How to Have a Hawaiian-Inspired Christmas in New York
Once disillusioned by the holidays, baker turned writer Allison Robicelli rediscovered the joy of the season thanks to a welcoming family’s offbeat yuletide celebrations.
It is the season for mirth and merrymaking—and for unrealistic expectations. For every person who can holly and jolly like they’re Crosby and Kaye, there’s another who quietly resents all the “White Christmas” cheer. There are no holiday commercials that feature relatives trading passive-aggressive barbs around a perfect roast. I don’t recall any TV movies about a bigoted uncle who learns to love people of all creeds thanks to a magical orphan who joins for Christmas dinner. There’s no internet slideshow of the 13 best flask cocktails to chug while crying in the guest bathroom (actually, that one might exist).
Count me among those who find the holidays to be complicated business. Years ago I made a choice to stop celebrating Christmas with my extended family. I’ve had no regrets, but I have felt some jealousy while flipping through magazines featuring crowded tablescapes and complicated recipes that would have been overkill for the humble gathering of just me, my husband, Matt, and our two sons.
For many years I owned a small family bakery in Brooklyn, where Matt and I would churn out thousands of “ta-da!” finales for other people’s holiday feasts. Then, after the last pie was picked up, all that was left was us, feeling ironically unmoored. But this story has a happy ending. Who would have thought small talk with our favorite customers would lead to an invitation to spend Christmas Day with the Cohen family? They had no Messiah’s birth to celebrate, but they did have their own yuletide tradition. Bill Cohen had been raised in Hawaii, a Jewish kid with a Protestant stepfamily in Honolulu. In the ’90s, he traded one Big Island for another, moving to New York City with his wife, Melanie. And in the years since, their Christmas gatherings had become an ode to the tropical home he longed for, 5,000 miles away.
In 2014, my family and I walked into our first Hawaiian Christmas at the Cohens’, shy and awkward; but we quickly recognized that it was exactly the holiday miracle we needed. The celebration checked off all the boxes, in its own oblique way. The tree was a large paper palm taped to the living room wall. Cozy scarves were replaced by leis, and carols were swapped out for the Island Vibes radio station. The holiday feast was a densely arranged mosaic of tropical dishes that are nearly impossible to find in a city that claims to have everything: lomi lomi salmon, salt-cured to a vibrant pink and roughly chopped with sweet tomatoes and sweeter Maui onions; a lilac-hued taro poi whose preparation took cues from traditional Christmas mashed potatoes; jiggly coconut haupia, which I gleefully hogged while backs were turned.
And the people gathered there were just like us: Christmas orphans, separated from their families by thousands of miles or by rifts of a more personal stripe. We recognized their faces—neighbors we had known only from across the bakery counter. The Hahns, who were partial to our brownies; the Perris, who had a love affair with our chocolate cream pie; the Geigers, who grabbed Danish every Sunday. In the years that followed, these people became our community, our family. Our kids became a kind of tribe of accidental cousins. And in time, we began to share other holidays together. We’ve watched our children hunt for Easter eggs and afikomen. We’ve welcomed new babies and sent grown ones off to college. We’ve fought over the legs of Thanksgiving turkeys.
For most of these gatherings I bake a cake, but not on Christmas Day. I may be a lapsed Catholic, a Brooklyn native who has never even been to Hawaii, but every Christmas I make musubi, the classic Hawaiian snack of Spam and sushi rice wrapped in nori. I make it for Bill Cohen, a man whose nostalgia for his childhood traditions sparked an idea that grew into a refuge for a ragtag crew of holiday misfits. I make it for Bill, and for the rest of us—the family we chose.