Okay, I know I said this new entry would be called HAPPY BIRD DAY TO US, in honor of my goofy mother (see entry JUST FOR FUN), who always came into the dining-room bearing the turkey and singing, "Happy Bird Day To Us" to the tune of the birthday song.(And check an earlier entry, SURPRISE! to see how my mother made a Thanksgiving centerpiece out of our Thanksgiving squash!)
But since Thanksgiving is well past, and Christmas and New Year are nearly upon us (and I'm still unpacking, so my writing time is limited), I thought I'd combine the three holidays and talk about food in general.
Spent this past Thanksgiving in Pennsylvania with all four of my children and their spouses, plus a gaggle of grandchildren. As a labor of love, I spent two hours shelling three pounds of chestnuts for my special stuffing---chestnuts, cornbread and white raisins. Definitely a yum! (Am ending this blog entry with the picture my son---the host of the day with his lovely wife---took of me as I was working. Sweatshirt was a gift from a fairly recent gentleman friend---not sure if he was being funny or if I had pissed him off!)
I've long-since learned that the most important ingredient in cooking IS love. When my marriage was falling apart, some years ago, and we gathered for what turned out to be the last Thanksgiving for the intact family, the meal was just not very tasty. I guess my heart wasn't in it. The following year, with the separation complete, and my children gathering at one son's house, I was invited to come a week early and do the whole meal. That year, because I was at peace with what had happened, and surrounded by all those I held most dear, every dish in comparison was wonderful, though it was practically the same menu. (And I had two delightful helpers in the young daughters of the woman that son had just married---11 and 12, I think. They had never cooked, but they took to it like naturals, insisting that we make "just one more pie, Grandma!" We wound up with SIX pies that year!)
Final Bird Day story---son who took picture of me is a professional photographer, and sometimes gets carried away! When he went to Thanksgiving at the house of one of his brothers a few years ago, he took pictures of the occasion and sent them to me. I don't know what it says about his appetite, but there were more pictures of the cooked bird than there were of the guests and the family! "Please!" I begged him. "Next time, EDIT!"
On to Christmas meals. One marvelous memory is from very long ago, when I was first married. My husband, drafted into the Army for two years, was stationed in Germany, where I joined him. We had rented a room (shared bathroom and kitchen) in a lovely old town house in Bad Nauheim, which was a beautiful hospital town untouched by the war. We had become great friends with our landlady, her two little children, and her mother, a delightfully lively senior citizen. In the past, the family---mostly doctors---had been quite wealthy, and the town house, still owned by a doctor relative, with one floor rented out to OUR landlady, was a beauty, with polished wood floors, vintage furniture and views overlooking a lush park.
Then, after only 4 or 5 months, my husband was transferred to Darmstadt, a dismal city, still partially in rubble from the war. Our rented rooms were in a cinder-block house built by a stone-cutter, who had spent nine years in a Russian prison camp AFTER the war, and had finally come home to his wife and son to make a sparse life for himself. The only heat we had for two rooms was from a coal stove, also for cooking, which certainly was a challenge for a bride just learning to cook! My lemon meringue pies were regularly speckled with black soot, because I never remembered to put in more coal (to make the stove hotter to brown the meringue) until AFTER I had put in the pie! (One quirky note---the house was on the outskirts of the city, in Darmstadt-Eberstadt. On the hill behind the house, which I could see every day, was Frankenstein's castle!)
Anyway, come Christmas, our Bad Nauheim friends had invited us back for the holiday. The grandmother greeted us at the door in a family heirloom, a magnificent gown (probably dating from the turn of the Twentieth Century), purple silk velvet with a Victorian high collar and bodice of real gold lace. A large key hug at her waist. She took the presents we had brought, unlocked a door to one of the spare rooms, and disappeared inside.
Then we repaired to the parlor, where we spent the evening eating piles of home-baked cookies, drinking good German schnapps and playing silly games like pickup sticks and tiddly-winks. At midnight, the grandmother came in with a candle. Tiptoeing, we followed her to the door of the spare room. With great fanfare, she unlocked it and we went inside.
What a wonder! The windows were wide open to the cold night air, but that was because, they told the children, the Christ Child had to come into the room and decorate the tree. The huge Christmas tree was hung with silver tinsel, live candles, and lit sparklers! It was breathtaking!
Each of us had a separate little table, with our presents piled on it, and more dishes of cookies. After we opened our presents, and ate more cookies, the family went off to church for an hour. When they returned, the traditional supper they served was marvelous after all the sweets we had eaten! Salty herring salad, plain boiled potatoes, and bitter dark bread. I can still taste how delicious it was after all those cookies!
One more Christmas story. For many years, one of my dearest friends gave a Christmas Eve party at her home. Her large extended family came from other states and also from Puerto Rico. Every year she chose a different ethnic theme. So we had an Italian Christmas, a Chinese Christmas, a Greek Christmas, etc. One year, as we sat around waiting for midnight to open the presents, the conversation turned to what theme we should choose for the following year. Being Jewish (and a pretty good cook), I said, as a joke, "How about a Jewish Christmas?" Much to my surprise, everybody LOVED the idea! So the next year, we had matzo ball soup, chopped liver, potato kugel, and roasted chicken, among other dishes. Very successful.
