Holiday food with flair

Spiral-cut chili cheese dogs are a delicious alternative to a Christmas turkey, said Swanson.

Photo by Jennifer Gish
Spiral-cut chili cheese dogs are a delicious alternative to a Christmas turkey, said Swanson.
Le Swanson, pictured with her husband, Matt, and daughter, Malia, can't imagine a Christmas without spiral-cut chili cheese dogs.

Photo courtesy of Le Swanson
Le Swanson, pictured with her husband, Matt, and daughter, Malia, can’t imagine a Christmas without spiral-cut chili cheese dogs.

Every Christmas, Le Swanson’s mouth waters in anticipation of the meal with her father-in-law – spiral-cut chili cheese dogs.

Hot dogs may not be typical holiday fare. But Swanson, like many others around Orange County, isn’t afraid to break from the norm at Thanksgiving and Christmas to spice up the food on her family’s table. The food Americans eat at the holidays is just as diverse as they are.

“My family never used to celebrate Thanksgiving. Maybe it’s just an Asian thing,” said Swanson. “Now we do chili cheese dogs every year.”

Swanson, 32, said her mother would never cook anything special for the holidays. The first time Swanson roasted a turkey was as a kindergarten teacher, when she incorporated it into her lessons at Thanksgiving.

“We used to receive turkeys when I was a kid, but we never knew what to do with it,” said Swanson. “It was like, ‘Oh, a big chicken!'”

Swanson, who lives in Anaheim Hills, said her family’s spiral-cut chili cheese dog tradition started after someone discovered a restaurant that made its hot dogs that way. Ever since then, Swanson, her husband, and now their daughter, have eaten the simple-but-delicious Christmas day lunch and enjoyed her father-in-law’s company.

“It’s always what we’ve done. When I think of Christmas with [my husband’s] dad, that’s what I think of,” she said. “They cut the hot dogs all the way around so they end up looking like a big drill bit. I don’t like chili cheese dogs, but I love the spiral-cut ones!”

Swanson also celebrated the holidays with different food during her high school years, she said. At that time, she lived with some friends of her family. The mother of the family, whom Swanson calls her “aunt,” had a Scandinavian background, and she generally made the typical American holiday food. But she always liked to try something new. Sometimes, she would roast a Cornish game hen for everyone at the table rather than serve a turkey.

“Everyone would get a mini chicken to themselves, basically!” said Swanson.

But an appetizer called shrimp cocktail aspic was at the top of the family’s list of holiday treats. The best part was its name.

“It’s a running joke because everyone in their family loves to eat it, but it has such a weird name,” said Swanson. “They’d use any excuse to say it as much as they could.”

The dish, as Swanson described it, was like an inverted Bundt cake with shrimp, veggies and Jell-O in it, but was not a dessert.

“They always make it, always have to have it,” she said. “It’s not a main course, but it’s always on the menu.”

Many families bring a bit of their culture to the holiday table. Chapman alumna Maria Sanchez, 22, said she and her family mix in Mexican favorites with their holiday feasts. Sanchez’s family has made homemade tamales and other treats for as long as she can remember. The tamales – made with corn dough on the outside, stuffed with meat or vegetables, and wrapped in corn husks – are special to Sanchez for more than their yummy taste. For Sanchez, the tamale-making parties are cherished times spent with her grandmother and cousins.

“Since we were little, we’d always get together at Grandma’s house,” said Sanchez.

The women and boys in the family always come together to cook, although the team tends to dwindle as the day wears on. But they make memories all the same.

“The kids get tired, so the adults end up making all of them,” said Sanchez. “Going to Grandma’s house with all my girl cousins, just making the tamales with Grandma – that’s timeless, you know?”

Sanchez and her family make several kinds of tamales, some with red or green chili, and others with raisins, sugar and nuts that are more of a dessert. They gather a couple of weeks before Christmas to make the tamales, and then freeze them until the holiday arrives.

“In the end, you can’t compare her tamales with anyone else’s,” said Sanchez. “It’s Grandma’s cooking. It’s just that good.”

The Sanchez family incorporates American favorites into its tamale feast, including a golden brown roasted turkey, creamy mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce. The 30 or so family members who gather also eat casseroles, usually made with green beans. One of Sanchez’s aunts uses the holidays as an excuse to experiment in the kitchen.

“She made really good potatoes last year,” said Sanchez. “They had cheese and sour cream on top, and she put them in the oven so they got kind of toasty – kind of crispy.”

The same aunt even made pigs in a blanket for the family last year.

“She just finds these recipes and everyone ends up loving them,” said Sanchez. “It’s cool because they’re new, different.”

For other families, Thanksgiving and Christmas meals resemble the American classics, but with some twists. Nicholas Luong’s family, for instance, incorporates some of its Vietnamese heritage into its holiday food.

Luong, of Garden Grove, is a first-generation American citizen. His parents emigrated from Vietnam during the Vietnam War. To Luong, 23, Thanksgiving and Christmas are opportunities to show pride in being American. That’s particularly true when it comes to the food, he said.

“We have pretty much Asian food every day,” he said. “Thanksgiving and Christmas are very American meals, so we eat American things.”

The Luong family takes advantage of the ready-made holiday meals supermarkets carry. His mom normally goes to the store and picks up whatever is in stock. The turkeys come raw from the store, so the family enjoys the rich roasting smells all day. Luong’s older brother Tim, described as the chef of the family, has largely taken over the cooking duties for his mother during the holidays. But his mom sometimes spices up the spread by making her signature bacon-wrapped broiled fish.

“It’s like spring rolls with lettuce,” said Luong. “The bacon wrapping is something extra, a little modification of it that my mom added in for extra oomph.”

Despite the yummy fish dish, Luong’s holiday favorites will always be stuffing, turkey and gravy.

“I only have it once a year!” he said.

While the Luongs eat traditional food with a Vietnamese twist, Melinda Nowak’s family incorporates some of its German heritage into its holiday food. A steamed purple cabbage dish – a traditional German food – occupies a place of honor alongside the turkey, sweet potatoes and rolls. Half the family likes the dish, but Nowak, 33, isn’t a fan of the purple vegetable.

“I don’t like it!” she said. “I can’t even describe what it tastes like. I don’t even know what’s in it, but it’s more along the lines of sauerkraut, kind of vinegary.”

Corn chowder is typically on the menu for the family’s Christmas Eve gathering, said Nowak. Everyone makes merry with a big dinner complete with candles and fine china. For years, her family would celebrate advent, the four weeks before Christmas when Christians prepare for the nativity of Jesus. The family members would gather to eat cookies and drink tea in those weeks leading up to Christmas.

While she was alive, Nowak’s maternal grandmother – her Oma, the German word for grandmother – would send goodies from her home in Germany to her grandchildren in the United States. Nowak’s favorites were gingerbread-type cookies that were like little cakes, and of course, the German Gummi Bears.

“That was always something,” said Nowak nostalgically.

For Nowak, the holidays are a time to reflect on the ways she’s been blessed. On Thanksgiving, her favorite holiday, she and her family take turns sharing what they’re thankful for.

“It’s just a pure day to do what we should be doing: giving thanks,” said Nowak. “I love going around the table hearing what’s happened in everyone’s lives in the past year.”

Nowak’s job in management at Macy’s gives her a taste of how commercialized Christmas has become.

“I like Thanksgiving because it’s overlooked by the consumer world,” she said.

Meals cooked and shared with family at the holidays are about more than what is on the menu. No matter what families around Orange County and across the nation eat this season, many say that the food they make will bring them together. New traditions will take root, old traditions will live on – and Swanson will enjoy some spiral-cut chili cheese dogs.

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