Individual Magic: Thinking of Food (and Plenty) at Christmas

These dishes set the tables of our past, and today they connect us to a culture of resourceful cooks who prepared year-round to feed their families. Many of these recipes were considered too mundane to merit writing down. Now they risk being forgotten.

From those traditions, the recipes grow from simple things you might make on a weeknight to more elaborate dishes I serve in our restaurant.

—–Vivian Howard, Deep Run Roots (“Don’t You Dare Skip This Introduction?”)

Almost three on Christmas afternoon, and the magic of the day has settled in, saturating. There is, as a writer of lyrics once said, a marshmallow world outside. Green Christmases are pretty common here, so the fluff of snow,—white, pristine snow that creates a glowing, freshened palette—is a holiday card-kind of treat.

And this morning, during the Gifting, Jim tore open the wrapping on a new appliance—a combination air fryer/convection oven/ toaster oven. We were all taken with it, and with its possibilities, and we halted what we were doing to drag it into the kitchen. Mark and I wrangled it onto the counter where appliances reside, removing two venerable specimens, which will go into the rapidly filling Goodwill box.

But Jim stood, staring out into the side yard through the big window.

“Look,” he whispered, and finally, plugs fussily plugged in, new oven situated just so, we did.

We saw something we’ve never seen here before: a fox hopping and snuffling in the snow. We gathered at the window; Mark and I pulled out our phones to click photos. The fox, surely sensing us there, seemed unconcerned.

It became clear she was wearing down a mole; the new snow now is full of tracks and splot marks where the little canine ran and leapt up and then landed full force in the snow. The mole was cagey; it burrowed and disappeared, and the fox looked up, perplexed.

Then it stuck its trim red snout into the snow; its fat tail wagged, and a tiny black creature surfaced, running, and disappeared again.

The fox leapt, and the chase continued.

It was focused and intense.

I didn’t watch to see the end of the hunt, but Mark says the mole finally, despite its courage and cunning, met its end.

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He posts a fox photo online, and someone comments that sighting a single fox is good luck. We’ll take that little bit of magic, that Christmas visitation, as an omen of good tidings at the end of a most distressing year.

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On the dining room table, where Jim is diligently working on lists—cataloging the new books he got for Christmas, creating pairings of superheroes that he might use in a short story here and there—the Christmas candle, lit first thing this morning (before the coffee started brewing, or the cinnamon buns went into the oven) burns steadfastly. That’s another harbinger, we believe, of good luck: a candle burnt, on Christmas, to its socket.

And wonderful smells emanate from the oven. This year, we are roasting a standing rib roast. I’ve only done this once before, so I have been frantically searching recipes. I could put the roast in the oven at 375 for an hour, I discover, then turn the oven off and let the meat sit in its waning heat for three hours. Then, I would turn the oven back on for another hour’s roasting.

This method sounds intriguing and the recipe-writer says it’s guaranteed to produce a succulently juicy roast…but: there can be no opening of the oven door once the process begins.

I think about side dishes, and I finally settle on the method outlined in my New Cookbook (itself a Christmas gift, once many years ago). I roast the meat low and slow. I boil some golden potatoes. When the meat reaches a certain temperature, I pour the potatoes into the roasting pan with a half cup of water, and I stir until they’re coated with juices. They start turning a beautiful golden brown almost as soon as I shove the roasting dish back into the oven.

Mark and Jim waft into the kitchen now and then like cartoon characters uplifted by aromas. All that remains is to throw salads together and to decide if we want garlic bread.

“Look at those potatoes,” Mark says, peering in the oven during one wafting.

And I think there’s a kind of magic, too, in the foods we eat on holidays.

And, really, there’s magic in the foods we eat in general.

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I’m thinking about this—about the magic and the specificity of food—because last Saturday, I declared it was a Scottish cooking day. I made a loaf of oatmeal bread (it was so good, or it had been so long since we had homemade bread, that we fell upon it with serrated knives when it was fresh from the oven. We ate big slabs with butter melting on them. We ate much of the loaf in fifteen minutes.)

I made a batch of Scottish shortbread for cookies; I rolled out half the dough and cut it into shapes and baked them up.

“Can we use the Christmas sprinkles to decorate them?” Jim asked, and I said sure. But the cookies went the way of the oatmeal bread. When I opened the plastic tub I’d put them in on Sunday night, there were two cookies left—a Santa and a Christmas tree, un-iced but delicious. I put them in a container and took them in my lunch the next day. On Christmas Eve, we rolled out the rest of the dough, and James and I cut out a new batch of cookies. They may or may not live to be frosted.

