Christmas

christmas-candles.jpgWe have a traditional Christmas dinner.   We've been doing it for twenty-two years. There are fourteen people involved – eight parents and six children – and we all get together at Jim and Phoebe's during Christmas week to exchange presents and make predictions about events in the coming year.

Each of us brings part of the dinner. Maggie brings the hors d'oeuvres. Like all people assigned to bring hors d'oeuvres, Maggie is not really into cooking, but she happens to be an exceptional purchaser of hors d'oeuvres. Joe and Phoebe do the main course because the dinner is at their house.  This year they're cooking a turkey.  Jane and I were always in charge of desserts.   Jane's specialty was a wonderful bread pudding. I can never settle on just one dessert, so I often make three – something chocolate (like a chocolate cream pie), a fruit pie (like a tarte tatin) and a traditional plum pudding which no one ever eats but me. I love making desserts for Christmas dinner, and I have always believed that I make excellent desserts. But now that everything has gone to hell and I've been forced to replay the last twenty-two years of Christmas dinners, I realize that the only dessert anyone ate with real enthusiasm was Jane's bread pudding; no one ever said anything complimentary about any of mine. How I could have sat through Christmas dinner all this time and not realized this simple truth is one of the most puzzling aspects of this story.

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ImageI’m nervous. I’m not sleeping well. The greatest challenge of my life is one month away and I have yet to start planning it: Christmas dinner. Everything will be riding on it. Not just my self-respect; the respect of my gender – every man who has ever said to his stay at home wife, “Hey, I’d take your job in a minute.” Well, she gave it to me. It’s all mine. And now I’ve got to deliver. Put a stunning meal on the table this Christmas; one that lets my hard working, career-driven wife know she married the right …well …wife.

Let me be frank. I’ve survived these last few months on nothing but moxie, a crock-pot, and a copy of Cooking for Idiots. And now I’m staring at one hard cold fact: not only have I never cooked a Christmas dinner, I can’t recall having eaten one. I’m a Jew: a Jew, who pompously volunteered to cook for his Cuban wife and her family on their most important Holiday of the year. What the hell was I thinking? If some couch potato wants to firm up, you don’t tell him to enter a marathon. You tell him to walk a little, then jog a bit, see if he can eventually work himself up to a mile. Yet here I am, a couch potato running a marathon, a culinary novice planning the mother of all meals: Christmas Dinner. Yikes!

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hellodollietin.jpgSpending countless hours trapped in a cold, dimly lit basement -- that's what I remember about Christmas.

In fact, it's my favorite memory of Christmas. I don't remember gifts I gave or received (except for my pink Huffy bike in 1979), but I do remember making Christmas cookies with my mom, which we did together for 20 years. Each year, it was a massive project that began in the market, moved to the kitchen, and was completed in the basement.

After numerous trips to the grocery store to buy obscene amounts of flour, sugar, butter, eggs, and chocolate, we would bake for 4-5 days straight, making about 2,000 cookies (that is not hyperbole).

Everyone got a tray of our cookies, including the paper boy. It got to the point that people would make special requests of my mom: please put more biscotti or pignoli cookies on their tray.

My mom never complained; she had the patience of a saint. Even when I added baking soda instead of baking powder (which I did) or dropped eggs down the front of the refrigerator (did that too), she never yelled. She always said something like, "That's alright, honey. It can be cleaned up." Then we would start the recipe over again.

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cranberry_wreath.jpgEveryone I know espouses the virtue of a homemade Christmas, and I have to admit that when someone takes the time to make me something I am genuinely touched by the act and the sentiment that goes along with it. That said, have you ever decided to take on a project that grew so far beyond its original scale and intent that you regretted it? As my family and friends can attest to, I am famous for that kind of thing. But something about the holidays seems to blindly motivate me toward this type of endeavor year after year.

Like the time I decided to make “simple” cranberry wreaths just like the ones I had seen Martha Stewart make on her TV show. I bought the requisite Styrofoam forms from a craft store and what seemed like a bazillion toothpicks that would have lasted a family of four a lifetime, as well as several bags of the dark red berries and a few feet of nice green ribbon to make bows with. After going through the first two bags of berries, and Lord knows how many toothpicks, I took my permanently stained hands back to the grocery store to load up on more supplies. The check out girl just laughed at me when I handed her a fist full of pink bills and wished me good luck with whatever I was doing.

Twenty four hours later I was a mad man, half blinded from trying to push the toothpicks evenly into the form and wearing thimbles (or anything else I could find) to cover my sore fingers, vowing to complete the task that was now driving me crazy. I was possessed and in the process ruined a favorite shirt and an equally beloved pair of pants. After what seemed to me an eternity, I eventually finished. Proudly hanging the wreath on my front door, I stood back to admire my handy work.

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turos-tezta-001a-1024x682My Hungarian grandma came to the United States when she was just a teenager. Her husband came before her to find a place for them to settle. She left her family behind to travel to a land of opportunity where she and her young husband believed they could create a better life for their family. Young Rose arrived with their first-born, a son, who was still a baby. I’ve often wondered what it was like for my grandma to be in a strange country, a place where she could barely communicate with the people around her and where she had no family or friends, just her Hungarian husband.

Over the years, Rose’s family grew as she and her husband ran their own boarding house and restaurant in Chicago. One day, when their four sons and one daughter were still very young, Rose’s husband decided to leave. He wanted to go back to “the old country.” Eventually, the strong and very hard-working single mother married again. She and her second husband, Paul, had one more son and one more daughter. They moved to a farm in Indiana to raise their seven children. Their daughter, Rosemary, the baby of the family, became my mom.

The five sons and two daughters grew into adults and moved away from their Indiana home, but I do not remember even one Christmas when they were not all together at the farm to celebrate together, coming back each year with spouses and children of their own.

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