I wrote the following several years ago and posted it on my blog around 2011 or 2012. Bear with me as I go back in time once again to reflect on my favorite hobby and pastime for all of my adult life: Christmas.
CHRISTMAS THOUGHTS IN JULY
It’s July and I have begun thinking about Christmas. Well, to tell the truth, I really start thinking about Christmas in January. This goes back to the late 60s and early 70s when I was raising four little boys and would search for clearance sale items right AFTER Christmas.
There is so much to plan and do for the holidays, but mainly my thoughts center around Christmas presents which are now stored, such as they are, in a spare bedroom. Throughout all the years we lived in Arleta, Christmas presents were stored in a very large built-in hall cupboard that I called (obviously) “The Christmas cupboard”.
Back in the day, I would send a box of books to my pen-pal, Eileen, in Australia. You had to get your overseas packages to the post office by September, so they would reach their destination by December (this was for surface rates. Airmail will get there a lot faster but costs quite a bit more). I used to send at least one box of books to Eileen each year. We loved the same authors, Eileen and I.
But our lives have changed quite a lot; we are now retired as are most of my penpals For years I sent Christmas parcels to all of them, little things picked up here and there along the way—or books. Now, no one can afford to exchange gifts although I still do exchanges with several of my penpals. My penpal Bev and I stopped exchanging Christmas presents but still do gifts for our birthdays which are on the same day.
I save up recipe booklets and inserts from cooking magazines to send to penpal Eve, who also lives in Australia—but there’s no timeframe for that. I just seal the envelope when it’s full. Indeed, all of our lives have changed and hardly anyone can afford to send gifts—not just the gifts but the cost of postage. Isn’t that sad?
I like to send some magazines and maybe a couple of jars of jam to my brother Bill every so often, not necessarily for Christmas. Ditto my brother, Jim. My sister Becky and I exchanged boxes of things throughout the year—often books—not for any particular reason – just because.
And speaking of my brother, Jim, I will always remember that he gave me my first books – five Nancy Drew mysteries – when I was about ten or eleven years old. It was an unforgettable moment in my life. What I discovered, then, was that it was not enough just to read the books: I had to own them, too).
However, all of this being what it is, I still continue to make up batches of jellies and jams, pickles and relishes—and start around in May when fresh strawberries become available in our supermarkets. My friend Bev often brings me some pureed blackberries when she and her husband visit me before heading for Arizona in January, to meet up with other Oregonian snowbirds for the winter. Blackberry is my favorite; not a lot gets given away.
I will still make little loaves of banana bread (and save up ripe bananas, mashed and measured in one cup increments, in the freezer) and I love to make fruitcake—but who is there to give fruitcake to any longer?
I like to make cookies and candy in the fall, to give as Christmas gifts—and last year my grandson, Ethan, became my sous chef in the kitchen as we made some Christmas cookies. He wanted to give Buckeye Balls (a kind of peanut butter candy that is dipped in melted chocolate to look like a buckeye) – those are very popular and well known in Ohio, my hometown, but not so much here. We bought pretty little boxes with plastic openings on the lids, at Michael’s and while I directed in the kitchen, Ethan actually made the buckeye balls and packaged them to give to some of his favorite people. He and his sister, Savannah (who is now 17 and not as preoccupied with cookies anymore) have been making cookies with me since they were very young children, maybe starting out around the age of eight.
I send cookies and candy to the claims department at the office where I worked for 27 years, with the help of an employee who lives in the Antelope Valley and does a delivery for me ever since I moved up here. I also send a jar of jam to friends who are still working there.
A word about cookies – some, like lebkuchen and gingerbread cookies can be made well in advance and allowed to mellow in a tightly closed container. A lot of cookies can be wrapped tight and stored in the freezer until the holiday draws near. Some are too fragile (such as meringue cookies) and shouldn’t be made until right before Christmas.
And I can’t recommend making them at all if you live in a humid State such as Florida. (This is the voice of experience talking—I lived in Florida for 3 years). Meringue cookies do keep pretty well in a dry climate such as the high desert, where I now live. If I am going to glaze or frost cookies, I don’t do that until I take cutout cookies out of the freezer just before Christmas, and then add my finishing touches. Gifts of cookies can be given to the girls at my post office, to my mail carrier, to my mechanic, or other service people who are in my life. Who doesn’t enjoy a box of freshly baked cookies? Last year, Ethan helped me take two large trays of cookies to the nurses at the chemo center where Bob underwent treatment throughout the year.
