Christmas

firestonerecordI was the youngest of five boys, most of them out on their own by the time I have any real Christmas memories. Being the baby of the family, and 8-years-younger than my closest brother, I had a different relationship with my dad than they did. He was an old-fashioned father and my arrival had been quite a surprise (they were hoping for a girl.) My mother passed away when I was five-years-old and my dad was forced to raise my brother Paul and me by himself for a few years before he remarried.

Our lives as a blended family weren't always easy, but Christmas was a time for tradition and like many people we had old ones and new ones. The week after Thanksgiving my dad and I would head out to the local tree lot. We always had a real tree and it had to be a Noble Fir, which has the best branches and spacing for decorations. If Dad was going to pay good money for a tree he wanted as many options as possible and the earlier you went the better the selection. Once we found our perfect tree, up it went onto the roof of our Buick Estate Wagon for the long journey home.

Since we had to wait for everyone to be home to decorate the tree - another immovable tradition - it sat outside in our backyard in a bucket of water so it would stay fresh until the "big night." Sometimes it was Christmas Eve, some years the weekend before. I always wished it was up longer, but the rules were the rules. To set the mood my dad would put on the Firestone Christmas album he got from his local tire dealer every year and then bring down the boxes of ornaments and lights the family had collected.

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tvm2162_072707_coconutcake_l.jpgWhen I was growing up, my favorite grown-up restaurant was SCANDIA in Hollywood.  Run by Ken Hanson, this award-winning Scandinavian eatery was the place my family flocked to for holidays, not just birthday dinners and Sweet 16 luncheons, but also un-Hallmark events—like when I cut my head and all I wanted was Scandia’s Swedish meatballs so my dad got them on his way home from the set of “The Untouchables” episode he wrote. 

At the time, there wasn’t a big L.A. take-out scene, but Scandia accommodated because it was elegant enough to be casual.  Scandia was the treat I always chose when my mom and I collectively took the day off from life (for me, high school; for her, writing/editing and house stuff) to hang out together.  And a few years after my mom died, I chose Scandia to go to the night a movie I wrote opened.

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mainesnow.jpgHere in Maine we await a "super storm" that is huge and rushing across the United States, or so they say. Six to twelve inches of snow, turning to freezing rain with high winds.  Sounds  like Winter weather in Maine, not too unusual. It isn't the size of the storm it's what you find to make it fun that counts and I have a plan to enjoy it!  In between plowing I will be making our Mother's tortiere pies and perhaps having a slice for lunch and another with a pot of hot tea in the afternoon to warm up.

What is tortiere pie? To my family it is a ground pork and beef pie flavored with chopped onions, spices and thickened with mashed Maine potatoes then put into a double butter crust. I said my family, the Gagne family, my Mother's recipe, made the same way for at least 5 generations. It isn't like the Belanger's who add no beef just pork, a totally different spice mixture and a Crisco crust or the Bourassa family that adds small chunks of pork instead of ground pork, they add no potatoes, quatre spice and a lard pastry crust.

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fruitcakeeI've never been able to understand why Christmas fruitcake is hated so much. What makes it such a dreaded gift, one that gets passed about or relegated to the back of the fridge? I must say I'm not the biggest fan of the cake, some are rather good, but others are just too dense and way too boozey. But this year for Christmas, I was willing to make a better fruitcake. So when a friend suggested I try making the cake from a recipe she loved just to see if I could possibly love it, I decided to give it a wholehearted try. I usually love other cakes that contain dried fruit, so what could be so bad about fruitcakes? And if they turned out better than expected, I'd have something more traditional to hand out as gifts to my fiends and neighbors.

First, I set myself some ground rules: I would under no circumstances use bright technicolor candied fruit, but instead use naturally dried fruits. And I would not soak the cake in booze and age it for days as most recipes suggest; I would only soak the fruit in booze. I simply don't like a soggy cake and I don't intend to preserve it for years to come, which in the medieval past was the reason why these cakes were so laden with alcohol. I wanted a lighter cake that had the likeness of a good nut bread but with a holiday flair. And I believe I was able to achieve that and more.

I was surprised by the results. The cake was dense but had a nice texture. The dried fruit was very flavorful from my combination of rum, a traditional ingredient, and vermouth, a fortified wine flavored with herbs and spices. The many ground spices also contributed to a fragrance and flavor reminiscent of pumpkin pie. For a beautiful cross-sampling of colors, I used dried papaya, cranberries, pineapple, golden raisins, dark raisins, and dates. A bit of crystallized ginger added hot spiciness.

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blizzard.jpgOn December 24th, 1963, Philadelphia was hit with a rip-roaring blizzard.  I’ll never forget it.  By evening, the drifts were well past knee-high.  Snowflakes swirled in the halos of streetlights.  Driving anywhere was out of the question.  Wrapped up in coats, boots, gloves, hats and scarves, and loaded down with bags of presents, my girlfriend Bonnie, my mother and I set out on foot for Aunt Tilda’s house.  What would have been a 7-minute drive turned into an hour trek.   I remember laughing so hard we could hardly walk.  We knew we were crazy to be slogging through such a storm, but we were determined to reach our destination.  It was Christmas Eve, and Aunt Tilda had prepared the traditional Italian Feast of Seven Fishes.

Tilda’s house was decorated to the rafters.  Twinkling lights outlined every window.  Tiny red and green Christmas balls hung from each curtain ruffle.  Swags of tinsel garland draped the mirrors.  The huge tree was covered with hundreds of ornaments she had been collecting for decades.  At its top perched a gossamer angel.  And beneath its bedecked branches, nestled the white and gold 30-piece Nativity set that Tilda had stayed up into the wee hours painting on many a sweltering summer night.

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