Some of the most cherished traditions families have involves holiday food. Recipes for Christmas goodies are passed down from generation to generation, as are the skills and techniques necessary to produce a wonderful finished product.
Three members of the Junior League of Cobb-Marietta shared their Christmas food memories with us and invited us into the kitchen as they and family members prepared their seasonal culinary legacies.
In keeping with her own childhood experiences, Acworth’s Stacey Thompson wanted to bring her daughter, Skylar, now 7, into the kitchen with her at the holidays as soon as she could safely get up on a step stool.
That’s how Stacey started with her own mother.
“Some of my best memories of being in the kitchen with my mom were watching the way she never needed a measuring cup. She kind of eyed everything to the point that it suited her,” Stacey recalled.
“She cooked so gracefully as she separated the egg whites and yolks, yet made the biggest mess with the flour. I remember watching the beaters, and wondering how much longer it would be before I got to lick them clean. Then of course came the spoon, then you got the bowl. She always left just a little bit more in the bowl than she should’ve, so that I could be a little more spoiled.”
On alternating years, the Thompsons either spend Christmas with her parents here in the U.S. or go to New Zealand to be with her husband Warwick’s family. No matter where they are, however, one thing doesn’t change. There must be marshmallow crème fudge. Everyone in Stacey’s side of the family, including second and third cousins, makes the sweet treat at holiday time.
“When we go to New Zealand it is quite an effort to find the same ingredients, not to mention doing the measurement conversions using a U.S. recipe,” she said. “In the end, however, even though I worry a little bit, because it is my American name on the line here, the marshmallow fudge always turns out fluffy, creamy and goes really, really fast.”
When the family is spending the holiday here, one of the first things Stacey and her mom think about is going to get the ingredients to make the fudge. “I have to say that even though I put on a show for the in-laws in New Zealand, cutting it nicely, finding a nice platter and so forth, here at home, the fudge barely has time to cool in the glass dish we pour it in to before we are all touching it and eventually digging out a very soft piece to eat.”
The fudge is not the only holiday tradition. “My grandmother every year would make a chocolate pie and either an apple or cherry pie because my grandfather liked them. He had quite a sweet tooth,” Stacey said.
Aaron and Tracy Rathbone have both sides of their families living nearby, so they are able to gather everyone together at Tracy’s house during the holidays.
“Because we have been together since high school, many of the memories and traditions we share are a combination of things we both did growing up,” Tracy said. “Since Lila was born, we have been committed to not only ensuring our favorite traditions are recreated for her, but making sure we create new memories as well.”
When Tracy was young, she and her mother and grandmother all lived together. She still remembers baking peanut butter balls and tea cakes at Christmas.
Today, in the Rathbones’ east Cobb home, there is not an occasion that isn’t celebrated without a spread of food, Stacy asserted.
“Aaron and I both enjoy cooking, but the baker in the family is my mother-in-law, Judith. For years, she has blocked out two solid weeks to make dozens of cookies, candies and delights for family and friends.”
The family owns Dirt Cheep Music in Smyrna, and Tracy said all year the staff there anticipates their delivery of Mama Judi’s sweets with their Christmas bonuses. “It’s funny to watch a bunch of grown men salivate over her magic cookie bars! I know that someday this will be a tradition I will inherit, but am grateful that she will be keeping it up for a while.”
Though her signature dish at Christmas is the homemade macaroni and cheese recipe her mother passed down to her and she has tweaked along the way, Tracy said she “dusts off my mixer during the holidays to make cookies and truffles with Lila,” which are given to Lila’s teachers and neighbors.
One of the best new traditions in the Rathbone household is putting out the cookies for Santa Claus on Christmas Eve. On that plate will always be the cream cheese-filled cookie bars and magic cookie bars Tracy makes from her mother-in-law’s recipe. Then the three of them snuggle up as a family to read "'Twas the Night Before Christmas.”
“It is a time of year that I hope Lila looks back upon fondly and one day, shares with her family,” Tracy said.
Four generations of Amanda Seals’ family will be celebrating together this season in the historic Marietta home where Amanda lives with her husband Paul and five-year-old daughter Trinity.
All of the womenfolk live in close proximity. Teresa Nolen, Amanda’s mom is in Kennesaw and grandmother Denny Hipps lives just blocks away in Marietta.
But the family has roots in England.
“My grandmother and mother were born in London and my grandfather was a Marietta native, which is why they settled here after he retired from the Navy,” Amanda said. “Nana helped Mom raise me and my mom is helping me raise my daughter, Trinity. She just started kindergarten at West Side Elementary and she will be a fourth generation student in the Marietta school system.”
Baking skills have been passed from generation to generation. Amanda got an early start in the kitchen with her grandmother.
“My cousins and I would beg Nana to make the almond Christmas tree butter cookies every year. It is what we would leave out for Santa with a large glass of milk,” Amanda said.
“We all loved being able to soil the pristine batter with drops of dark green food coloring in the tear-drop shaped bottles. The large silver and copper cookie press is a staple for the cookies as well as for Nana's famous cheese straws that my sorority sisters learned of when I was in college. Everyone knows that Nana taught her girls how to bake.”
One particular item is so ingrained in the fabric of Christmas tradition that no one can now imagine a holiday without it.
“As long as I can remember, my family has always had a beautiful, deep red velvet cake on Christmas Day to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ,” Amanda said. “To put it into context for us children, my Nana and Mom dubbed it, ‘the happy birthday, Jesus cake.’”
Her Mom always puts a big, fat red candle in the middle with sprigs of holly around it, which “I thought was real only to find out later it was 1970s plastic,” Amanda said with a chuckle.
As early as she can remember, Amanda helped ice this very special cake. “As a three-year-old, I started dragging behind me a little red wooden chair to stand on to help crack the eggs, stir the batter and ice the cake or decorate almond tree cookies in the Christmas kitchen.
“When I was pregnant with my daughter in 2006, my mom had the chair refurbished so that my daughter can have the same chair to stand on. It is quite the keepsake.”