I have written in the past about the Christmas cookbooks in my collection – but this year, I would like to tell you about just one Christmas cookbook although there are dozens in my cookbook collection. And, since I have also written in the past about my own childhood Christmas memories, I thought it would be nice to share those of other (somewhat more prominent) writers.
“CHRISTMAS MEMORIES WITH RECIPES” is a collection of Christmas memoirs and recipes offered by famous chefs and cookbook authors. It was published by Kitchen Arts & Letters/Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1988. It is available on both Amazon and Alibris, some copies for as little as 25 cents, others – such as Alibris – has copies for 99c. But a word of caution—I found copies of the same book with the author being listed as Evan Jones or Martha Stewart – they are just contributors to the book itself. I will attempt to include a photograph of the book I am referring to. Amazon.com does have some other cookbooks with the very same title but judging from the covers, they’re not the same book.
And goodness knows—there are hundreds of Christmas-themed cookbooks and memoirs as well as dozens, if not hundreds, of cookbooks about cookie making. Before we moved to the desert, a friend came and created a spreadsheet for me on my computer—I logged on all of the Christmas/cookie titles and found I now have over 500 (yikes!) – a far cry from the days when my sons were children and most of my cookie recipes came from Farm Journal cookbooks or recipes I found in December magazines and cut out to put into a 3-ring binder, or cookie recipes exchanged with penpals. When one binder of recipes became too full to hold another sheet of paper I started another cookie binder – and when that was full….well you get the picture. I now have 7 binders for cookies. The oldest one was started in 1958 when I got married.
Included in CHRISTMAS MEMORIES WITH RECIPES are contributions from Bert Greene, Marion Cunningham, Martha Stewart, Maida Heatter, Helen Witty, Irena Chalmers, Julee Rosso, Beatrice Ojakangas, Evan Jones, Edna Lewis, Craig Claiborne, Betty Fussell – and others! And, although there are recipes included with each memoir, the recipes are really secondary to the thoughts and recollections of the various writers.
‘IT’S a lot like getting married,” Irena Chalmers offers. “There has to be a beautiful solemn bride in a long white dress and everyone gasping a she comes down the aisle. And all of us, craning to catch a glimpse of her as thought we had never seen her before. And then a heart-stopping moment when for a terrible second we all fear that he really has forgotten the ring. And then, of course, the best man finds it in his other pocket and the tension makes the relief all the sweeter. And in moments they are safely across the high wire and the vows are all completed and the organ is crashing out the Wedding March and the couple is dancing down the aisle and all the guests break out from orderly rows to greet the bride and groom, and each other, and the party is ready to begin….It’s like that,” she notes, “with Christmas dinner. Once you’ve embarked on it you’ve got to go the whole way: do it up properly with the plumpest turkey that ever there was and the sage and onion dressing and the chipolata sausages and the lumpy mashed potatoes and the gravy and the Brussels sprouts and the gooseberry sauce. And then, when there is not an inch of room left, the lights are turned out and in comes Father carrying the plum pudding borne on the silver platter….”
“Maybe the way to say it,” suggests Evan Jones, “is that Christmases make a mosaic of nostalgia. My memories begin with the year the first ice skates were the parental gifts for my siblings and me, and there is an odd bit of sentiment for the friend whose handmade cradle, much later, was his celebration of my own first child’s inaugural Christmas….”
Edna Lewis recalls Christmas in Freetown, writing, “When I was a girl growing up in a small farming community of Freetown, Virginia, preparations for Christmas started in early September, when we children went out to gather black walnuts, hickory nuts, and hazelnuts….Whenever she saw a break of a day or two from the September harvest, Mother would set about making the fruitcake. It was a family affair that my older sister and I cheerfully participated in….”
Craig Claiborne, writing of distant Christmases, states, “The Christmases that pass most often through my mind are from my early childhood, the most dramatic being when I was about four years old, and in a moment of innocence, set my family’s home ablaze…”
Betty Fussell recalls in brilliant clarity, a Depression Christmas on her grandparents’ farm in Riverside, California, while Jane Grigson writes that one of her earliest memories is of her father singing at Christmas. She says he had a “lovely tenor voice, clear, unaffected, warm, and joyful”. *(Grigson’s memory of her father singing made me think of my mother playing “Silver Bells” on our upright piano—she couldn’t read music and played entirely by ear).
