Jodi Lee Duryea

Written by: 
Megan Beck

Why do we celebrate holidays with certain foods?

Jodi Lee Duryea, lecturer in the School of Merchandising and Hospitality Management and a former executive chef, embraces holiday foods. Duryea, who won an award for her potato latkes from the Idaho Potato Commission a few years ago, believes our hunger for traditional dishes "goes way back in the human condition."

"There's always some need to celebrate life," she says, and points out that as Americans cook less, a sit-down meal with family becomes more elaborate and meaningful. Here she highlights recurring themes across celebrations.

Treats rich in culture

  • Celebrations often feature dishes filled with sugar and spices such as cinnamon and nutmeg — ingredients that were luxuries in Europe in the Middle Ages. Sweeteners were expensive and reserved for nobility, special additions for the holidays.
  • Some treats are symbolic. During Hanukkah, to remember how oil miraculously lasted for eight days in one ancient story, Jewish desserts like soofganiot (doughnuts) and latkes or livivot (types of potato pancakes) are fried in oil.
  • Kwanzaa means "first fruits" in Swahili. Rooted in harvest celebrations, the holiday has been observed by African American communities with soul food, fruits and vegetables, and East African cuisine since 1966.


  • Winter, when nature stops producing, signals a time to celebrate and remember there will be a rebirth in the spring and hope for the coming year.
  • Black-eyed peas, said to symbolize prosperity because they swell, are eaten as a side dish or dessert on New Year's Day in many cultures. Collard greens and pork also are traditional, as green is associated with money and pigs root forward, with positive motion.
  • The birth of Jesus is celebrated at Christmas with feasts, typically including roasted meats. Turkeys were plentiful for American settlers.
  • Chinese New Year feasts include oranges, because the Mandarin word for the fruit sounds like "ji," the word for good luck.

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