What’s on your plate?

“Eat something green or else your stomach will turn grey.”

These are my great-grandmother’s words of wisdom passed down through the generations. It is not a rule for life in general, but rather a specific requirement on Maundy Thursday (the Thursday before the Christian holiday of Easter). For as far back as I can remember, I have been implored to make sure I partook of a green food on this day or else face the noted consequences.

As a small child, I did not pause at the reasoning. It apparently was a bad thing for one’s stomach to be grey, and so I made sure to comply. As I got older, I began to wonder: why should my stomach not be grey? What color was it normally? How come the change only occurred on this day, and why did eating something green stave off this medical calamity?

Over the years, my curiosity has led me to search for resolutions, but through the process, I have found I am okay not knowing the full answers. I enjoy how the tradition connects my family every year on that day: all of us texting or emailing to see if the other person has eaten their required green food. This past Maundy Thursday was no exception, and in the midst of my busy workday, it was fun hearing from my geographically-scattered family.

It also got me thinking about other family food traditions. We do not have too many from either side of my family. My grandmothers were not bakers; nor did either have signature dishes they would make when we came or that got passed down to their kids. The one exception might be my Grandma Fehlauer’s sunshine salad. Every time we would visit, my grandma would have this side dish on hand. And when she joined us for the holidays after my grandpa passed, it was always carefully packed amongst her luggage for the two hour car trip to our house.

Made from lemon Jell-O, shredded carrots, and canned pineapple, sunshine salad is not something I would eat if I came across it today. Indeed, the idea of food in gelatin never appeals to me when I see it. But thankfully I had it as a kid because I find the composition delicious. The shredded carrots add a balanced crispness to the smoothness of the Jell-O, while the pineapple adds a tartness to counter the sweetness of the other two ingredients. Taken altogether, it is a work of culinary genius.

It was not until college that I discovered my grandma did not create this recipe nor had it been passed down from her mother. It was created mid 20th Century, and she had probably picked it up from a church recipe book. While this knowledge initially hampered my connection to the dish, I soon pushed these origins aside and focused instead on what the dish signifies for me.

While a simple recipe, it requires a couple steps over the course of a few hours to make the carrots and pineapple precisely homogenous throughout the Jell-O as it sets. To get it right requires time and planning. No throwing it together last minute or rushing through the steps. Whenever I see this dish on the table, knowing the small sacrifice of time someone took to make it, I am reminded that I am loved and cared for.

And I think that’s the same reason I no longer seek to know why I need to eat something green on Maundy Thursday. The history isn’t important because its purpose is in letting me feel my family’s love and support for all areas of my life simply by them reminding me to comply with this one-day tradition. And that’s a powerful act for a simple sentence about what I put on my plate.

What fun traditions does your family have related to food?

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