As anyone who has spent the holidays with friends, neighbors, or a family besides their own knows, no two celebrations look exactly alike. (One man’s Christmas tamales is another’s Friendsgiving tofurkey, as it were.) Regardless of what and how we celebrate, though, the ingredients for any meaningful holiday gathering are the same: togetherness, tradition, and, of course, food.
But rarely is holiday food simply sustenance; more often, it carries deep significance and offers a glimpse into who we are and from where we’ve come. Whether we’re lovingly preparing old family recipes from memory, whipping up dishes that remind us of a specific place or time, or diving into time-honored seasonal delights, the way to our holiday hearts is—unsurprisingly and always—through our stomachs.
We asked eight Dallasites—each from different cultures and backgrounds—to share with us the recipes and stories that capture the meaning and memories of the holidays.
As the founder of Nardos Design, Nardos Imam spends busy days creating custom gowns for style-savvy women ranging from debutantes to mothers of the bride. But come Christmastime, the on-the-go mom of two slows the pace and turns her full attention to all things family. Imam’s holiday begins with a Christmas Eve church service (“The birth of Christ means so much to us as a Christian family,” she says) and continues on Christmas Day, when she wakes up early and makes breakfast to provide fuel for the frenzy of present-opening that awaits. As morning turns to afternoon and the guest list grows to up to 20 people, Imam, her mother, and her sister start preparing the next meal. Among the many dishes the women serve is kulwa sga, a savory beef entree popular in Eritrea, their native East African country. “We run around the kitchen the whole Christmas,” Imam says. “It’s fun, but it’s a lot of dishes to wash!”
A traditional Danish Christmas Eve fête isn’t for the faint of heart. First there’s an elaborate dinner consisting of roasted pork and duck, red cabbage, potatoes, and gravy. Then comes the risalamande: a rice pudding dessert mixed with almonds, whipped heavy cream, and cherry sauce. Hiding in the dish is a single whole almond, and dessert isn’t finished until someone finds it and gets a prize. “We sit at the table for a very long time,” says Tina Jeppesen, a Denmark native and showroom manager at The Luxury Bed Collection. “We can eat for hours!” After dinner, the real fun (and calorie-burning) begins when the celebrants join hands and sing songs while dancing around the (real, not plastic) Christmas tree adorned with (also real!) candles. The big finale comes when it’s time to open presents, which, depending on the number of guests, can carry on through Christmas Day. Also lasting through December 25: the leftover risalamande, which, Jeppesen says, can be even better the next day.
Mai Lyn Ngo
“My mom worked so hard and loves us so much. When I make her egg roll recipe, it’s my way of passing that love to the friends we invite.”— Mai Lyn Ngo, Wellness Content Creator & Events Producer
Even though Mai Lyn Ngo counts herself as “one of the very last” born-and-raised Dallasites, she had no idea that kids were getting gifts every December 25 until she started kindergarten. “I’m Chinese American—my mom came over in the ’80s—so my two brothers and I didn’t have Christmas,” explains the content creator and events producer (@mailynngo). “When I went to college, I connected with other holiday orphans, and we created our own ‘Friendsgiving.’ ” Ngo’s mother eventually adopted the celebration, too, and together they began hosting gatherings where “Mom’s egg rolls” became a main attraction. “People don’t realize how labor-intensive egg rolls are, but it takes so much love to make them,” Ngo says. “I like adopting things I never had growing up, like turkey, and serving them with dishes from my culture. My mom worked so hard and loves us so much. When I make her egg roll recipe, it’s my way of passing that love to the friends we invite.”
Springtime is the season of celebration for many Persians, but even as a first-generation American, Nazin Hormozi still spent Decembers decking the halls and writing letters to Santa. “My parents emigrated from Iran in 1980, after the revolution happened,” she says. “My grandmother lived with us, so to make American holidays feel more familiar, she would cook Persian dishes and serve them with turkey.” These days, the busy real estate agent says it’s important to hold on to her rich Iranian history, even as she creates new traditions with husband Nicholas and son Luca. “If you ask a bunch of Persians what they serve at Christmas, it’s always going to be a different answer. It’s not our holiday, so we cook whatever we want,” she says. “Our family always has baghali polo with roasted chicken. We spend the day slowing down, connecting, and really looking back on the past and appreciating how far we’ve come in the year. We also tell my son the stories of where we came from and how it shapes who we are.”
