Man in the Kitchen: The Importance of Holiday Meals

Man in the Kitchen: The Importance of Holiday Meals

Holiday dinner table
Table styling: English Dream Cake; Photo: Elizaveta Photography

As we dash into the heart of the yuletide crescendo, I want to take this opportunity to choose my word of the year: Umami. That is, the fifth sense of our taste buds – combined with sweet, salty, bitter and sour, it is part of the exalted high temple of flavor that chefs strive to create and food lovers have crowned the sweet spot of the culinary experience. Umami has been described as a unique blend that is rounded, rich and savory, and could there be a more apt description for all we look forward to as we turn the page to a new year?

The holidays, like weddings and funerals, mean different things to different people. But what unifies so many of us these next couple of weeks is the near endless preparation and consumption of food. Pick your culture, pick your celebration. We’ll squeeze in around elaborately set tables and clutch hands and mumble our prayers. We’ll give thanks on Réveillon for the meats and fowl and potatoes and dressings; the cranberries and latkes and biryani and bobotie.

Hanukkah Jewish holiday. Rafael Ben-Ari/123RF

It is my unique experience that the holiday meal, at least in our large extended family, is all about rekindling the bonds and ties that make us family in the first place.

We don’t just show up. We travel thousands of miles before a single candle is lit and we shack up for days, with rituals that have lasted longer than some of our marriages. Chili and cornbread for the night-before prep fest. Strong coffee and pancakes on the morning of the big day, as tired bodies drag in from guest rooms and couches to core the apples for pie and hoist the beast into the oven. Our cocktail hours are legendary, and I often wonder how anyone has an appetite by the time we sit down.

Cocktail hour to get in the mood. © Ken Carlton

Nutritionists say we crave salt, sugar, fats and protein, but come December, I say we crave love and forgiveness, laughter and tears.

Christmas is a time to introduce the new partner and remember the loved ones who have left a seat behind and a space in our hearts. It’s a moment to reflect on things we cannot undo and look across the table to a sibling or a parent, and hope we can do better next year.

Ken Carlton and wife
Ken and his wife with friends. Photo courtesy of author

Hands are clasped, heads bowed, and we ask for peace and kindness regardless of stripe. And then we scramble to fill our plates to bursting. A juicy bite, an intoxicating sip, and the way the flickering light casts on those I care most about can often bring about an unexpected tear. My wife says I think of little but food. I say food makes me think of nothing more than love.

So, as you read this, I offer a simple checklist for your holiday. Come early and bring helping hands and a sympathetic ear. Roll up your sleeves and listen just a tad harder to a loved one who maybe you’ve not heard from in a while. I promise – they have something to say, and there’s a good chance you’ll pick up on it as you indulge in the bond of chopping the onions or making the mash.

Lastly? Worry not if you forgot to get something for dear Aunt Ruth or there just was no time to do those holiday cards this year. There is no greater gift than gratitude, nothing more precious than a meal shared. Savor the clink of glasses and the smiles of faces beaming across the basket of dinner rolls. I hope your table this season is elbow-to-elbow and abundant with plenty. The best presents do not come in boxes at all.

Smokey Maple Bourbon Smash

Smokey Maple Bourbon Smash. © karyn l. giss photography

Remember when sharing had nothing to do with social media? This simple, yet, sumptuous holiday cocktail has been refined and passed from one writer to another – and who knows a good drink better than the ink-stained wretches themselves? The recipe is for one. Expect that to be woefully inadequate. And to all, a good night!


  • 2 ounces Bourbon
  • 2 ounces fresh lemon juice
  • 1 ounce maple syrup – we highly recommend the real stuff that has seen a tree
  • 1 scant drop of liquid smoke (more will make it too smoky)
  • 1 lemon twist to garnish


  • Pour the bourbon, maple syrup, lemon juice and liquid smoke into a shaker filled with ice
  • Shake gently for about 20 seconds
  • Strain into a double old-fashioned glass filled with ice
  • Garnish with lemon twist and imbibe immediately
Ken Carlton is founder and editor-in-chief of Beyondish, a food review and storytelling website. He is the author or ghostwriter of eight books, including the award-winning memoir, THE HUNGER, the story behind Greenwich Village’s celebrity hotspot, The Waverly Inn. Ken wrote the "His Point of View" column for Cosmopolitan and appeared as a dating expert on OPRAH. He still muses about food, relationships and parenting at his website, Food for Marriage. A New Yorker and Parisian at heart, he has scripted conferences in Paris for CNN and Fortune magazine. Ken and his wife, a professor, split their time between Brooklyn, NY and Chicago. You can follow him on Instagram @foodformarriage



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