‘Food always brings memories back’: Why experts say our beloved holiday dishes bring nostalgia and happiness, year after year

·7-min read
Group of unrecognizable people toasting with wine during Thanksgiving dinner at dining table.
Capri Cafaro, host of the "Eat Your Heartland Out" podcast tells Yahoo Life when it comes to what makes the foods we eat during the holiday season so special, it's all about families and traditions. (Photo: Getty Creative)

The holidays are a time for opulent decor, thoughtful gifts and time with friends and family. But the most important thing the holiday season brings just may be our favorite seasonal dishes.

No matter the holiday, it seems there's always a bounty of food to serve up with it. And, some of these dishes are so nostalgic and beloved that it doesn't feel quite like the holidays without seeing them on your plate.

We've all had the classics — a glistening golden brown turkey, a succulent roast, decadent mashed potatoes and savory gravy. But what about those holiday foods that only you and your family love? The oddball on the holiday table that is so quintessential to the season that you look forward to eating it all year long?

For some, that dish has a local flair. Kait Killebrew, who lives in Slidell, La. says the holidays are not complete without her mom's famous crab dip.

What puts Mom's dip a claw above the rest? Killebrew thinks it's a bit of homegrown ingredients and a lot of love.

"My mom is always adamant that we peel the seasoned Louisiana crabs ourselves," the 28-year-old says. "She never uses frozen crab in her dip."

"It takes about two hours for us to peel them all," Killebrew adds, "People think it's not worth it, but it makes the difference in the dip and gives us an excuse to sit down together and catch up during the busy holiday season."

Kait Killebrew with her mom, Colleen Fickle, on Thanksgiving. (Photo: Kait Killebrew)
Kait Killebrew with her mom, Colleen Fickle, on Thanksgiving. (Photo: Kait Killebrew)

Other holiday must-haves are a lucky happenstance that bring a tear to the entire family's eye.

Judy Beecher O'Donnell tells Yahoo Life she's responsible for making a family favorite each year called "onion pie."

"It's my contribution for Thanksgiving," O'Donnell says. "I saw a recipe for a leek and onion tart once and the idea stuck in my head."

But O'Donnell won't be peeling back the layers to pass the recipe down: Her onion pie is never the same twice.

"I buy an assortment of onions: whatever is available — leeks, shallots, you name it — and dice and caramelize them," says O'Donnell.

The New Jersey home chef then adds cream, parmesan cheese and egg and seasons the concoction with nutmeg and herbs. Next, everything gets added to a store-bought pie crust and baked.

"I just wing it every year," she says. "Any excuse to eat sautéed onions. Everyone loves it, even with all the other required sides that must be on the table at Thanksgiving."

Others, like Ila Sikorski, have a more fiery holiday tradition.

Sikorski says her favorite holiday dish is one her family calls "Snapdragon."

Sikorski's family tradition has old-school roots: According to Atlas Obscura, Snapdragon, a Victorian Christmas game, was played in the 19th century when revelers would cover a flat plate with raisins and almonds, douse them in brandy, light them on fire and attempt to eat as many flaming treats as possible without getting burned.

That's essentially how the dish is consumed in Sikorski's Dudley, Mass. home, minus the almonds… and the need for bandages.

"No one has ever gotten burned," Sikorski shares. "We make the kids in the family do it and everything. It's hysterical, but no one has been injured."

Sikorski says she starts with a baking sheet, which she uses to, "evenly spread out raisins, cover the raisins with brandy and light [the mixture] on fire."

"Then, grab a raisin or two out and eat them," she instructs. "We've been doing it for decades."

Ila Sikorski's version of Snapdragon, a Victorian holiday game that involves soaking raisins and almonds in brandy, lighting them on fire and eating them. (Photo: Ila Sikorski)
Ila Sikorski's version of Snapdragon, a Victorian holiday game that involves soaking raisins and almonds in brandy, lighting them on fire and eating them. (Photo: Ila Sikorski)

When it comes to holiday dishes, it's plain to see people are more than a little excited about the unique creations they add to their family celebrations. But what exactly is it that makes us so passionate about holiday food?

Capri Cafaro, author of United We Eat and host of the Eat Your Heartland Out podcast says when it comes to what makes the foods we eat during the holiday season so special, it's all about families and traditions.

"Each family has a turkey or roast that might be the anchor of the table but then, depending on heritage and location, side dishes change based on what fits their customs and family favorites," says Cafaro. "The choices we make [about what] to serve during the holidays are usually ones that capture the cultural identity of our family. As [a family] grows and people marry in, new traditions are born and [the holiday menu] changes over time."

Cafaro believes a particular food — whether green bean casserole or flaming raisins — becomes a holiday staple because these dishes are something we only make once a year. In short, if you wait all year long to enjoy a food, it's normal to ruminate on memories of the dish and form emotional attachments to it's delicious elements.

Cafaro's own favorite holiday treat comes from carrying on the tradition of making her grandmother's Italian cookies: the smells of which, she says, take her back to the holidays every time.

Jim Mumford, a cookbook author and chemical engineer who shares recipes at Jim Cooks Good Food, knows exactly why smells like Cafaro's grandmother's cookies are able to transport us back to holidays past and give us feelings of nostalgia. Mumford, who lives in Kalamazoo, Mich., has studied and written dozens of articles, including a thesis, on the emotional drivers behind food.

"Holiday food is generally a 'once a year' sort of dish," says Mumford. "Things like cranberry sauce and roast turkey aren't staples in the everyday diet. They are also extremely delicious with distinct flavors and smells: It's scientifically proven that there's a link between smells and memories."

Mumford shares that these once-a-year fragrances can also make you happier than normal. When this happens year after year, a link is made connecting the holiday foods we love to strong, positive memories.

Megan and Vickie DuBois and their family will spend their first Thanksgiving without Vickie's mother, who died this year. In her memory, they will serve a lemon-carrot gelatin dish that has become a holiday tradition. (Photo: Megan DuBois)
Megan and Vickie DuBois and their family will spend their first Thanksgiving without Vickie's mother, who died this year. In her memory, they will serve a lemon-carrot gelatin dish that has become a holiday tradition. (Photo: Megan DuBois)

Megan DuBois, a Yahoo Life contributor from Winter Park, Fla., and her family have a colorful tradition — one that jiggles just a bit, but has deep roots in her family's memories.

"For Thanksgiving we always have lemon jello with crushed pineapple and shredded carrots," said DuBois, who isn't a fan of the dish herself. "It's weird. I don't eat it, but my mom loves it."

DuBois’s mom, Vickie, says the gelatinous dish has been in her family for 55 years.

"It always reminds me of my grandma and our family all together for Thanksgiving time," she says. "My mom always made it for me. This is the first year without my mom, so now it's my turn to carry on the tradition."

Like many who will be celebrating without a loved one this season, Vickie DuBois says there's a special reason the carrot-filled lemon gelatin will have a bit of extra meaning this year.

"Food always brings memories back,"she says. "It's a way to bring memories back when people are gone."

Want backstory of more traditional holiday foods? Click and scroll in the window below to explore the history behind popular Thanksgiving dishes.

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