Polly Campbell: Cherishing traditions with a flip to something new

There’s a principle about people that their best attributes are the flip side of their worst. Marry the charming, spontaneous man and find out he’s hard to count on. Your mother is supportive, but you wish she weren’t so intrusive. 

Perhaps it’s true of cities, too. I think Cincinnati has clear flip sides. We have a charming and commendable loyalty to tradition and continuity. But that flips to stubbornness and resistance to change. 

Polly Campbell
Polly Campbell

I remember a story about a remodeling going on at Maury’s Tiny Cove, in which someone was quoted as saying they go there because their parents had their prom date there. And I think, jeez, you could maybe try a new place every once in a while. Skyline has one of the highest loyalty ratings of any chain restaurant in the country, which impresses me. But chili several times a week? When you could have tacos or ramen or sushi or healthy salads…? 

A lot of people find it hard to make new friends here because everyone is busy with their extended family or high school friends. Living down the street from your parents and sending your kids to the same Catholic elementary school you went to seems stifling to me. It leads to narrow thinking, like the woman I interviewed for a story about a West Side bar who said, “It’s so diverse here. People come from all the parishes.” 

On the other hand, while I was writing a book about Cincinnati food history, I realized that the stubbornness pays off: We have our unique regional menu because the Graeters kept doing things the old way until the rest of the world caught up with them. Grandmothers and neighborhood butchers never stopped making goetta, though no one made it anywhere else. That’s to be treasured. I would not change one tile on the wall of Scotti’s or suggest that Arnold’s take all that old stuff off the walls. 

I‘m not from Cincinnati, but I’ve got the same flip sides in my life. My parents assumed their kids would go off on their own. I moved to New York after college and then here. My siblings live all around the country; none can imagine living in our home town; we committed to start fresh.   

But how often I wish I lived down the street from my parents, that I could have gone to all my nieces and nephews’ birthday parties, that I could sit with my sister for her cancer treatments. I search for Cincinnati job listings that might lure my daughters home. 

And this time of year, I’m for tradition all the way. I love knowing my siblings are all making the exact same coffeecake for Christmas breakfast, that at my sister’s gathering in California they are doing the same dumb peppermint ice cream race after dinner. We sit around the tree and open our Christmas presents one by one with thanks and comments after each one, just as we’ve always done. At Thanksgiving, we make about a pie per person and I make creamed onions. The cranberry sauce is raw relish, not cooked, and we always take a walk. 

But, bring someone new to the family and those comforting traditions might seem stifling. My son-in-law, though he says he didn’t care much about Christmas until he spent it with us, once said he thought the coffeecake was dry. There were genuine gasps of horror before he was thoroughly talked down. But when he asked if we always had to have roast beef and mashed potatoes for dinner, and I started to protest, I thought, well, not really. And the weight of responsibility I didn’t know I carried lifted. That year, we had a whole grilled salmon and Ecuadorian rice, cooked by the men of the family.

As the Grinch found out: Christmas wasn’t in the roast beast. 

This holiday season, my mother does live down the street. At 94, she moved to Cincinnati to be closer to me. For Christmas, she’s going to make the big effort to get up our six stairs and spend it around the tree with us. But for Thanksgiving, we skipped the companionable fuss in the kitchen and forgot the traditional silver-polishing. All that just stresses Mom out, even when she doesn’t have to do any of it. I proposed to her that I would order dinner from a caterer, take it to her assisted living apartment and eat around her little table. I was hesitant since she has a hard time agreeing to anything right away. But when I said her granddaughter would be there, she said “Sally and Raul will come? Oh, yes, let’s do that!” and the immediate reaction and lift in her voice settled that. 

 “But you’ll make the raw cranberry relish, right?” Oh, yes. It’s delicious. It’s tradition.

Polly Campbell covered restaurants and food for the Cincinnati Enquirer from 1996 until 2020. She lives in Pleasant Ridge with her husband, and since retiring does a lot of reading, cooking and gardening, if that’s what you call pulling weeds. 

She writes monthly on a variety of topics, and she welcomes your feedback and column suggestions at editor@moversmakers.org.

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