I have, admittedly, a very peculiar relationship with this time of year.
I grew up in a secular Jewish home where we spent Christmas Eve eating Chinese food and going to the movies; we had no tree, and even though I wanted one (like most Jewish kids) I was informed by my father that having one smacked of idolatry, and hadn't I seen The Ten Commandments and understood the whole idolatry-golden-calf problem? My father's father was an Orthodox cantor, so Christmas trees cut pretty close to the bone; we also never ate pork in our house except for bacon (which was so highly processed that it no longer resembled anything porcine) and the barbecued bits of pig floating around in our wonton soup and lurking amidst the folds of our takeout egg rolls. The flipside of this is that my mother's mother (whose father was a kosher butcher) had the odd habit of lighting Friday night candles but also playing Mitch Miller Christmas carols on our phonograph, bundling me up in heavy woolens, and making me stand on line for three hours in St. Patrick's Cathedral to see someone she insisted on calling The Baby Jesus.
My friend Rachel would inevitably call and say "What are you doing after school? Want to come over and watch TV, or make latkes?"
I'd have to say "No thanks, I'm going to see The Baby Jesus."
Ever since I was a child, I couldn't wait for the holidays to be over. But once they were, I'd also find myself looking over the edge, into the great, echoing abyss that was the New Year, and this is sort of how I feel right now. It could be because 2008 was such a horrible time, apparently for a lot of people; folks lost their jobs and their homes, my sweet cousin Harris lost his life. People everywhere lost grips on their own personal reality; even at work, in a remarkable display of heartless nincompoopery, a colleague decided that it would be more appropriate for me to attend a minor meeting than get home to my family on the morning that we'd learned of Harris' fate. Scroll forward a few months to the hideous attacks in Mumbai, and the discovery of Bernard Madoff's business practices, and it takes very little creative thinking to believe that lots of folks out there have it in them to be the kind of aforementioned heartless nincompoops who mostly steered the proverbial Big Ship last year, at almost every level from low-level management all the way up to the big house on the hill, and everywhere in between.
So Baby Jesus or no Baby Jesus, Mitch Miller or no Mitch Miller, the year 2008 was my own Annus Horribilis; Christmas and New Years seemed to do little more than punctuate it with a gigantic existential exclamation point.
Tomorrow is the first day back to work (or school) for many of us, and who knows what it will bring. I certainly don't. But my response to mid-winter bleakness, I have been informed by my partner, appears to be exactly the same every year. I never realized that I was quite as predictable as I apparently am, but it seems that when any year is over (good or bad) and the personal introspection starts to wane, the tree comes down, the ornaments go away and everyone who is not devout at any other time of year stops standing on line to see The Baby Jesus, I make South Asian food. A lot of South Asian food.
I want out of the culinary murkiness of the holiday buches and the prime ribs; I don't want anymore filet and pate. I want to be done with the darkness and the huge hunks of meat; instead, I want bright colors, and brighter flavors; I want the simplicity and explosive mouth feel of rice noodles and fresh tamarind, lime and ginger, curry and sambal. I want the food of people who are required by their culture to slow down and step off the track, to eat well (as opposed to just a lot), simply, and mindfully.
Maybe this is my more adult version of eating Asian food at holiday time. I honestly don't know. But I do expect it to carry me through the first quarter of 2009 with warmth and flavor; I hope it's all I'll need.