A Taste for Tradition

The holidays seem far off, but the days will fly by as autumn takes hold. We asked some prominent Clevelanders to share one of their holiday traditions (and in some cases, prized recipes) to serve as inspiration for your celebration.

Paulius Nasvytis
Owner of the Velvet Tango Room

Even as a kid, Paulius Nasvytis evidenced the taste that would make him the proprietor of a posh drinking establishment. While other kids in his Collinwood neighborhood waited for the milkman to deliver ice-cream treats for their Christmas celebrations, the future owner of the Velvet Tango Room looked forward to the quart bottle of eggnog (nonalcoholic, of course) that his mother ordered for him and his sister every December.

Ten years ago, after decades without drinking it, that delicious memory prompted Nasvytis to pick up a carton of eggnog during a trip to the local grocery store. The moment he tasted it, he understood why so many people avoid the classic drink at Christmas parties. "It was just absolutely retched, nothing like the light, frothy eggnog I remembered from my past," the 51-year-old says shuddering. Later, he looked at the ingredients on the label. "I was like, 'Oh, my God! What the hell is all this stuff? You can't even pronounce it.' "

In late 2006, Nasvytis decided to restore eggnog's good name — in his bar, at least — by whipping up a complimentary batch for his customers. That concoction has become so popular that he now offers it every night of December. The recipe is an interpretation of classic forerunners that includes freshly grated nutmeg, organic vanilla, VSOP 12-year-old brandy, and either Myers or Gosling's Black Seal dark rum.

"If I want to make it more interesting, I will add a splash of Cruzan Black Strap Navy-Strength Rum," he says. "There's a lot of big molasses flavors in there." Nasvytis also uses raw eggs — a controversial move in many kitchens, even though he insists eggs carrying the dreaded salmonella virus rarely enter the food chain in this part of the country. The chances of contracting it, he adds, are minimized by adding liquor to the beaten egg-and-sugar mixture before the milk and cream.

"It's like eating sushi, oysters, carpaccio or steak tartar," he says of the risk. "You can use pasteurized eggs, but you'll notice there's some coagulation of the whites when you're drinking the eggnog. It's not very pleasant. And I just don't think it's necessary."

Velvet Tango Room Eggnog

Chill all ingredients. Beat eggs until frothy; then beat in sugar, vanilla and nutmeg at medium-high speed. Slowly beat in brandy and rum; then fold in cream and milk until thoroughly combined. Serve immediately. Makes 1 gallon/128 ounces. (Leftovers can be used for french toast the next morning.)


Leon Bibb
NewsChannel 5 Anchor

Leon Bibb began a family tree-trimming tradition by making a mistake: He forgot to take the tree stand with him when he went shopping for a live Christmas tree in 1980.

As a result, the NewsChannel 5 noon and 6 p.m. anchorman returned home with a tree that wouldn't fit in his stand. So, he lowered the tree to its side, picked up his hacksaw, and began cutting off pieces of trunk like slices of bologna until he reached a portion of it that was smaller in circumference and fit the stand.

As Bibb cleaned up the debris, his eyes singled out an inch-thick piece of trunk, a cleanly cut disk uniform in thickness. He labeled the chip with the current year in black paint and drilled a hole in the top. When the shellac he applied had dried, he hung his simple creation on the tree with a length of red ribbon. "I kept it when my wife and I took the ornaments down," Bibb recalls. "I thought, Well, why don't I just take the bottom off every tree I get and make an ornament out of it?"

Bibb subsequently cut the annual ornament off the trunk after he took the tree down each year. His daughters, Jennifer and Alison, helped him with the decorating when they were younger. Although the project lends itself to hours of crafty creativity, the Bibbs always kept ornaments plain. There are gaps in the family's collection, a result of the years when Bibb didn't make it to the local tree lot and fell back on the artificial one in the attic. But he says those lapses are a good thing.

"You could end up filling a tree with pieces of tree trunk from years back," he points out and then chuckles. "We didn't want to do that!"

Carol Heiss Jenkins
Olympic figure skating champion
As the daughter of a German-immigrant baker, Carol Heiss Jenkins might be expected to produce any number of delectable European-style pastries to top off her Christmas dinner. But the 1960 Olympic figure skating champion laments that her father never wrote down any of his recipes before he died.

The athlete-turned-coach also doesn't have a lot of time to cook during the winter months, when her days are spent preparing and accompanying students to exhibitions and competitions. So for the past four decades, she's been serving an easy-to-make, cheesecake-like confection in a graham cracker crust that looks more like a pie — hence the name cheesecake pie.

"It's very simple," the 70-year-old grandmother of 10 says. "But it's so good. And it's even better the day after you make it. I don't normally like cheesecake. It's too heavy. But this has a very lemony taste to it."

Ironically, the humble dessert has a pedigree worthy of a place on an Olympic icon's holiday table. The recipe came from the kitchen of Leonard Firestone, son of Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. founder Harvey Firestone, and his first wife, Polly. The family cook gave it to Heiss Jenkins' best friend, Laurie, during the early years of her marriage to the Firestones' son Kim. Heiss Jenkins spent hours trying to coax the recipe out of her buddy after she first tasted cheesecake pie at an informal get-together in the younger Firestones' home sometime in the mid-1960s. But Laurie Firestone refused to give it up unless Heiss Jenkins pledged that she wouldn't make it for any of their friends — a promise Heiss Jenkins knew she just couldn't keep.

