalada chilena (salad that contains fresh tomatoes and finely cut onions) are typical sides that one might see on a Santiago table at Christmas.

Pan de Pascua follows for dessert. Ingredients including dried fruits and nuts are baked into tasty semi-sweet Christmas bread. A frosty glass of cola de mono is a holiday cocktail (for adults only, of course) consisting of boiled milk, spices, coffee, and aguardiente, an alcoholic beverage. Contreras says that, despite the tropical weather, children brave the heat and drink hot chocolate. And since there isn't any snow, Chilean Christmas trees simulate the white stuff with pieces of cotton.

Jamaica is another nation that finds warm-weather ways to celebrate the holidays. "I remember all my family members came to Jamaica one Christmas and my mom cooked breakfast, and we went to the beach," says Alicia Green of Peppa Pot, a Jamaican restaurant located in the South Wedge.

The holiday season in Jamaica is festive, with celebrations like Grand Market, a street fair in many town centers on Christmas Eve. "Christmas dinner feels great because all my family is together. We only get together twice a year," Green says.

A staple Christmas dessert is Christmas cake. Diced fruit peels, raisins, and dates are all soaked in red wine and rum for at least one month, giving the cake a very rich and heavy texture.

click to enlarge Sorrel drink is a must when washing down rich Christmas cake in Jamaica. FILE PHOTO
  • Sorrel drink is a must when washing down rich Christmas cake in Jamaica. FILE PHOTO

"Then you absolutely have to wash that down with sorrel drink," says Jamaica native and Irondequoit resident Lavern Sleugh-Sharpe. The popular drink is made from boiling the flowers of the sorrel plant in hot water along with ginger, cinnamon, and other spices and is then sweetened with sugar. "It's common for adults to spike the drink with rum, but children are always given the virgin version," she says.

In a tropical land where many houses lack chimneys, there comes a festive cost: "Most Jamaican kids don't believe in Santa Claus," Green says.

But there are reggae versions of well-known Christmas carols, and some humorous ones like "Santa Ketch Up (Inna Mango Tree)."

"And of course, you literally have to be on your deathbed to get out of going to church on Christmas," says Sleugh-Sharpe.

Antonio Gimmillaro grew up in Gela, Sicily, and remembers residents of his coastal town either attending midnight mass on Christmas Eve or church on Christmas Day. Gimmillaro and his siblings opted to attend church on Christmas Day and stay awake on Christmas Eve to open presents one minute after midnight. "We have a saying that during the year you can be anywhere, but you should be at home with your family on Christmas," he says.

On Christmas mornings, Gimmillaro recalls family members pitching in to prepare focaccia, pasta, and wood-fired-oven-baked calzones stuffed with broccoli, potatoes, fish, and sausage, or spinach, potatoes. and black olives.

Zampone con lenticchie, a pork dish cooked with lentil soup, is often enjoyed for Christmas dinner or on New Year's Day. Tradition holds that the more lentils one eats, the more money will be made during the New Year. "If that was true, I'd be a millionaire by now," Gimmillaro, an insurance agent, says. "I love lentils." Cookies stuffed with dry figs and two holiday sweet breads — panettone, made with raisins, and pandoro, or "golden bread," sprinkled with confectioner's sugar — follow for dessert.

Don't forget to add a glass of wine for Buon Natale. But Gimmillaro says that an Italian Christmas dinner, like a typical Italian meal, is "all about the food." And around the world and back here in Rochester, the saying really is true: 'tis the season for good cheer and fabulous food.

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