And, that Scottish cooking day, I made a batch of Chocolate Fudge Delight, my mother’s celebrated recipe. She found it, I think, in a magazine in the late fifties or early sixties (I have a copy of a letter she sent to my brother Dennis’s friend Jim’s mother; in that letter she enclosed a copy of the fudge recipe. That letter is dated 1962; she’d been making the fudge for a bit at that time, but I do remember, as a very young child, the excitement of that new find, that wonderful fudge that would become a staple into the next generation and beyond.)

The fudge recipe is not Scottish, but my mother certainly was, and so creating a batch of that fudge, for me, constitutes Scottish cooking.

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And I’m thinking about the magic and specificity of food because Mark got me copies of Vivian Howard’s two cookbooks, Deep Run Roots and This Will Make It Taste Good, for Christmas. Howard, who is talented, personable, and not afraid to be quirky, has two shows on PBS. Mark and I grew addicted to watching her; we cheered her successes and laughed at her foibles (she laughed at them, too) as if she were a beloved friend or a family member. We looked up her recipes online and tried things—tried combinations and ingredients—we’d never ever thought of using before.

When we exhausted every episode of the show, I felt unexpectedly bereft, as if Howard was one more person we couldn’t see in person because of this damned pandemic.

I was excited to get the books, and I stayed up late last night to finish my library book, which was really good, but which had a disappointing ending. Now, I thought, I can read me some Vivian, and after the morning’s Gifting, that’s exactly what I did.

Deep Run Roots has recipes for sure, but it’s also a story book. In it, Howard explains that she grew up in Deep Run, North Carolina, counting the years, then months, then days, until she could escape. She made good her plan; she went to boarding school as a teen; she took advantage of internships and courses that drew her away from her birthplace. She went away to college, and then she went to New York City to work.

She had no plan to become a chef, and she had no inclination to be a chef in the town where she grew up, but that’s what she did.

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Howard tells us that her New York City odyssey started in advertising and ended in the restaurant business. After burning out in the advertising business, she took a job as a server in a restaurant devoted to authentic southern food; she rose to line cook.

She didn’t think, though, that “southern food” meant HER kind of southern food, which she took for granted and kind of shunned. And then life, as it does, drew her back to her family and to her region. She and her husband started two restaurants; she had the opportunity to do a PBS program; she grew as a cook, and she and the restaurants and her book won awards.

Along the way, she grew to appreciate the foods of her region and the cooks from whom she grew up learning. Now, she uses the ingredients that are available to her in her corner of North Carolina; she studies the methods of the best cooks she knows, including her mother; and she puts her own unique spin on those things in her restaurants.

She rebelled against her culinary roots and then she embraced them, and in doing that, she created her own individual cuisine. That’s something that, it occurs to me, we all do on one level or another.

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It’s funny: I think the kind of cooking I grew up with is the default cuisine; I can, if I choose, explore to choose a fancier or a less elaborate ‘font.’ But I’ve seldom thought about the influences on the food I eat, and ate; I just accept it as the foundation and build on that.

So today I look up Scottish cooking; I find a post on matador.net that claims to showcase the best traditional dishes of Scotland. Mark reads over my shoulder as I scroll through.

We agree that we probably would NOT enjoy haggis, black pudding, or clootie dumplings. We agree that we would probably try kedgeree and porridge. And we both think we’d probably really like Cullen skink, fish supper, and cranachan.

I think I’d like bannocks and Scotch broth and Scotch pies, too.

I think about the foods my mother cooked when I was growing up, and I see the influence. We used a lot of oats; I have a recipe for oatmeal cookies tucked away that I think are probably very similar to oat cakes and that may have come from my grandmother, who died when my mom was only three.

My mother would often make things like boiled dinner, which was maybe Irish in origin, but followed Scottish cooking methods. We grew up loving Scottish shortbread. Our meals were often plain, always substantial, and seldom featured lots of spice or long-simmered sauces.

Of course, much of that came from my father’s preferences. Dad’s background was German and Irish; he did like cabbage and sauerkraut, which a quick look online associates with those two cuisines. But he grew up in an orphanage, and when he was finally allowed to return home—his father had remarried—his stepmother was a very good nurse, and a very bad cook.

“Her idea of fixing dinner,” my mother would tell us, appalled still after thirty and forty years, “was to send one of the kids to the corner store for white bread and cold cuts.”