"Laurie said, 'I will only give you the recipe if I ever move out of Akron,' " remembers Heiss Jenkins, still amused by the situation. "So when her husband was transferred by Firestone to Washington, D.C., the first thing I said to her was, 'Oh, I hate to see you go. But remember: You promised me the cheesecake pie recipe!' "

Heiss Jenkins doesn't know if her friend served cheesecake pie at any of the wonderful dinners she hosted in her Georgetown home — a talent that won her a job as George H.W. Bush's social secretary during his vice presidency and presidency. But the recipe remains Heiss Jenkins' all-time favorite.


Cheesecake Pie

1 10-inch unbaked graham cracker crust (prepare according to directions on Keebler- or Nabisco-brand package);
2 8-ounce packages Philadelphia-brand cream cheese<
1/2 cup sugar
1 egg
juice of 1/2 large lemon
1 pint sour cream
1/2 cup sugar
juice of 1/2 large lemon

Mary Verdi-Fletcher
Founder of Dancing Wheels

Mary Verdi-Fletcher is mighty particular when it comes to picking out a live tree. Yes, artificial imposters are OK for the foyer, living room, family room and master bedroom. But nothing less than a 12-foot white pine, straight as an arrow and devoid of bare spots, will do for the place of honor in her Sagamore Hills home: the vaulted octagonal dining nook in the kitchen.

"There's nothing so special as the smell of a real tree, the feel of the soft branches," says the 55-year-old president and founding artistic director of the Dancing Wheels Company & School. "It's alive."

To find a fir that meets her exacting standards, Verdi-Fletcher and her management-consultant husband Bob Fletcher harvest their own tree. They began the tradition 29 years ago at Manners Pine Tree Lodge in New Lyme, approximately a half-hour's drive east of Chardon, after Verdi-Fletcher saw a listing for the cut-your-own-tree farm in a local newspaper. She liked the idea of taking a horse-drawn hayride into the acres of blue spruce, white pine and Scotch pine and relaxing afterward with cups of hot chocolate in the "lodge," a barn on the property with snacks for sale and an acoustic guitarist performing Christmas carols.

That romantic date evolved into an annual trip that starts promptly at 10 a.m. the Saturday or Sunday after Thanksgiving. Verdi-Fletcher scouts trees from her wheelchair. Her husband and his sister and brother-in-law trek into the fields to get a closer look and "hold" any keepers until Fletcher can wheel his wife over to give her approval. "I've never had a tree that I didn't OK," she declares.

Despite Verdi-Fletcher's affection for the Manners experience, her last two trees have come from Pine Tree Barn near Wooster, where the current selection of white pine meets her height requirements. "Manners just has not had the large trees," she explains. She laments that the horse-drawn wagon rides into the fields are shorter and the music is recorded instead of live. But in the end, nothing's more important to Verdi-Fletcher than finding the perfect tree.

Rocco Whalen
Owner/executive chef of Fahrenheit

Christmas Eve dinner is a really big production for chef Rocco Whalen. Ever since he can remember, he's spent that day preparing the Feast of the Seven Fishes, a traditional Italian meal featuring seven seafood dishes. His fondest childhood memories include helping his mother, Rose Marie, whose parents emigrated from southern Italy, prepare the massive spread in the family's Mentor home.

"It was just one of those great family experiences where we all got together and cooked then celebrated," Whalen says. "My mother is no longer with us, but it's something we hold very close to our hearts and try to emulate year after year."

Whalen notes that seafood choices and preparations vary in Italy by region. His mother's menu consisted of calamari sauteed in Ligurian olive oil with lemon, Gaeta olives and basil; smelt dipped in egg batter and pan-fried; shrimp served both chilled and sauteed in roasted garlic, San Marzano tomatoes and pecorino Romano; lobster whole-roasted in butter with lemons and oregano; and chilled crab. Rose Marie Whalen also made a tuna marinara sauce served over linguine, rigatoni or cavatelli for her husband, William, who didn't appreciate the calamari and smelt.

Whalen now prepares that menu for his wife, Alexis, and 20 other family members. He puts the cold dishes out as appetizers; the hot ones are served family style. As a child, he always chose shrimp, lobster or crab when his mother asked what he'd like to prepare.

"They were the most expensive," he explains. "I grew up lower middle class. Christmas Eve was a special day for us, and I wanted to make it more special." Today, he singles out the tuna marinara sauce as the standout. "Done properly, it's the best sauce over pasta that you can get," he says.

Tuna Marinara Sauce
8 cups whole tomatoes in juice (Use San Marzano-brand canned tomatoes)
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 onion, finely chopped
1 cup fresh basil (stems and all)
1 teaspoon chili flakes
1 tablespoon fresh oregano
1 tablespoon fresh flat-leaf parsley
2 pounds No. 2-grade tuna, skinned and with bloodline removed
1 tablespoon capers, fried
1 tablespoon butter
2 cups pinot grigio
zest of 1 lemon
salt and pepper
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