Used to be, a savvy retailer could stock plenty of turkeys and cranberry sauce for Christmas, maybe get in a few bags of gold-foil-covered chocolate coins for Hanukkah, and call it a well-planned December retail season. In recent years, however, Americans have expanded their cultural and ethnic awareness. As a result, retailers have begun to understand the importance of stocking product for a diverse clientele. But naturals retailers have yet another layer of complexity to handle: how to offer holiday fare that is natural, organic, vegetarian or, at the very least, healthful, and still retains the symbolism and cultural significance of the festivals.
"Just by using the natural, the sustainable and the organic products, you're promoting that whole healthier environment," says Andrew Nordby, company chef for New Seasons Markets, a chain of five stores in the Portland, Ore., area that offers a mix of natural and conventional products.
Nonetheless, some consumers are looking for a new take on tradition. Here, then, are some ideas to get the creative juices flowing for the autumn and winter holiday season.
Ramadan precedes Hanukkah, Christmas and Kwanzaa this year. It is observed in the ninth month of a lunar calendar, the time Muslims believe the Quran was handed down from heaven. This year, the month-long holiday began in North America on Aug. 12 and ended Sept. 9. While the holiday is known for its dawn-to-dusk fasting, Muslims have a small meal each evening and look forward to three days of Id-al-Fitr, or the Feast of Fast Breaking, at the end of the month.
Often, the daily evening meal, known as iftar, features dates and sweet drinks. Id-al-Fitr celebrations involve traditional Muslim foods such as lamb, beef, chicken, and cucumbers and yogurt, so retailers serving this community should source natural or organic versions of these staples. And if you are retailing to devout Muslims, it's important that your food be halal—that is, in compliance with Muslim dietary laws.
If celebrants are looking for meatless dishes, options abound, says Jorge de la Torre, director of culinary operations at the Denver campus of Johnson & Wales University. "Turn it into a themed night. You can do baba ghanoush and hummus and tabouli salads, dolmas, grilled eggplants. You can have full spreads that are Mediterranean and Arabic."
De la Torre also recommends dishes that feature yogurt, honey and dried fruits. Other traditional foods include sawine (a concoction of sugar, milk, raisins and spices) and tagine (a stew of rice or couscous, vegetables, chicken and spices).
The foods of Hanukkah, which begins Dec. 1, are few but deeply symbolic. They have their roots in a war that was fought nearly 2,200 years ago, when Syrians tried to force their customs on the people of Judea (now Israel) and desecrated their temples. After successfully fighting off their attackers, the small Hebrew army rededicated the Temple of Jerusalem. Finding just enough oil to last a day, they were dispirited until the oil miraculously lasted eight days. For that reason, Jews today celebrate with foods that are fried in oil. Most common are latkes (potato pancakes) and jelly doughnuts. Not exactly health food. But what?s an observant Jew to do?
Norene Gilletz, author of Healthy Helpings: 800 Fast and Fabulous Recipes for the Kosher (or Not) Cook (Woodland Publishing, 2004), has a simple answer: "Bake them."
Rather than dropping spoonfuls of a potato-onion mixture into a 1/4 cup of oil and frying the pancakes, she lightly brushes a baking sheet with oil. That ensures crispy pancakes and adherence to the holiday's symbolism. "One [traditional] latke contains about 3 grams of fat," says Gilletz. "I don't know anyone who can stop at just one latke, so these 'no-guilt' latkes are a terrific alternative. Each one contains just over a gram of fat." In addition, Gilletz recommends using heart-healthy olive or canola oil. Vegans can substitute for eggs with ground flaxseed, mashed banana or tofu, she says.
Traditionally, latkes are served with sour cream or applesauce. "As an alternative, I serve them with salsa," says Gilletz. In addition to three no-fry recipes, Gilletz' book also includes a recipe for tofu latkes. Other chefs use a combination of zucchini and potatoes.
