Three Utah Families Share Their Food Traditions

I ask the same question to almost everyone I meet: “Tell me about the best meal you’ve ever had.” And the answer is almost always the same. It isn’t a sublime dinner at an expensive restaurant. It is a meal where they are gathered around a chipped kitchen table at home, sharing a big meal with people they love. The dishes are traditional—not gourmet—and filling. The recipes aren’t even recipes because they are only passed down through generational know-how. Each person brings a dish that is “their” dish, one only they can make. And the Nona, Abuela or Mummu reigns at the head of the table.

So it seemed appropriate to ring in the holiday season by talking about the biggest and best family meals of the year with three families whose traditions range from all over the world but who make Utah home. We’ll talk about the Italian Feast of the Seven Fishes, make Mexican-style tamales and gather ’round a Scandinavian Smörgåsbord. But most of all, we’ll celebrate what comes with the food—a feast of cultures, heritage and the joy of breaking bread together.

Gather Round the Table with the Caputo Family—Feast of the Seven Fishes

Utah Food Traditions
Photo by Adam Finkle

Feast of the Seven Fishes isn’t truly Italian in origin, but rather an Italian-American celebration. While it may have roots in the coastal regions of southern Italy, it grew up and came into itself here in the United States. It is an emblem of family, food and gathering around the table, as well as a growingly inclusive way to include dishes from other cultures.

There is a back-and-forth debate on why there should be seven types of fish on the table. It may represent the seven sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church. Or it could correspond with the number of days it took the Biblical God to create the universe. Those intimidated by cooking fish may think it takes seven days to plan and prepare for such a meal. After all, Feast of the Seven Fishes sounds like a grand spread that takes up an entire table. Even the word “feast” may sound daunting. Who has the time the energy or the culinary chops to conjure up seven crowd-pleasing dishes with fish?

In all actuality, the origins of this particular feast are humble. On Christmas Eve in Calabria and Sicily, meat is avoided on high holidays. Fish was the natural alternative, with the Mediterranean just out the doorstep. While the exact number of dishes can vary from family to family, the spirit of a family-style oceanic feast is more accessible to put on the table than a traditional holiday roast. Matt and Yelena Caputo, owners of Caputo’s Market & Deli, shared their menu with us and tips to assemble a stunning global feast in less than two hours.

More on Christmas Eve at the Caputo Household, and their Feast of the Seven Fishes Menu, here.

Making Christmas Tamales With Cristina Olvera From Casa Del Tamal

Eating tamales is like unwrapping a present. A tightly-wrapped-in-a-corn-husk kind of present with a soft steamed maize dough bundled around a rich, spicy filling. With the time and effort that goes into making each one, tamales feel like a gift of love and tradition during the holidays. Tamales have their origin in symbology and ritual. They were a cornerstone of ancient Mesoamerican civilizations; for the Maya, the Aztecs and the Toltecs, they were always more than just food. Maize was believed to be a gift from the gods, and tamales were part of religious ceremonies and festivals. They were even offered to the gods during ceremonies, symbolizing gratitude and reverence. This may be why tamales stayed firmly on the table as indigenous beliefs intertwined with Christianity.

There is a ritual around making tamales. It is labor intensive, which makes it a special-occasion dish. Prepping tamales for Christmas is a communal affair known as “tamaladas.”

Utah Food Traditions
At Olvera Family’s Table: On the left side are daughters Samantha, Emily and mother Cristina with their father Carlos Villa at the head. On the right are son in-law Andres Sanchez and daughters Frida and Salma. Photo by Adam Finkle

Leading up to Christmas, families and friends gather around a table to prepare large batches of tamales. It’s a time for bonding, storytelling and tradition where families to come together for the communal effort of tamale-making.

My dad’s side of the family is from Mexico. This was our family tradition but my grandmother (abuela) passed away when I was young. So I missed out on the family tamaladas with messy corn masa, long-simmered fillings, burned fingers and the assembly-line precision of making holiday tamales. This year, I decided, would be my year to learn to make tamales. I asked the family behind Casa del Tamal to teach me and share their story.

Find The Olvera Family’s entire Nochebuena Menu here!

Kimi From Kimi’s Chop & Oyster House On a Scandinavian Smörgåsbord Christmas

Utah Food Traditions
Matt Anderson and Kimi Eklund. Photo Adam Finkle

Like our Mexican- and Italian-American friends, the big holiday dinner happens on Christmas Eve in Sweden. When you hear the words Smörgåsbord, you may conjure visions of a long table groaning with food. And you’d be right. But “Julbord” is the proper term for the feast at Christmas, literally meaning “Christmas table.” But the idea of a spread of dozens of dishes, some cold, some hot, with a warm mug of Glögg feels like a feast. 

Kimi Eklund from Kimi’s Chop and Oyster House explains the flow of a true Smörgåsbord starting with the cold dishes, “You start off with the fish, a variety of herrings, and cured gravlax, smoked salmon, poached salmon, caviar on eggs and shrimp salads.” We’re already at eight or nine dishes, just with the beautiful fish. “Then you move into the pâtés, maybe a liver pâté, some seafood pâté,” Kimi mentions that there would be at least three. So now our dish count is up to 12-ish. 

Still on the cold dishes, but moving down the table, you’ll find the cold meats. “You will find prosciutto and other cured meats,” she says. The mandatory centerpiece, Julskinka, or a salt-cured fresh ham that is sliced and often (though not always) served cold. If we’re still counting, we’re in the high teens, say 19.  

Ushering in the hot dishes are the much-loved Swedish meatballs. “Along with small little hotdog-style sausages,” says Kimi, “and little short ribs that have clove, cinnamon, spice,”  You’ll also find red and brown cabbage dishes, along with potatoes. Then the desserts, which may need their own table. “So there’s like 40 to 50 different dishes that you have.” Whew. 

Make Your Own Julbord Menu with Kimi’s Tips

Lydia Martinez
Lydia Martinez
Lydia Martinez is a freelance food, travel, and culture writer. She has written for Salt Lake Magazine, Suitcase Foodist, and Utah Stories. She is a reluctantly stationary nomad who mostly travels to eat great food. She is a sucker for anything made with lots of butter and has been known to stay in bed until someone brings her coffee. Do you have food news? Send tips to

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