Pass the spinach dip and other antiquated holiday favourites, please

Why Christmas makes us turn to tried-and-true cream cheese-based delights we wouldn’t dream of serving any other time of the year

The night before she flew home to Truro, Nova Scotia, my friend Erinn came over for a pre-holiday meal. We got to talking about what sort of Christmas treats we were both in store for at our mutual family gatherings and as we listed off all sorts of delights a few common denominators were observed. First, most of the recipes that our mothers and aunts make during the holidays come courtesy of old issues of Chatelaine, Canadian Living, Family Circle and newspaper clippings. Second, the other recipes may be marked “from Debbie” or “Linda’s” but they too are, in fact, magazine recipes that have been adapted as “Lynn’s” own. Third, they all contain either cream cheese, instant soup mix, sweetened condensed milk, or some other canned good. And fourth, we two 30-something-year-old gals, who enjoy leafing through the occasional issue of Gastronomica and eating tacos and gnudi at Toronto’s latest restaurant hot spots, couldn’t wait to eat them, along with the water-logged shrimp from the shrimp rings and cruddy milk chocolates stuffed with weird nougats.

“The first thing I’ll do when I get home tomorrow,” explained Erinn, “is open up the fridge, where I’ll find about ten of those Philly cream cheese bricks, and get started on making the dip.” The dip is actually called Pepper Spread, which is odd, since “it is neither spreadable and peppers don’t feature any more than any other ingredient.” And those other ingredients include margarine, sugar, vinegar, eggs and–of course–the brick of cream cheese. Apparently it’s wonderful with “veggies”.

Two things that inevitably show up at my mom’s family’s holiday gatherings are that spinach dip thing–the one where you hollow out a loaf of pumpernickel and fill it with frozen spinach, sour cream, mayonnaise and a package of Knorr vegetable soup mix–and my Aunt Sandy’s shrimp dip, which, as it turns out, is actually Sandy’s friend Carole’s shrimp dip, but Sandy’s been making it every Christmas for the last 15 years, which entitles her to the copyright in our family. It’s supposed to be made in a mold and then turned out onto a festive platter. But Sandy simply serves it in a plastic container. Why go to all the trouble of a mold when 20 or so hungry relatives will pile crackers inches high with the stuff and deplete the precious stock within minutes of it being put out?

How is it that all these jellies, molds and dips, that most wouldn’t dream of serving at a dinner party, are perennially featured in holiday spreads?  Maybe it just comes down to tradition. “The new magazines are what my mom goes to for inspiration throughout the year,” says Erinn, “but at Christmas she leans on tried and true recipes from a bygone era.”

I can relate. For Christmas dinner this year I tried a Bon Appétit recipe for glazed carrots that were gussied up with fresh tarragon, sherry and clementine. They were great, but I’ll be honest: those fancy time carrots didn’t come close to Marg’s carrot casserole, which came courtesy of “Diane.”  It’s a dish that requires a half pound of processed cheese slices, among other things. Enough said, no?

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