The Captain

For many people the holidays are all about the meal. What are we going to serve for Thanksgiving? And if we had Turkey for Thanksgiving are we going to serve Ham or Prime Rib for Christmas? Last year it was just me, my wife and my daughter for Christmas. My in-laws were in another state visiting their other daughter so there was no big family dinner planned. My wife and I asked our daughter what she wanted for Christmas dinner. Do you know what she wanted? She wanted Macaroni and Cheese from a box. For her, that was a treat. So we ate mac and cheese last year. And let me tell you, it was fun. It didn’t make Christmas any more special or less meaningful. It was quick to make and an easy cleanup.
This Christmas we did things a little differently. I got thinking and the things that make those holiday meals special are the traditions, the stories behind the food. Remembering the way things were when you were younger, the taste of your aunt’s baked beans, the smell of your grandmother’s house. Food and meals are just one of the traditions that bring us together as families and give us a sense of belonging. Maybe food helps us to feel connected to those who are no longer with us. And one other wonderful thing is that we love the stories that come along with the food.
This year my family made tamales for the first time. As a boy I remember going over to my grandmother’s house. I remember the smells, and I remember that she always had a pot of refried beans on the stove. I also remember the tamales she would make. I really never liked the spicy ones, but my grandmother always made me her sweet tamales. And that’s what we made this year; using the same recipe that she used to make. (Although I did substitute vegetable shortening for lard.) And they tasted just as good as I can remember. Even better was that making them and putting them together was a family effort. I’ve known of families that will make hundreds (20 or 30 dozen) of tamales at Christmas time. I recently read in Smithsonian magazine that tamales are thought to have originated with the Aztecs. The tamales filled a need as a portable food to be eaten in battle. Prior to the use of pots and pans they were simply cooked over hot ashes buried in the ground. They were wrapped in banana leaves or pliable bark, and filled with whatever meat was available.
We also made on of my family’s favorite dishes (my sister-in-law’s favorite particularly). It’s a dish called ‘Country Captain’. The recipe came from my Cast-Iron Cooking for Dummies cookbook. And like all great meals, it has a great story. The cookbook says that the recipe came from Mrs. W.L. Bullard of Columbus, Georgia. She once served the dish to Franklin Roosevelt. And it says that General George Patton was also a big fan of the dish. In fact, upon leaving for Europe with the 2nd armored division, General Patton sent a message to Mrs. Bullard’s daughter to please meet him at the train station with a whole bucket of Country Captain.
Many great meals and traditions have stories behind them. That’s what makes them meaningful to us. The holidays are always a time for family to come together and a time to share and remember our past. Recipes, favorite dishes, and traditional meals all connect us to those with us and those ancestors that are no longer living. And as families grow and expand, the meals will change, the recipes will change or evolve, and new traditions will start. But families will still be connected through the food they share together and the stories that go along with it.
What favorite recipes/meals does your family have? And what are some of the stories behind those dishes?

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