Eugenio Reyes Retana
When Eugenio Reyes Retana moved to Dallas from Mexico 11 years ago, he brought with him a little piece of home for the holidays. Every year, in the week leading up to Christmas Eve, Reyes Retana and his husband, Jesse Neargarder—both co-owners of hospitality design firm Foxcroft Studio—host a posada at their Oak Cliff casa. The couple’s nonreligious version of the Mexican Christmas tradition—typically a celebration of the Nativity story—involves sparklers, a piñata, and someone on the piano playing classic Christmas music. But no posada is complete without a generous spread of festive food and drink, including tamales, a seasonal drink (Reyes Retana prefers a tequila-based cocktail to the traditional champurrado, a thick Mexican hot chocolate), and Reyes Retana’s favorite sweet treat: buñuelos. “They’re crispy, sticky, and sugary, and, like all the other food, very comforting,” he says of the cinnamon-sprinkled fritters. Fried to a golden brown and often served with honey or syrup, the tortilla-shaped desserts make for a delightful finish to a heartwarming evening with friends and family.
“My favorite part is thinking about the meaning of the holiday symbolized through the rituals we do. Hanukkah is here to tell us that it’s good to have your own religious and cultural identity and be proud of it.”— Rabbi Heidi Coretz, Jewish Chaplain at SMU
If one of the eight days of Hanukkah falls during the school year, Rabbi Heidi Coretz, assistant chaplain for Jewish Life and director of Hillel at SMU, observes the Festival of Lights with her students on campus. If not, she celebrates with family and friends. However she marks the occasion, Coretz’s celebration includes saying the blessing while kindling the Hanukkiah, or Hanukkah menorah; playing dreidel; and enjoying a Hanukkah dinner. The dishes change—brisket and sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts) are often on the menu—but there’s one staple Coretz always keeps in the mix: potato latkes adapted from a recipe handed down by her parents. Yet as tasty and sentimental as the potato pancakes are, they aren’t her most cherished tradition. “My favorite part is thinking about the meaning of the holiday symbolized through the rituals we do,” she says. “Hanukkah is here to tell us that it’s good to have your own religious and cultural identity and be proud of it.”
Nochebuena was the reason for the season back when Manny Rodriguez was growing up in Miami. “We always had parties on Christmas Eve with extended family, neighbors, whoever was open—hundreds of people came,” the Cuban-born photographer says. “My mom was a huge cook, and there was always lechón, black beans and rice, and fried plantains.” Then he turned 12, and Nochebuena was no more. “Mom became a Jehovah’s Witness, and that was the end of Christmas,” he explains. Or so was the case until Rodriguez grew up, moved to Dallas, and began serving up rice and black beans at night-before-Christmas bashes with his wife and kids. “This dish makes me so proud and brings back memories of my mom in the kitchen. She had so much passion and was such a strong influence on me,” he says. “I’d love to pass the recipes on to my kids, even though none of them cook now. But there’s still time!”
Don’t ask Brandon Waller to pick between Thanksgiving and Christmas. “For me, the ‘holidays’ are one big thing that blends together. Somehow, when you look at it like that, it gives you more freedom,” he explains. It’s just as hard for him to pick a favorite Yuletide dish from his childhood spent in Thibodaux, Louisiana. “My auntie made a sweet-potato casserole with mashed sweet potatoes, butter, sugar, allspice, and a pecan-oat mix. It was heaven,” Waller says. “But my mom made these amazing sweet-potato pies that you could freeze and take out six months later and still get the same high.” After becoming a vegetarian as a college athlete and later a vegan chef and owner of Bam’s Vegan, those old-school dishes inspired a new “sweet-potato bussin’ biscuit” recipe that even his meat-eating family members can’t resist. “If you try something, you’ll know if you like it or not. If it’s not for you, it’s not for you,” he says. “I tell people, ‘Don’t let a label scare you.’ ”