Adapting my Great-Grandmother’s Recipes for the Co-op’s Holiday Meal
Reflections by Marketing Specialist Christine Ciganovich
Each July, at the peak of summer, the Marketing Team begins planning the Holiday Meal. The Co-op has hosted the Holiday Meal, a free hot meal on Christmas Eve, every year since 1985 (read more about the Holiday Meal here). The first meal was hosted by a LGBTQ+ couple, both employees of the Co-op, whose families wouldn’t take them in. Seeing that others in our community also had nowhere to go for the holidays they organized a meal for any and all to attend. The event continued the following year, evolving into a community wide effort on Christmas Eve to provide a free and warm meal for as many as 700 people. Scheming for this year’s Holiday Meal, its 38th iteration, began some weeks ago in a meeting in the Teaching Kitchen on a very hot July day.
The Co-op’s Ends say we exist to provide “access to healthful, local and high-quality food,” among other things, but we keep coming back to this one as we’ve seen food insecurity grow in our county and among our shoppers in recent years. Naturally, our conversation about this year’s Holiday Meal started with access. When considering need in the county, especially our most vulnerable unhoused or elderly housebound neighbors, most can’t get to the Vet Memorial Center in Davis, where the meal is, so that’s something serious to consider. In the past we’ve offered meat and vegetarian meals to accommodate as many diets as possible. We also pull this off with a volunteer team and as many donations as possible.
Soon a plan came together: we partner with shelters and community organizations like Meals on Wheels, Yolo County with existing networks to provide meals to those who cannot attend the sit-down dinner, which will still take place as so many have made it a part of their holiday tradition. The meal itself needed deciding upon too. What would be delicious, nutritious, accommodate the most diets, and be relatively easy for a volunteer team to make 600 portions of in about 8 hours? In the past, we’ve done traditional American holiday foods (turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, cranberry sauce, etc.) This is my very favorite kind of puzzle to solve. Making a meal so large requires so many moving parts. It is the peak logistical and creative challenge for me. And then I had a lightbulb moment: tamales. In truth, vegan tamales.
“Hear me out: vegan tamales solve all of our problems,” I told Marketing Manager Vince. They’re a main course that serves both meat eaters and vegans and they’re gluten free too. We can make 1200 between now and December and freeze them, which means our main course is already taken care of before we even pull up to the Vet Memorial Center on 12/24. This also means I can train the whole Marketing Team on how to make tamales, a valuable skill! From there it was easy to decide to scrap the traditional sides in favor of spanish rice, (vegan) refried beans, and a kale and pepita salad. A quick text to my mom and subsequent trip to her little metal recipe box meant I was adapting my Great-Grandmother, Ofelia’s, recipes for rice and beans to feed 600 people just twenty minutes later.
My Great-Grandmother was born in Mexico in 1911 and immigrated to the United States as a girl. She was a gifted seamstress, making dresses for golden age Hollywood starlets. She would later make my Halloween costumes and teach me how to sew and crochet. Summers were spent with my Grandma and Great-Grandmother until I was a teenager and they watched me, my brother, and my cousins before we started school while our parents worked.
Both matriarchs were gifted cooks and my Grandmother, Norma, still is. When we were young my brother and I pestered my mom to make “Nana’s rice and beans” at home, because five days a week wasn’t enough. The elder women always seemed to leave out an ingredient measurement or forget that the rice *has* to be *this* brand or just gave vague instruction (“Smash beans – not a lot of juice” for example) until, after many attempts, my mom had some recipes written down, possibly for the first time in their many decades of use.
Truth be told, I hadn’t made these recipes myself, but always looking over my Great-Grandmother or Grandmother’s shoulder. To make enough rice for 600 for the Holiday Meal, I reckon I ought to be able to make a single batch, so I grabbed ingredients from the Co-op and went to work in our Teaching Kitchen. Soon the whole building filled with the smell of rice frying in oil, something I hadn’t smelled in a very long time. It was a very special moment, essentially facilitated by my workplace, and so I was standing in the Kitchen, heart very full, crying a little bit about how beautiful it all was.
Since then, the weather has cooled, the students have returned, and our Tamale Tracker tells me we’re 3 ahead of schedule at 103 cooked and frozen tamales. Only 1,097 to go! Although the Holiday Meal is probably the largest undertaking of the Marketing Team each year, it is truly a store-wide and community wide cooperative effort, and this year more than most with so much preparation happening beforehand. I want to give a huge shout out to Fresh Operations Manager James, the Meat Department and the Deli Department for letting us use their equipment and freezer for tamale production and to Store Operations Manager Rocio and Center Store Specialist Mike H. for helping us secure ingredients at this early stage in the process. The team at Meals on Wheels, Yolo County is helping ensure homebound seniors in Davis get to participate in the meal in addition to donating the kitchen equipment we’ll need to make it all. Many more folks from the Co-op and from across the county will be responsible for the success of this year’s meal. I feel deeply humbled and so very proud to share my family’s food and history with our community as a small part of that effort.
The Meal is still several months away! We’ll share more about it, including how you can volunteer or donate, as we get closer to December. Until then, happy Hispanic Heritage Month! Myself along with General Manager Laura and Store Support Manager Briza have been sharing family recipes at the registers. Look for those recipe cards until October 15th or find them all here.