A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

My father was Presbyterian. My mother was Roman Catholic. Battling grandmothers aside, this produced a fascinating array of holiday traditions and, better yet, holiday foods. My father’s mother put up

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

My father was Presbyterian. My mother was Roman Catholic. Battling grandmothers aside, this produced a fascinating array of holiday traditions and, better yet, holiday foods. My father’s mother put up

One Chef Celebrates the Holidays’ Global Evolution

Christmas ornament in the shape of Earth

My father was Presbyterian. My mother was Roman Catholic. Battling grandmothers aside, this produced a fascinating array of holiday traditions and, better yet, holiday foods. My father’s mother put up her Christmas tree the minute they appeared for sale. On my mother’s side, the German tradition required that nothing be done until Christmas Eve; even then, most of the decorating was hidden behind the sliding doors of the “big living room” until right before midnight Mass.

On Christmas Day, we were expected to attend enormous holiday meals at both houses, where there were turkeys, hams, and all manner of side dishes and desserts. We were also expected to eat at both events. I suspect that there was an unspoken rivalry at play between the two families.

Young chef Bill Smith (author) with Santa Claus.

Young Bill Smith pays a visit to Santa Claus leading up to the holiday dinners. Photography courtesy of Bill Smith

All throughout the season, there were parties. Our parents and grandparents had lived through the Great Depression and won World War II. The Depression had made them want to spoil all of the children. The war made them ready to party.

Among my father’s Army buddies were the Zaytouns, the Khaleels, and the Shapous. They all attended my mother’s church. I didn’t realize it at the time, but these families were my first encounters with immigrants. In the early 1900s, hundreds of Syrians and Lebanese had come to North Carolina, and, as many were Maronite Christians, they were connected to the Church of Rome.

In New Bern, where I grew up, these families were an integral part of our family’s holiday celebrations. They added to the merriment with pita — we called it Syrian bread in those days — and sesame candy called halvah. I remember my mother often saying that she hoped Miss Habibi would be bringing her fancy version of kibbeh — a mixture of ground meat and cracked wheat — to the church Christmas party. It wasn’t until I moved away to Chapel Hill to go to college that I learned that these delicious foods weren’t part of everyday American fare, and that the people who made the dishes had different backgrounds from mine.

Red and green christmas ornaments

Later, as I began cooking for a living, I made new immigrant friends. I’ve probably said a million times that you can wash dishes in any language, and that’s how many newcomers begin their lives in the United States. In the ’70s, the immigrants I met were largely refugees from the Vietnam War. Being Buddhists, these particular Vietnamese didn’t celebrate Christmas, but they happily took part in our holiday parties. And the offerings that they brought made our menus better. My friend Huong Nguyen’s cooking, for instance, was out of this world. She took our Christmas buffets to a new level.

Times and situations changed, and the labor shortages of the ’80s and ’90s produced, as if by magic, prep cooks and dishwashers from Mexico. Some of those workers became close friends, and when the holidays came around, we shared each other’s traditions. Most of the immigrants didn’t initially know about Thanksgiving, but any holiday centered on a banquet was seen as a smart idea. My friend Israel was so taken with Thanksgiving that he had me teach him how to cook a turkey and all of the fixin’s so he could make them at home for his family. He became one of my best cooks. To Israel, the fact that turkey turns up again at Christmas shows uncommonly good sense.

Plate of kibbeh

When he was a boy, Chef Bill Smith assumed that all families celebrated Christmas with dishes like kibbeh. photograph by DINA SAEED/ALAMY

In Mexico, the celebration of Christmas starts on December 12 with the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Here, we’re all so busy during the holiday season that we’re sometimes barely ready by Christmas Eve. My amigos embraced our truncated celebrations but also elaborated on them by adding to the beginnings and the ends. Years ago, I went with my friends to church for Guadalupe, not realizing that the Mass would be followed by food, hot chocolate, and Aztec dancers. Nowadays, I wouldn’t miss this event for anything. Traditionally, Mexicans give presents on January 6 for Día de los Reyes, or Three Kings’ Day, but now, for many, there’s also a small gift exchange on Christmas morning.

Latin Americans and North Americans both celebrate a cluster of holidays toward the end of the year. Besides Thanksgiving and Christmas, there’s Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, which coincides with our Halloween. It’s a sweet way to remember those who have died. Now, inside my home in late October, I set up an ofrenda — an altar with pictures of departed loved ones — along with a vase of orange marigolds. A few years ago, our farmers market started selling bouquets of marigolds in the fall. They’re traditional Day of the Dead decorations, and now, it seems, everybody buys them.

Red and green Christmas ornaments

At midnight on New Year’s Eve, I share with my Latino friends las doce uvas de la suerte — the 12 grapes of luck — and the next morning, they drop by my house for black-eyed peas and collard greens. The grapes represent the months of the year. (Be careful next May if grape No. 5 is sour.) And, of course, all North Carolinians know the importance of collards and black-eyed peas.

I love this amalgamation of holiday traditions, in which no custom is discarded and there’s always room for more. After all, we got Santa Claus by way of the Dutch. And what would we do without English fruitcake? (Just kidding!) The point is, when it comes to celebrating the holidays, there’s no such thing as too many traditions. I can’t wait to see which new group of immigrants shows up next at our holiday table — bringing with them more traditions to welcome into our ever-expanding home.

This story was published on Nov 27, 2023

Bill Smith

Smith was the chef at Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill for nearly three decades until his retirement in 2019. Smith is well known for his food writing — including the New York Times Notable and Food & Wine Best-of-the-Best cookbook Seasoned in the South and the bestselling Savor the South title, Crabs & Oysters.