Christmas traditions are a funny thing. The whole is not greater than the sum of its parts- the value is actually in all the little components and the story behind the tradition.
Given the opportunity to peek into three local chefs’ Christmas traditions, a few things became clear to me. Food is more than just food, traditions keep important memories and bonds alive, and kindness is hiding in plain sight on the Outer Banks.
Have you ever heard of “making a stir”? I hadn’t, but Chef Dawn Holcomb explained it to me as part of her family’s Christmas tradition while we sat in her kitchen looking at old photos. One photo showed the “stir” in action — the process of making a plum pudding.
All the ingredients, including some recipe relics like grated suet (beef fat, frozen, then shredded on a box grater) are added to a bowl and the family stirs it to combine. Each person gets his or her turn to complete three stirs, earning them three wishes. We read through a diary entry Holcomb's’s grandmother, Jennifer Rawlings, wrote in 1921, detailing memories of her mother saving money each week, all year towards their Christmas dinner, and the kids singing carols in exchange for pennies to buy colored paper for homemade Christmas decorations.
This plum pudding tradition dates back that far in Holcomb's family, probably even farther. It’s still alive and well today. On Christmas Day, when the plum pudding was steamed and covered in a hard sauce — which would be ceremoniously lit on fire — allowing the alcohol to burn off.
Holcomb and her family would dig in, savoring the belly-warming dessert but also searching for the sign of wishes granted: a dime baked into the pudding.
If you were the lucky one to uncover the dime, your three Christmas wishes would come true. Although, like any good grandma protecting her grandkids’ happiness — her plum pudding recipe serves six and the ingredients call for exactly six dimes. Interestingly, we noticed the recipe did not call for plums, a fact that just didn’t seem to matter, as long as you could share the moment and the good wishes with loved ones.
At The Saltbox Café on Colington Island, Chef Randolph Sprinkle remembered the prime rib, Caesar salad, mushrooms Margaret, potatoes Frederick, and green beans Belgrade his grandmother and mother would make every year. The names make the meal sound like it was borrowed from another time and culture, but it was a two-generation tradition in his family — three, if you count Randolph.
It belongs wholly to them. Within a couple years of his mother’s passing, 13-year-old Sprinkle taught himself to prepare that meal, possibly motivated by his grandmother’s attempt to pass off a delicious, but non-traditional, lamb the year before. He didn’t nail it on the first try, but he was close enough that by the second year of being the young chef for the family, Sprinkle’s father insisted his prime rib and accompaniments tasted even better than the originals.
At age 14, Sprinkle was cooking dinner for his father, brother, and sister every night. For a short while, they lived in Venezuela, where Sprinkle became expertly familiar with rice, beans, and a single hot plate. In lieu of Christmas prime rib that year, he came up with the more readily available Cornish game hens and poms Dauphine — a very fancy fried potato puff — but picked up right where he left off upon returning to the United States.
I asked how, at such a young age, he was able to recreate those challenging, complicated classics. He said he could “feel and taste” his way through, to a point.
That’s no surprise if you’ve ever eaten his food- I’m not sure “palate” even describes what Sprinkle is working with. But he also had the assistance of handwritten recipes, belonging to his mother and grandmother. He sent me a picture of these keepsakes, still in their time-worn plastic box, protecting the fingerprints of loved ones and the memories of each year gone by.
Finally, there’s Chef Wes Stepp. We rode from his restaurant, Red Sky, in Duck, down Highway 12 a bit to where his next venture, NC Coast Grill and Bar opened this November.
Along the way, Stepp very humbly explained the Christmas tradition dearest to his heart: a Christmas Eve dinner for folks in recovery, which he hosts every year at Red Sky, for free. It’s an open-door event, anyone is welcome, and tears pricked the back of my eyes as he recounted stories of parents reuniting with adult children they hadn’t seen since becoming sober, and even a proposal and engagement between two guests one special year.
The fact is, many people whose lives have been touched by addiction don’t have a place to go at Christmas and Chef Wes is providing that right here in Duck. The menu has a very personal touch, too. Stepp spends days in the woods of Virginia bow-hunting to supply venison for the event. At this point, with over 150 guests in attendance each year, folks bring covered dishes to contribute to the spread. This show of true holiday spirit and kindness for those who need and deserve it most has been going on for over 10 years.
Sprinkle said memories are only about 50 percent reliable — the rest is colored by feeling and emotion.
Spend some time this Christmas digging into the parts of your traditions, in case you’ve forgotten what makes them so special — and it’s OK to let feeling and emotion take up some of that space. It’s all adding up to something meaningful, something folks just might be talking about 10, 20, or 100 years from now.