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From Robo Zombie pumpkins to National Lampoon, these are Southern Kitchen's favorite holiday traditions

Gabriel Garcia Marengo

Thanksgiving turkey


Southern Kitchen staff's favorite holiday traditions

We know: Holiday season seems to begin earlier and earlier each year. But it's hard to not get excited when Halloween, Thanksgiving and other upcoming fall holidays mean good food, good drink and good family fun.

Here at Southern Kitchen, we celebrate the holidays in much of the ways you'd expect — convivial meals and cocktail hours — and others you may not. Whether it's watching a comedic Christmas movie or running a gaunlet of creative and crafty contests, we certainly know how to throw down once the holidays officially begin.

So, instead of starting our holiday coverage with gifts to buy (we'll share great recommendations for those once the season actually changes to fall), here's a taste of how members of the Southern Kitchen team celebrate the season.
In the South, it's almost always still warm enough in October to trick-or-treat with ease, and that's what you'll find many members of the Southern Kitchen team doing with our kids come Halloween. But it's also the holiday that kicks off competition season for our merchandising coordinator, Ranji McMillan.

She's the first to admit that her family is very competitive, especially during the holidays. October brings an annual pumpkin carving contest; last year's entries included a fanastically detailed "Robo Zombie" and a fully decorated movie theater draped in cobwebs. Choosing a winner is a highly deliberate process. "We have a judges' panel. We have score sheets. We have deliberation," McMillan said.

Over at photographer Ramona King's house, Halloween is a slightly more subdued affair, with plenty of homemade caramel popcorn to snack on between bites of candy. The real show comes the following month at Thanksgiving.

King has been cooking the full Thanksgiving meal since she was 14 years old. She cooks a traditional menu with turkey, stuffing, sides and homemade cranberry sauce (with nuts). There are pies aplenty and pumpkin-flavored everything. 

King said she took over the meal "out of necessity" once her grandparents got older. "My mother can't cook worth a darn," she said. "She's sweet though, and a good assitant. She's great at cheese-grating and chopping. My grandmother taught me how to cook. Her parents were straight off the boat from Germany so it was things like sauerkraut, which I still do."
Chief Merchant Sean Pruett grew up with "giant super casual Thanksgivings, where you were as likely to meet someone for the first time as you were to eat next to close family," he said. "Everyone was welcome and there was always a feast (not a composed menu mind you, but a smorgasbord of holiday dishes)." Now that he lives further from family, Pruett and his wife always try to open their house to friends who may not have somewhere else to go for the meal.

When it comes time to eat, Assistant Editor Mike Jordan's family grabs hands, forms a large circle in the living room of whoever is hosting, and everyone shares something they appreciate or a few things for which they're thankful. "It's a simple way to acknowledge the purpose of the holiday, recall the challenges and triumphs of the previous 12 months and show humility," he said. "It works especially well for friends of family members who join us as guests (we always have a few first-timers) as a way to break the conversational ice before we all break bread together."

For Leslie Eisenstat, Southern Kitchen's project manager, the most important part of the Thanksgiving meal comes the next day, when she makes classic leftover sandwiches with turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce and mashed potatoes. "It's my favorite sandwich of the year," she said.

Now that Eisenstat has kids, her Christmases involve gifts on both Christmas Eve (usually this is Christmas pajamas) and Christmas Day. "We also drink lots of mimosas," she said. "We used to always go to a movie in the afternoon on Christmas, but now that we all have kids we skip that and just hang at the house, play with new toys and prepare dinner."

When the calendar turns to December, McMillan's family gets back into the swing of competitions, with gingerbread houses, ugly and highly decorative sweaters, and holiday sock contests (see left). Besides the friendly competition, her family also gets into the Christmas spirit with Secret Santa. "I do a rap for my Secret Santa person every year," she said.

Jonathan Cone, Southern Kitchen's chief technologist, said he and his family decorate the tree and house, and then head to the Atlanta Botantical Gardens to see the light show. His family also makes both sugar and gingerbread cookies for his kids to decorate, as well as a "huge batch of pizelles from my wife's Italian grandmother's recipe." These cookies take hours, so they always watch a Christmas movie (which is almost always Die Hard) and Cone keeps his cool throughout the project with a glass of whiskey. He said his family always watches National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation on Christmas Eve, and ends Christmas Day with prime rib and bread pudding.