Christians mark the birth of Jesus Christ on Dec. 25. While food always plays an important role in the festivities, tradition calls for a turkey on some tables and tamales on others. But consumers looking to avoid meat or the husks from genetically modified corn may not realize they have options other than tofurkey.
Vegetarians appreciate deli offerings such as those at New Seasons. "There are several nonmeat options that we do," Chef Nordby says. One is a mushroom strudel. "It has wild and domestic mushrooms wrapped in phyllo with a cream cheese filling." He also uses mushrooms instead of beef or turkey in a traditional meatloaf recipe. "People love those," he says.
Seasonal items that are often relegated to side dishes can take center stage on a naturals dinner table. Butternut squash is luscious as a first-course soup. Onions can be stuffed with cranberries and herbs. Tarts can be made from artichokes, chestnuts, mushrooms or leeks. Fruits and vegetables can be grilled or roasted.
De la Torre again recommends themes. "They celebrate Christmas in other places, too,? he says. "Use their ideas for organic and nonmeat items." He suggests going Italian with an olive tapenade, and perhaps some grilled vegetables or pastas with organic sauces. An Indian theme with curries could work as well, he says.
For an Eastern European celebration, be sure to have plenty of organic honey, poppy seeds and wheat berries on hand; these are the ingredients for a porridge called kutya. Folklore holds that if a spoonful is thrown up to the ceiling and sticks, it portends a prosperous year. For good fortune, Greeks set up a table swelling with sweets, particularly white ones such as baklava or other nut- and powdered-sugar-laden treats, signifying purity and happiness. People cooking a Mexican Christmas dinner will need organic corn masa, black beans, tomatoes and other vegetables, as well as salsa. And if consumers are seeking a hopelessly Norman Rockwellian Christmas, you'll do well to stock natural turkeys or roasts for them. Organic cranberries and organic, no-added-hormone eggnog are also necessities. And make sure to have organic molasses for the pumpkin pie.
While this holiday is not yet 40 years old, African Americans who celebrate it have embraced it with enthusiasm. Lasting from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1, Kwanzaa was created to honor African culture and values and is based on traditional harvest festivals. Foods served during this seven-day holiday are as diverse as the African diaspora, with roots in the Caribbean, South America, North America and Africa. And on the sixth day, Dec. 31, a feast is held. Many recipes call for black-eyed peas, sweet potatoes, spinach and other greens, okra, curries, sesame seeds, and cornbread or corn grits. Since so many of these popular Kwanzaa foods are vegetarian to begin with, it's a cinch to use organic produce in cooking them.
Everlasting Life, a complex that includes an all-organic restaurant, juice bar and market in Capitol Heights, Md., prepares meals that customers can order in advance for Kwanzaa or other holidays, but the store doesn?t have a special marketing focus on the holiday. "We don't have a sign saying anything like 'Happy Kwanzaa' or 'Here is your Kwanzaa food,' says Eliora Israel, a staffer at the store. Prepared meals include a gluten-based barbecue roast, tofu pepper steak and lasagna.
Spreading the good news
Unless they're aware of these novel ways to prepare healthful holiday meals, consumers may feel resigned to shopping a traditional grocery store for fruitcake or maybe some fried onions and condensed soup for the green bean casserole.
It doesn't have to be that way, though. If you carry cookbooks, consider featuring those that have healthy or vegetarian holiday recipes. Host demos or cooking classes highlighting some themed menus. Or follow Nordby's lead, and make it easy for the consumer to visualize a 21st-century holiday. "We do a weekly ad that goes out in the paper, and each ad has a theme to it," he says. "I have five items on sale every week, and we?ll design those five items to go with the theme and make a complete meal."
So if you put together a flier advertising wild salmon, organic sesame seeds, honey, garlic and ginger, along with a recipe for sesame salmon, consumers will be able to incorporate the luck that Greeks and Europeans find in sesame seeds and the Italian Christmas tradition of fish for a healthy and prosperous new year.