An Arhoolie Holiday Feast

By Clark Noone, Archivist

Tell me what you eat for the holidays, and I’ll tell you where you come from. 

Okay, maybe it’s not that simple. But even in this day and age, many of our holiday food traditions hearken back to regional or ethnic roots. Many Southerners favor a country ham on Christmas. Oysters have long been a holiday tradition in Virginia, while shrimp is a popular Christmas appetizer along the Gulf Coast. Go to the Upper Midwest and you might find your table filled with lutefisk, rutabaga, and turnips. Italian Americans have their Feast of the Seven Fishes, while Jewish Americans (after a latke-filled Hanukkah) have long enjoyed the tradition of Chinese food on Christmas day. 

In South Texas, Christmas season is tamale season. Tamales have symbolic importance in Mexican and Mexican American culture which food scholars trace back to Mesoamerican ritual. Nowadays, tamaladas (tamale-making parties) are a way to bring family and friends together around the Christmas holiday, while making a labor-intensive task more enjoyable. Les Blank and Chris Strachwitz captured the warmth and joy of this South Texas tradition in the tamalada scene at Lydia Mendoza’s house in Chulas Fronteras:

Chulas Fronteras (1976), a film by Les Blank and Chris Strachwitz. Source: YouTube.

For those of us new to tamale making, we might not match the expert way in which Lydia and her friends spoon masa into corn husks, fill them with meat, and tie them just so. They developed those skills over a lifetime. But we can still enjoy this wonderful South Texas tradition with our friends and family this year. We’ll need the right supplies and, of course, the right music. Thankfully, the Frontera Collection has us covered. Lalo Guerrero even recorded a song—a great song, no less—called “La Tamalada” for the Colonial label in the 1960s:  

“La Tamalada” by Lalo Guerrero (Colonial 428), from the Frontera Collection. Thanks to Juan Antonio Cuellar for tipping me onto this one!

Re-watching the tamalada scene from Chulas Fronteras got me thinking about a holiday food tradition closer to home, the annual Arhoolie Christmas party. For many years, Chris would gather together his wide community of friends, family, and employees for a night of good music and food. Under Chris’s careful eye, the menu typically featured grilled chicken, lamb, and sausage, black beans, yellow rice, and spicy Peruvian salsa de ají prepared by his friends Anibal and Andrea. The meal always ended with his favorite German chocolate cake from Hopkins Street Bakery in Berkeley. You can see the menu in all its glory in these photos from the 2014 Arhoolie Christmas party: 

If you spend enough time around Chris, you’ll come to find that food—almost as much as music—is one of his guiding preoccupations. As a child in Germany, he liked to spend time in the kitchen with the family cook, where he learned how to prepare vegetables. Later on, as a roving record producer and documentarian, Chris had the fortune of eating his way across America for the better part of 70 years, from Berkeley to the Mexican border to Cajun country and everywhere in between. (His good friend Les Blank was equally devoted to food and even made a documentary about garlic). 

A lover of gumbo and chiles rellenos, Chris has surely enjoyed some good meals along the way. I recently asked him about foods he liked to eat around the holidays. Chris kindly shared some tips on how to make one of his favorite winter meals, roast chicken with gravy and vegetables. I also found a recipes for a couple of traditional German desserts among his files, including kaiserschmarrn (a kind of shredded pancake), which I’ve shared below. I hope that some of the foods mentioned in this post inspire your menu as you prepare to gather around the table with friends and family this year. Happy holidays, and happy eating!

Chris’s handwritten recipe for kaiserschmarrn, a traditional German shredded pancake. See below for transcription. From the Chris Strachwitz collection.

Roast chicken with gravy, Strachwitz style

“I would usually have baked chickens, cooked on those metal stands with a 5 inch base and a tower on top. And you stick the damn chicken right on top of it, and put it in the oven and baste it a while. And it turns out the most crispy and delicious way you’ve ever eaten chicken. I’d make two or three chickens depending on how many people I was feeding. Then I’d make rice a la Louisiane in the rice cooker, which always comes out perfect. Then I’d make my gravy, starting with a good roux. [Back] then one could still buy pure chicken broth. You can’t buy that anymore! Now it has all kinds of vegetables in it and ruins the gravy. So I never used that crap. Anyway, you stir it a while and season it to taste, and that’s the most delicious gravy. Then I’d usually have carrots and string beans and I’d do them in the pressure cooker, well done is how I like them!”

Chris’s kaiserschmarrn (shredded German pancake)

  • 2 tbsp raisings
  • 4 tbsp dark rum
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 3 tbsp sugar
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 2 cups milk
  • 1/8 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 cup flour
  • 5 egg whites
  • 4 tbsp unsalted butter, melted
  • powdered sugar
  1. Soak raisins in rum for 30 minutes. Drain and squeeze.
  2. Beat egg yolks, sugar, and salt with whisk until pale yellow and thick. Stir in milk and vanilla, then slowly beat in flour a 1/2 cup at a time until batter is smooth. Stir in raisins. 
  3. In another bowl, beat egg whites until stiff. With a rubber spatula, fold whites into batter completely until there is no trace of the whites. 
  4. In a heavy 8″ skillet, heat 1 tbsp butter over low heat. Pour in half of the batter; it should be about 1/4″ deep. Cook over low heat for 4 minutes. Set aside on a plate. 
  5. Repeat step #4 with the remaining butter and batter until you have used all the batter. 
  6. Once the pancakes are cooked, tear them up into bite-sized pieces and reheat in the skillet for two minutes.
  7. Serve on plate and top with powdered sugar.