Bert Greene remembers that while he is a Christmas lover, his mother was not. “Her yuletide animus,” writes Greene, “was undoubtedly affected by a traumatic childhood experience. She had been chosen to play Scrooge in a school production of Dickens’s A CHRISTMAS CAROL when she was about ten or twelve, and spent the better part of her lifetime, and my own, sneering, ‘Bah! Humbug!’ whenever the first snows fell. She was also a woman who, for one thing, hated shopping and, for another, hated cooking…”. Bert goes on to explain how the Christmases of his childhood were celebrated – during the Depression, when his family lost their house, silver serving dishes and wedding crystal—and the story he tells is heart-warming. When Bert’s mother complained that she didn’t have the Christmas spirit and “it will cost a fortune”, Bert took over. He volunteered to do all of the work and shopping—but he ran out of money and had to ask his mother for more.
His mother said “Just how much do you think it will cost to finance this damn foolishness?”
Bert recalls, “I dreaded to tell her. Ten Dollars”.
“Even as I write this,” says Bert, “almost fifty years later, it is hard to believe how much that amount of money actually represented. My mother and I stared at each other a long while, weighing the momentous sum before she carefully unbuttoned her coat. There, on the street, without glancing up or down, she quickly remove a bill from her boodle, a small bag that she always wore tucked into the top of her brassier.
‘Make it last,” she said wryly. “Try not to come home too late. And for God’s sake, don’t tell your father!”
“The party was a great success” remembers Bert. “All of the relatives ate well, demolished the desserts, and played games, and those who drank sang dirty songs afterward. All the cookies we made were carried off like Tiffany bibelots….” ***
(Bert’s story reminds me of the annual trips I made downtown (Cincinnati) when I was a child along with two younger brothers, sometime in December for a number of years. We might have no more than two dollars to buy presents for our parents, grandparents and siblings. My brother Bill’s money was mostly pennies, in a little change purse, that he held tightly in his fist to present any pickpockets from taking his money. It begs the question—how DID we manage bus fare, gifts for so many people—and sharing a grilled cheese sandwich at the Woolworth lunch counter? I can only compare it with the loaves and fishes in the bible story.) And we wrapped all of our presents with old gift wrap paper that was ironed to get the wrinkles out.
Maida Heatter, whose dessert cookbooks are familiar to all of us (including her “Maida Heater’s Book of Great Cookies”), tells the story of World War II, when she was a young mother with a one-year-old daughter. Her husband was in the army and her brother in the navy. Maida was living at home with her parents. Professionally, she says, she was a fashion illustrator—but her hobby was cooking. She tells the story of baking and mailing cookies to everyone she knew in the service. When the New York City USO wanted cookies for a big Christmas party, Maida began baking. “I baked those cookies,” she recalls, “from early until late every day for weeks. My only problem was getting enough boxes to pack them in. Food shortages and rationing (butter and sugar were strictly rationed) didn’t bother me, as there were always friends and neighbors who wanted to help. They gave me their ration coupons, they shopped for me and they helped pack the cookies. The filled boxes lined the entrance hall and the dining room flowed over into the living room. The day before Christmas a neighbor piled the boxes into his truck and my mother and I went along to deliver the cookies to the USO at Times Square. Gasoline was rationed but this was a priority delivery….”
“If I counted the cookies,” she writes, “or the number of recipes, that special Christmas, I don’t remember it now. One thing I do remember is that none of those cookies was dainty. They were all he-man cookies. The ones that had raisins or nuts had lots of them. The chocolate cookies were very chocolate. The spice cookies were very spicy. In a way, that one baking experience influenced everything I have baked since….”
(Maida provides the recipe for her mother’s gingersnaps, which I think I will have to try when I start baking Christmas cookies this year. Another cookie that has entered our lives—I was making batch after batch for a few months this year—is a molasses cookie that I found in the L.A. Times SOS column. My youngest son says they are like “a crack cookie” – you can’t stop eating them).
