Eating Our Way Through the Holidays

Stuyvesant students share food traditions and recipes they make around the holidays each year.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Cover Image
By Ivy Halpern

For many students, December marks the end of the year, winter break, and the start of the festivities for all the various holidays the month brings. With these holidays come spending time with family and friends, relaxing, and of course, eating delicious food. Some of these dishes may be take-out from a restaurant, but perhaps the most special ones are the ones prepared by or with families. Take a look at these traditional home annual holiday recipes from students!

Tang Yuan

Freshman Sandra Gao’s tang yuan recipe comes from her grandma. The two of them, along with Gao’s sister, make it every year. “It’s for the winter solstice. So we make maybe 100 of them,” she said. The recipe has been passed down from family to family, but it has skipped generations. “My mom doesn’t know it, but my grandma does, and I learned it from her,” Gao revealed.

Tang yuan is a little ball of dough with various fillings inside. “There [are] two versions of it. One of them sweet, one of them savory,” Gao explained. Her family makes the savory ones with “wu fa rou” or pork belly. The first step is to make the dough; then, the meat filling is prepared. “My grandma just sits there and dices it [...], then she portions it off into an inch wide ball.”

Next, the dough, held in a big cast iron pot, is rolled out into small cups to hold the filling, which is where Gao and her sister come in to help. “It’s the three of us crowded around a table around a [...] yard wide. And there’s normally flour everywhere,” she said. Gao pointed out that this was her favorite part. “I like rolling it into balls because [though] my hands do hurt after, it’s fun pulling the dough apart and doing this motion,” she remarked as her hands demonstrated the movement. Once the completed tang yuan are all put on trays, Gao’s mom cooks them. “The kitchen gets really hot because now she starts to boil it. My dad usually comes home around that time, like halfway through, and he steals 10 of them [to eat].”

There are a lot of funny moments while making and eating tang yuan. Gao recounted one time when her sister ate twice as much tang yuan as her. “It was amusing because my sister is almost as tall as me, but she’s two years younger, and she manages to eat 20 [tang yuan] while I only ate 10.” Looking back, Gao recognized the importance of these funny memories. “It means a lot [since] most of the time, my sister and I are in a room, doing homework. And making the tang yuan is a good break from that. [...] I’m [also] annoyed with my family kind of often, and making tang yuan is something to laugh about.”

Christmas Sugar Cookies

Senior Keara O’Donnell’s annual food tradition is making sugar cookies with her family. The recipe was originally found online, but has since been tweaked by her mom. “She likes finding recipes online, but over time, as she makes the recipe each year, she starts to perfect it,” O’Donnell explained.

This sugar cookie recipe was one of the first that her mom taught O’Donnell and her brother. “We bought, when I was five, this big bucket of cookie molds,” she recounted. “We use the holiday-related ones, like the ones with a bell in them, and the gingerbread man [to cut out the cookie shapes]. We also like making our own little letters. We make one S for my brother Shawn and one S for Santa.” Some years, O’Donnell attempts more complex shapes. “There’s a TV show, JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, and [last year] I made my gingerbread cookies to kind of look like those characters. They didn’t really look like [them], but it was just so fun,” she recalled.

O’Donnell’s favorite part of the tradition, however, is frosting the cookies “We would just sit around a table with some simple sugar frosting, which is just powdered sugar and a bit of milk. And you just whisk that together and you make the frosting. [...] You can definitely get creative with all the different things,” she described.

Though sugar cookies are a simple recipe, they are special because of how O’Donnell makes it at home. “Besides the fact that it’s more of a classic staple and that when we were younger, we put it under the tree for Santa or things like that, I think it’s just a good way to sort of just keep us together, to keep family together,” she reflected. It’s not a tradition in the cultural sense, she pointed out, but is still an entertaining activity that has endured within her family through the years. “So it’s having that continuity. It’s nice.”

Potato Latkes

For senior and Jewish Student Union President Ivy Halpern, Hanukkah calls for a plate of potato latkes, or fried potato pancakes. She explained the meaning behind this: “The miracle of Hanukkah is that a one-day supply of oil lit the Menorah for eight days after the Greeks destroyed the temple in Jerusalem,” she said in an e-mail interview. “To commemorate this, we eat lots of fried, oily food [...] like latkes and sufganiyot (jelly donuts).”

While it’s usually Halpern’s dad, grandma, or aunt that makes the latkes, she and her cousins sometimes help grate the potatoes and onions, which takes up a lot of time. “We have to make an absurd amount of latkes so that we are all satisfied, as latkes are one of our favorite foods,” she said.

After they are finished cooking and the whole house smells like oil comes the best part, according to Halpern—eating. “My favorite part is eating them fresh, in the kitchen before dinner, right when they are out of the pan. When I am with my cousins for Hanukkah and the latkes are made and brought to the table, we all attack the plate as if we have never seen food before.”

Food has a way of bringing everyone together, and during holidays, it’s even more powerful. What starts out as something small can turn into a meaningful experience and strengthen connections with loved ones.