Ham in a Box—Spending the Holidays Abroad

In 25 years, I have never spent a Christmas away from my parents’ home. This past year, I spent not only Christmas, but Thanksgiving, Hanukkah and New Year’s as well, all across the Atlantic.

I tend to define my holidays by what I eat. I cannot always remember who was present at a given gathering, or even where it took place, but I will never forget Christmas Eve sushi or the infamous taco dinner of Easter 2010.

So, my approach to celebrating the holidays this year in Dublin was to try to recreate, as closely to possible, what I deemed to be the perfect holiday menus.

First up, Thanksgiving. Each year for our family gatherings, my mom makes green bean casserole. I emailed her two weeks in advance for her recipe. “Here you go,” she emails back. “Easy as pie!!!! : )”

And easy as pie it is. The dish takes about 35 minutes to make and consists mostly of milk, soup and green beans. This recipe is no family secret. It is straight from the back of a Campbell’s soup wrapper, and perfected over the course of what I can only assume is years of testing and tweaking.

The Campbell’s recipe calls for “French’s Original or Cheddar French Fried Onions.” Unfortunately, fried onions of any kind are surprisingly difficult to track down in Dublin. Despite their quintessential place as an American food staple, they are not easily found in Dublin. I went to three grocery stores and came very close to purchasing Funyuns as a replacement. Luckily, I did find them in the end (at Fallon & Byrne, essentially the Whole Foods of Dublin). I rushed home to make the casserole, and pulled it out of the oven five minutes before catching a cab to our Mitchell Thanksgiving, which took place on the Saturday following the actual holiday. Needless to say, the casserole was a hit.

Next up, Hanukkah. I am fortunate that my boyfriend Alex was able to visit me in Dublin for the past month. Because that meant he had to spend Hanukkah away from home, I wanted to make sure our holiday was special. I started with the food.

Before I get into our final menu, let me set the scene. Ireland, as a whole, is fairly homogenous, at least in terms of religion. Roughly 90% of the residents in Ireland identify as Christians (84% as Catholics, and 6% as Protestants or other Christian religions), while only 2% identify as “other religions,” according to the 2011 Ireland and Northern Ireland Census. What that means is, even in an international city like Dublin, Christmas saturates the city. Window displays show Santa and his elves. The streets are decked with silver, red and green lights.  A wish of “Happy Christmas” is the common phrase, a stark difference to the refrains of “Happy Holidays” that I’m used to hearing in New York City. I could walk to more than a dozen Jewish bakeries from my old apartment in Brooklyn, but now my search on Yelp yields only a single result in all of Dublin.

We improvised. Our Hanukkah dinner consisted of BBQ brisket (from Pitt Brothers), jelly donuts (from Rolling Donuts), brussel sprouts, mac-and-cheese, and—the star of the meal—homemade latkes. After we ate, we said the prayers and lit a virtual menorah on Alex’s phone.

Latkes in the making.

After all that cooking, I wanted to spend Christmas in a restaurant. Most of my friends would be home with their families or back in the U.S. by that point, and I figured a restaurant Christmas dinner would just be easier. I spent the weeks before Christmas hunting down a restaurant. I quickly discovered that the advertised Christmas menus on so many restaurant doors were seasonal specials rather than actual Christmas day menus. I tried hotels, but most only catered to hotel guests. One hotel I called actually shut down for the entire holiday season. We decided to go to Plan B—cook our own Christmas ham.

Fortunately, Tesco, a grocery store chain here, sells ham box sets. I will spare you the details of our three-hour cooking ordeal, but I will say, it tastes better than it sounds.

Christmas dinner: green bean casserole, sweet potatoes, rolls, and apricot and honey-glazed ham.

On New Year’s Eve, Alex and I laid our ladles to rest and feasted on a river boat buffet in Prague as fireworks lit up the sky.

Fireworks over Charles Bridge.

Holidays can be some of the loneliest times to be abroad, and while I still attest to that, I also believe that celebrating abroad encourages you to look past the noise and focus on what is important. I bypassed some of the chaos that tends to occur in November and December, like last-minute shopping or holiday parties every weekend night. Through sharing gifts and words, both in person and in spirit, I was able to invest my time and energy on the people I love—Alex, my family in Chicago, his in New York, and our friends in Dublin and all over the world. Who knows, perhaps some of these experiences will be the start of some wonderful traditions—making my mom’s casserole, whipping up latkes, and, yes, maybe even making a ham out of a box.

Alex and I celebrating New Year's in Prague.

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