Rob Schaller's sweet-and-sour red cabbage is a must-have at Christmas dinner in Burnsville. His family and friends try to cajole the ingredients from him, but his response is always the same:

"It's none of anyone's darn business," said Schaller, 75, of his recipe, which won a blue ribbon at the State Fair. "It became a tradition and I just won't give it up. I don't have many things I hold that close to me, but that's one of them."

When it's finally time to hand down his recipe, Schaller has decided that his son, Chris, 43, will carry on the tradition -- and be sworn to secrecy.

The Schallers are at the leading edge of a massive generational handoff of holiday responsibility, as "the greatest generation" ages itself out of the kitchen. Passing the torch, during a season already ridden with anxiety, can be a tricky maneuver -- one that risks hurt feelings, a permanent rift, even the loss of a family's culinary heritage. After decades of preparing the meal and perfecting the menu, the family chef may be reluctant to give it up.

"Traditions, because they are rich in meaning, are often sites of struggle and conflict for families," said Carol Bruess, director of family studies and a professor of communication at the University of St. Thomas.

Renee Segal, a Minnetonka-based marriage and family therapist, agrees.

"There's a lot of identity wrapped up in food and the role of hosting the dinner," she said. "When they're faced with giving it up, especially those big, important holiday meals, they feel like they're giving up a part of themselves."

When the transition is handled well and the younger generations are welcomed into the kitchen, however, they can breathe new life into the family celebration.

In his 30 years as an Edina family business consultant, Cary Tutelman has seen multi-generational businesses flourish when there's a mutual respect between generations. He's also seen plenty that falter when family members who don't want to give up control pit themselves against members who can't wait their turn.

Whether it's the family business or the family dinner, Tutelman said, the fallout can be severe, with traditions vanishing and families divided.

"The problem is, we're an impatient society and people will only wait and hold their tongues for so long," he said. "Eventually, the younger generation will just start doing things their way and that can create some long-lasting scars."

Taking turns

Maggie Melin, 34, of Brooklyn Park, decided to wait her turn to host the holidays.

"Thanksgiving and Christmas are off limits, a closed subject, not up for discussion," Melin said. "Grandma just feels like it's her day, the one or two times a year that she can put a big meal together for everyone."

Donna Melin admits that even at 79, she's not ready to cede the celebration she's held at her home in Carlton, Minn., for decades.

"I will have to pass it on eventually, but until I feel I can't do it anymore, we'll have the holidays here," she said. "The stuffing has to be Pepperidge Farm with Jimmy Dean sausage, the chicken broth has to be Swanson's and the coleslaw has to have apples and Miracle Whip. It's just the way it is."

For some families, the transition is decided for them, with the passing of a family member.

Angela Byrne, 27 of Roseville, hosted Thanksgiving dinner this year for the first time. The day is usually spent at her grandparents' in St. Louis, but after Grandpa died last May, Byrne decided to step in and give Grandma a break.

Instead of the usual grilled turkey, Byrne decided to try chef Alton Brown's butterflied turkey recipe.

"I was a little worried about the meal, because we twisted things up a bit," she said. "Grandma seemed a little hesitant at having my cornbread stuffing instead of her traditional stuffing, but it all turned out so good that she even went back for seconds."

Room for both

Other families aren't as lucky. When the holidays aren't formally handed down, the younger generations can spend years trying to re-establish the traditions, said Meredith Deeds, a food expert in Edina.

"Sometimes people aren't necessarily interested in passing on a recipe. That's their baby. It's what they do," Deeds said. "But when those recipes aren't left behind, part of the family's culinary heritage disappears. When they're gone, they're gone."

LuAnn O'Callaghan of Rosemount and her four sisters have spent three decades trying to figure out their mom's recipes. Not even the same avocado green Tupperware mixing bowl that she used could uncover the magic of her coveted dressing recipe.

"We think the secret ingredient was a spice called summer savory, but there's still something missing," said O'Callaghan, 49. "Now we're trying to figure out all of her Christmas cookie recipes."

Instead of trying to replicate the past, St. Thomas' Bruess said, families should look to the future and find a way to make the holiday celebrations dynamic -- and keep the family together.

"When families figure out ways to weave the new with the old, one of the huge benefits is that a family's identity can be carried on through multiple generations," she said. "The traditions might be carried on in a slightly different way, but the meaning will most likely stay, in essence."

So there's room at the table for both the green bean casserole and the root vegetable medley.

Turns out there's room for more than one cabbage dish, too.

When Schaller's daughter got married, the two families started celebrating the holidays together. The in-laws bring their own traditional favorite: shredded cabbage with hot bacon dressing.

It hasn't won a blue ribbon, but Schaller is willing to share the table -- and have his granddaughter grow up with not one, but two, cabbage family favorites.

Aimée Blanchette • 612-673-1715