New Year's Eve. For many years, my husband and I had a New Year's Day open house. As we sent out our Christmas cards, we included to a large group of friends (probably about 75-100) an invitation to drop in on New Year's Day from noon to 8:00. Since we usually went out New Year's Eve (that's a story for another entry!), everything had to be done in advance. Finger food. A large smoked turnkey, conveniently cut into small pieces, with toothpicks. Smoked ham, done the same way. Lots of cheese chunks. Stuffed mushrooms, piled on trays and ready to be popped into the oven as guests arrived. Same for small squares of noodle puddings---one with spinach, one with cottage cheese and sugar. Big bowl of fruit salad. Brownies made in advance. Drinks confined to wine, vodka with orange juice or tomato juice. Easiest parties we ever gave!
Assorted food notes and recollections:
Because we had four children, and I didn't want to become a short-order cook, catering to every individual taste, we had the "One-Taste Rule." Each child was expected to taste everything at every meal, even if they washed it down with water at once. It was a Family Rule. (See blog entry IT'S MY HOUSE AND I'M BIGGER THAN YOU ARE.) The plus factors were that I could cook just one meal for everyone, try new dishes, and the kids developed pretty broad eating habits at an early age. ("Ooh! Beef Bourguignonne!")
Another offbeat memory---had given a very elegant dinner party, with a wonderful galatine of leg of lamb, stuffed with ham and pistachio nuts, followed by a dessert that is one of my culinary specialties---chocolate-dipped pears. At the last minute, one of my dearest friends came down with pneumonia and she and her husband couldn't attend because she was sick in bed. After our guests left and my husband and I had cleaned up and put on our pajamas, we suddenly wondered how she was doing. We called. Was she still awake? Yes, she said. Were they hungry?: Absolutely! Still in our PJs, we packed up a meal for both of them, drove to their house and presented it to her in bed. At 2:00 A.M.! She still talks about that crazy evening! (She still remembers the main course as French cassoulet, another of my specialties, but I remember it as the lamb.)
Chocolate pears or not, I am, according to my children, an alien. Basically, I don't much like chocolate, peanut butter, pizza or ice cream. Small correction---except when I was pregnant. Ice cream was my rabbit test! Usually, when we went to Friendly's or some place like it, and my crew ordered banana splits or assorted ice cream concoctions, I would have an English muffin and coffee. Once in a great while, I might ask for the teeniest scoop of vanilla ice cream with marshmallow or caramel on top. It was usually all I could manage. But if I scraped the bowl and wanted more, I KNEW I was pregnant. And I always was! During my final pregnancy, I spent nine months eating chocolate-chip mint ice cream daily. Came home from the hospital and my older kids dished out a plate for me, as they had done for months. I took one taste and pushed it away. "I don't like ice cream!" I said.
The children's favorite foods were "zerks" (desserts), as in "What's for zerk, Mom?", "peenadelly" (sound it out), and "La Rosa", otherwise known as "Mom's Mac". They also liked chocolate mousse, but teased me unmercifully about the name. If they said, "What's for zerk?" and I answered "Chocolate mousse," I would then have to endure lots of smart-alecky comments about the moose's antlers, whiskers, etc. But I finally fixed them. Made the mousse in an oval mold, turned it out onto a flat plate, added marshmallow eyes with raisin pupils and a cherry nose, and used chocolate wafer cookies for antlers. When the usual snarky comments came at my announcement that zerk was chocolate mousse---"And does it have antlers. Mom?"---I plunked down the platter with a triumphant cry of "Yes!!"
A few kitchen hints---
1. Did you know that there are male and female eggplants? You want to choose the male eggplants if you can---fewer seeds. Go to the stem end of the vegetable. If the "scar" is a circle, it's a male. If it's a line, it's a female.
2. You can freeze lots of herbs. Dill especially takes to freezing. Just wash it, shake off the excess water, wrap it tightly in foil and pop it into a plastic bag. When you need finely diced dill for a recipe (I have a wonderful dill sauce that goes over a salmon mousse), you don't have to defrost it. Just unwrap the foil from the top and finely dice as much as the recipe calls for. I've noticed that the dill flavor is enhanced from the freezing.
3. Pie crusts---it's a messy nuisance to roll out a crust on a board with flour, etc. But because I didn't have a rolling pin or a board as a bride in Germany, I learned to roll out the crust between two sheets of wax paper crisscrossed. The paper is 12" wide, so you get a crust that is 12" in diameter. What could be simpler? It just fits a 9" pie plate! And I used a glass, not a rolling pin, to roll it out. Still do. More manageable than a large rolling pin.
And finally, I'm a good cook. (I actually sat down with a friend to write a cookbook many years ago. After a time, we found it boring and then I discovered romances. And that's how I got started on my writing career!) Complete story to follow at some point! But I do share recipes. E-mail me, if you are interested. My e-mail is Syl4brides@aol.com
Enjoy the photo!