My father liked things plain. He liked meat and potatoes. His preferences, of course, also shaped the family cuisine.

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As did the times. Depression kids, my parent grew up in a time when the government, an article in The Atlantic tells me, got involved in what people were eating. In 1929, when the impact of the Depression hit, Herbert Hoover was president, and he invoked the famed resilience of the American people, declining to set up support programs.

U.S. citizens, he believed, would figure it out. Using Yankee ingenuity, they’d weather the economic storm.

But then Roosevelt was elected president in a landslide, and then drought and disaster hit the farmlands, drying up food sources. Roosevelt created FERA—the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. The USDA then had a branch—the Home Economics branch—that was an all-woman department; they were charged with figuring ways for US housewives to feed their families using what foods were available.

FERA had five million pounds of dried beans to distribute, for example. A USDA spokesperson called Aunt Sammy went on the radio to tell Americans just how to cook those beans.

The government began telling people what and how to eat. The thirties were when, for instance, the five food groups became a commonly held concept. The idea of ‘scientific eating’ arose. Eating for pleasure was dismissed; the much less appetizing prospect of eating for health was introduced.

Ethnic food and the spices that made it appealing were on the government’s bad list. (So, I read with horror, was caffeine.)

On the government’s good list, the Atlantic article tells me, were things like prune pudding, canned-meat stew, veggies casseroles with lots of butter and cheese, Jello salads, and dishes made with canned creamed soup and canned tuna.

I see the influence of that on the foods I grew up with.

I see the influence of food trends that countered those methods—Julia Child was a big instigator—beginning in the 1960’s.

I see the influence of convenience embraced by our parents. Howard writes that her mother, who grew up on a farm and had to participate in creating almost all of her childhood food by hand, loved the wonders of buying ready-made foods at the supermarket. And my mother, who remembered her grim aunt decapitating chickens in their city backyard, was a grand advocate of frozen, ready-to-cook chicken.

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We are informed by the ethnicity of the places where we grew up—my hometown boasted many people of Italian descent and many people whose families had Polish roots. Wedding buffets, for instance, might feature both baked ziti and golumbki, and no one would think that odd at all. A little German snuck in with sliced beef sandwiches on kimmelweck rolls. It was a frugal Italian mama who came up with Buffalo-style chicken wings.

We are informed by the places we visit and the new places we live; even just fifty miles of separation can encourage whole new dishes and different styles of eating.

And there are, of course, the preferences we have, and the preferences of the people we eat with.

We, each of us, and each unit we eat with, develop our own cuisines.

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My mother never once fixed a prime rib dinner. Even when she and my father retired and their finances settled down and they became ‘comfortable,’ prime rib was not a dish they’d think to fix at home. It was, by reputation and habit, a cut of meat that was just too expensive.

For a long time, I absorbed and accepted that point of view, and then opportunity and adventure nudged me out of it.

We eat a lot of things now we didn’t grow up eating. But we celebrate a lot of things that were part of our culinary upbringing, too.

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Dinner is delicious. The potatoes roasted in the pan juices almost melt. Jim insists on demonstrating that the meat is fork tender. We eat crisp salads and we crack apart a loaf of cheesy garlic bread.

We have a cookie jar full of the kind of cookies Mark’s grandma always kept on hand for her grandchildren. We have a plastic tub full of Scottish shortbread. There’s a little bit of fudge left, and there are special cookies and savory mixes gifted to us by colleagues and neighbors.

It’s a heady, extravagant mix of new and old and beloved and experimental.

The food of Christmas is a little bit of the holiday magic.

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“This,” says Jim as he wanders by, on his way to the family room, “has been a GREAT Christmas.”

He is right: we are healthy; we are together; we have been blessed with all kinds of plenty even in the midst of a year ravaged by a pandemic. The early dark settles on the fresh snow, and I hope that the part of the magic that remains is a sense of how lucky—how blessed—we are, and the awareness that there are ways to share our blessings.

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https://matadornetwork.com/read/best-traditional-dishes-scotland/

https://www.executivethrillseeker.com/executiveblog/traditional-german-food-to-try-in-germany

https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2016/12/great-depression-eat/511355/

One thought on “Individual Magic: Thinking of Food (and Plenty) at Christmas

  1. What a lot of history in food. You have as usual put it all together marvelously. For now, if it were not for no shopping (covid), I think I would out and get a prime rib which I have never bought because of the expense. You make it sound like the difference in price is a mute argument. Continue your blessed Christmas season.

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