Helen Witty, whose “Fancy Pantry” cookbook is a favorite of mine, starts her memoir off with “Ways of keeping Christmas seem to drift down through the generations of a family, so it’s likely that the holiday customs I grew up with had been established on one coast or the other long before my mother, from the East, and my father, from the West, met in the Pugent Sound country, married, moved to Southern California, and began to bring up their own family. There, where snow and sleds and genuine holly were only a rumor, one family custom that came from somewhere was firmly maintained: the celebrations of Christmas Day began after breakfast, not before…” Helen goes on to relate her family Christmases, and sums up, “As in my childhood home, Christmas morning at our house still starts with a not-for-everyday breakfast…”
Her Christmas breakfasts reminded me of the many special Christmas breakfasts I prepared when my four sons were children, I’d bake a variety of sweet breads and stollen, but the piece de resistance in our household was always pork chops and gravy, a big pan of homemade biscuits, home fries and eggs, or occasionally, what I called a Mexican breakfast casserole. My husband’s mother was from Bluefield, West Virginia, and I learned the art of making what we called “white gravy” from her. If not pork chops, I’d fry cube steaks and then put them back into the white gravy after it was made.
There are heartwarming stories from twenty-five chefs and cookbook authors in “CHRISTMAS MEMORIES WITH RECIPES”. I’ve just given you a sampling—a small taste.
As the holidays draw near, we become busier and busier with shopping and addressing Christmas cards. During the years that Bob and I went to Pismo Beach for Thanksgiving weekend, I would take my cards and address book with me to start working on my cards and letters.
Last year (2011) was the most difficult Christmas. It was the first without Bob, who had shared my life for 26 years. I would have liked to go off and ignore the holiday, but was coaxed into putting up one of my trees—and my grandson, Ethan, was determined to put up the Snow Village, because it was one of those things his grandpa put up every year. I realized that so much of what we did—all the decorating inside and out—was accomplished only because Bob was such a willing spirit. He loved doing it. He loved the compliments.
Then a few angels made their way to the fireplace mantel and I found myself baking cookies and showing my grandson how to do some things. He and his sister also made gingerbread houses, from a kit we bought at Michael’s. After Christmas, I thought it was a good time to go through all of the ornaments and tree decorations; most had been packed in boxes and stored in a shed. I had some water damage to some of the boxes. Kelly took me to Walmart where I bought 20 large red and green plastic containers, and methodically went through all of the boxes, repacking everything in plastic containers that are now stored in Grandpa’s workshop. As I worked, I set aside all bear decorations/tree ornaments to send to my penpal, Betsy, who collects bears—with a suggestion that she put up a small bear tree. She liked the idea. I know I have to downsize but it’s a mammoth project that will take a lot of time to accomplish.
I hope we all will take a little time to reflect on Christmas, and what it means to each of us. These twenty five food writers have done just that. They have reflected on the Christmases of their pasts and have shared those memories with us. And much of what they have written reminds me so much of my own Christmas memories.
Author Julie Rosso sums up Christmas memories with words that all of us might appreciate: “Those years are long gone,” she writes, “and since that time there have been many Christmases in faraway places—some just like those of having as a child. We’ve found ourselves in Paris, New York, Vienna, Rome, Monte Carlo, and the Caribbean at Christmas time, and while it is ever so nice to visit other countries at Christmas, I’d give almost anything for one of those Christmases in Michigan, just once more”.
I haven’t spent any Christmases in other countries – but I would like to spend one, just once more – in Ohio, where it always seemed to start snowing on Christmas eve before we went to midnight mass.
“CHRISTMAS MEMORIES WITH RECIPES” was published by Kitchen Arts & Letter/Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York, 1988. It is available on both Amazon.com and Alibris.com; prices start as low as 4 cents on Amazon. Alibris has copies for 99c.
FANCY PANTRY BY HELEN WITTY is available on Amazon.com starting at $2.40 for a soft cover copy. It also has some ridiculous prices, such as $129.99 for a hardbound copy. Alibris also has the book for $2.40 – and copies priced at $251.99 and $241.74. I can’t imagine anyone actually paying that much for a cookbook you can get for far less.
Maida Heater’s Book of Great Cookies is available on Alibris.com for 99c. I couldn’t find the EXACT same title on Amazon.com so am not listing it. She does have a number of cookie cookbooks listed.
Well, I have rambled on long enough with you. Cookie recipes are available on my blog along with some photographs of previous cookie baking marathons. I woke up one morning recently and realized that Christmas will never again be as sumptuous as it was for Bob and myself, for several decades, especially in Arleta where we put up 8 Christmas trees. That idea of spending Christmas in Ohio is becoming more appealing. I hope your holidays are cheery and bright.