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Chef Julia Dunaway’s holiday pecan pie is all plant-based with no oils. Courtesy of Julia Dunaway

Mine is duck. We all have our holiday/New Year’s culinary traditions — the food that smells and tastes like a certain time of year.

I can remember as a kid my mother hovering over a stove, searing the duck breast skin-side down on a cold cast-iron pan. After a minute or so, the sizzling bird perfumed the air inside our entire house. She cut the medium-cooked meat into medallions and ladled over the coin-sized morsels a simple sauce of shallots, thyme, reduced chicken stock, and a couple of cups of red wine.

The accompanying dishes included parsnips, potatoes — roasted to crispy perfection — Yorkshire pudding, and usually a strawberry trifle or a chocolate roulade for dessert. Each dish and technique was a passed-down tradition from all corners of my family — an amalgam of my British and French roots.

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For my wife, nothing signals the New Year like rice dressing with chopped liver and purple hull peas — both starchy tributes to her Northern Louisiana roots. Now that we’ve coupled and started a family, our children will grow up with this mishmash tapestry of global cuisines and, in time, add their own touches.

The multisensory memories food can conjure hold so much power over chefs and restaurateurs that those traditions become career paths. I spoke to several players in the local restaurant/culinary arts scene for a glimpse into their holiday traditions — old and new — to gain a better sense of how it’s shaped them and, in turn, sent them hurdling down a path to long hours, hard work, and having to suffer idiot Yelp! reviewers.

Jon Bonnell is perhaps the best-known chef in Fort Worth. He’s authored cookbooks, made too many TV appearances to count, and served as a pandemic news hub for the Fort Worth restaurant world. At his two high-end eateries, Bonnell’s Fine Texas Cuisine and Waters Restaurant, his menu of locally sourced game and seafood was farm-to-table before the marketing world commandeered the term. Naturally, that same ethos appears on his home holiday table.

Chef Jon Bonnell’s holiday fare always includes wild game, like this turkey shot by his son. The chef brined the bird and cooked it sous vide with fresh herbs.
Courtesy of Jon Bonnell

“For Thanksgiving, my family has always tried to celebrate the fall season with a feast of wild game,” he said. “One of us typically harvests a wild turkey for the centerpiece of our big Thanksgiving dinner, and, if anyone has already taken a buck, we typically have venison as well. My son Ricky got his first turkey this year, and I was thrilled to brag on his accomplishment by brining his bird and cooking it sous vide with fresh herbs. It was the hit of the day.”

Daughter Charlotte “got a nice buck, and we made fresh venison meatballs with homemade marinara sauce that included basil and oregano from our garden.”

Culinary arts instructor Julia Dunaway teaches her students the ways of the plant. Her food is all plant-based and healthy, and her traditional holiday fare has been modified to fit that mold.

“I’ve reworked all of my childhood favorites from corn casserole to dressing to make them whole-food plant-based without added oils,” she said. “This year, my family loved them. I have gotten better over time. My pecan pie was also great.”

Dunaway plans to incorporate these reworked recipes into a class she plans to offer in 2022 called Plant-Based Holiday Fest. She penned a tome called Plant-Based Breakfast Favorites that’s available on Amazon.

As Fort Worth’s pop-up queen, instructor, and co-owner of The Table, a local food market on the Near Southside, Chef Hao Tran keeps busy. Her holiday grub began as a beautiful story of an immigrant family carrying on their country’s traditions.

“Growing up, our family was not familiar with the idea of Christmas and the traditions of turkey and all the fixin’s, but it was the one chance in the year my parents didn’t work,” said the Vietnam native. “We gathered around the table and had Vietnamese hot pot: thin-sliced tenderloin dipped in ginger lemongrass vinegar and then wrapped in rice paper with mints, herbs, and pickles and dipped in pineapple anchovy sauce. It was a communal pot, and, at the end, all the juices from the meat and the vinegar made a nice slurping broth.”

“I carry on this tradition with my daughters today,” she continued.

Chef Jen Williams is the owner of catering company JayCee Hospitality, and she’s one of the most decorated and experienced restaurant chefs in the city. Her holiday season is marked by a hint of sweetness.

“My mom makes her ‘family famous’ cranberry Jell-O salad every year,” she said. “It’s the only cooking she ever does. The recipe includes canned whole cranberries, canned crushed pineapple, raspberry Jell-O, and sour cream. It hits. This year she couldn’t find canned whole cranberries, so I suggested I could teach her to make her own, and, since I’m plant-based now, I requested she sub in a non-dairy sour cream. I got a hard ‘no’ to both.”

Whatever your tradition, elaborate or from a can, just know that you’re passing on a treat that might be enjoyed for generations to come. You’re keeping alive a record of your heritage and adding your own touch.

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