Editor-in-Chief Ashley Twist Cole has a similar taste in Christmas movies. "My favorite holiday tradition is Christmas Eve with the Twist family," she said. "Growing up it was only my immediate family who lived in Georgia, so we started this tradition with my parents’ best friends. Now that we’re grown, it’s my brother and sister-in-law, my parents, my husband, my son and me. We go to Christmas Eve service and come home for a nice dinner. If I’m lucky, my parents order crab cakes from G&M in Baltimore, my dad’s hometown. We eat them with coleslaw and steak fries — a Maryland must. Then, we all watch National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation and drink Brandy Alexanders (the original boozy milkshake). Nobody watches the movie during the entire holiday season until Christmas Eve, and we all quote it as it’s playing: 'a little full, a lot of sap.'"

More seafood is in the house with intern Elisabeth Schrock. Her family always, always has her great aunt's fried shrimp on Christmas Eve. "Since we're Italian, there are certain foods that we only get on Christmas Eve, which is actually a bigger celebration for us than Christmas Day," she said. "So we use our great aunt's recipe for fried shrimp, but no one makes it as good as her. For dessert we get her famous magic cookie bars — a recipe that she isn't willing to share just yet."

As for me (Associate Editor Kate Williams), my family also has a food-filled Christmas holiday. We always serve three huge meals between Christmas Eve and the end of Christmas day. Before we head to church on Christmas Eve, I make a massive lasagna in my parents' largest roasting pan. It's the same every year: homemade marinara sauce, spicy Italian sausage, ricotta, spinach and fresh pasta sheets.

Christmas morning always means breakfast casserole made wtih Peppridge Farm Cinnamon Swirl bread (no raisins), alongside grapefruit halves and mimosas. My family spends the rest of the day on Christmas planning and cooking the day's big blow-out dinner. The menu usually changes, but it always involves a giant roast of meat and an elaborate dessert prepared by my sister, the baker extraordinaire and surgeon-in-training. Dessert is often croquembouche. Both family and friends come over for dinner; we've served anywhere from 12 to 20 people on Christmas. There's always at least one bottle of wine per person and most dinners have ended with a backyard bonfire.

Lindsay Hammond, Southern Kitchen's digital audience development specialist, always has Meyer lemon bars at Christmastime. Her mother also makes her family's stockings and places an orange at the bottom of each one. "When my mom was growing up [in Montreal], oranges were a treat in winter," she said.

General Manager Derick Jaros's favorite holiday tradition is to sit under the Christmas tree, looking up at all the lights with his kids, with holiday music playing in the background. For stamina, they eat all the comfort foods that don't normally grace the table, mainly "Pie... lots of pie," he said.
Josh Connor, our online buyer, doesn't have any food traditions, but he does make sure his house is well-stocked with seasonal beverages. "It makes for an extremely festive holiday," he said.

Of course, the holiday season doesn't end on Christmas Day. Our in-house chef and recipe editor Jeffrey Gardner said that New Year's Eve is his favorite. "During my many years working in restaurant kitchens, New Year’s Eve was always the exclamation point on the holiday season," he said. "Service ran late, the menus were elegant and elaborate, and there was always a collective exhale from the staff once service wrapped and we all went home with another holiday season in the books.

"Since many restaurants typically close on New Year’s Day, I like to spend a relaxing afternoon at home with my wife. We make an easy brunch, watch college football, and prepare our dinner of cornbread, collard greens and Hoppin’ John full of andouille sausage. My wife makes excellent collards in our pressure cooker — a great time-saver — and the cornbread and Hoppin’ John are both very easy to assemble. It’s a nice way to reconnect after being apart for much of the holiday season."

Photo Credit (pumpkins): Beth Teutschmann/Unsplash
Photo Credit (Thanksgiving buffet): Selena N.B.H./Flickr
Photo Credit (gumball socks): Omari Brown/Instagram
Photo Credit (croquembouche): Kate Williams
Photo Credit (Champagne): Alex Holyoake/Unsplash

Author image

Kate Williams is the former editor-in-chief of Southern Kitchen. She was also the on-air personality on our podcast, Sunday Supper. She's worked in food since 2009, including a two-year stint at America’s Test Kitchen. Kate has been a personal chef, recipe developer, the food editor at a hyperlocal news site in Berkeley and a freelance writer for publications such as Serious Eats, Anova Culinary, The Cook’s Cook and Berkeleyside. Kate is also an avid rock climber and occasionally dabbles in long-distance running. She makes a mean peach pie and likes her bourbon neat.