My heart remembers . . .
As the holidays approach there is the urge to re-create wonderful childhood memories. I was fortunate to have parents who made the holidays picture perfect for my two sisters and me. My parents set the bar high, and though I never managed to capture that serene, calm, carefree ambience, my children certainly benefited from my eternal love of Christmas.
One of my favorite traditions was our Christmas Eve dinner. My father would lay the fire (with some magical substance that turned the flames into wisps of blue and green), and my mother would set the “table,” which was one of her best tablecloths spread on the floor in front of the fireplace. There were full place settings, with the best china. No everyday dishes for this dinner!
There would be a bowl of fresh crab with my father’s special dip (I can identify it now as a homemade Thousand Island dressing), crusty French rolls, and a salad. Dessert was a rarity in our household, but on Christmas Eve my mother served an angel food cake with big, fluffy mounds of whipping cream mixed with crushed candy canes and marshmallows. Mom was a good cook, but rarely baked, so the rolls were store bought and the cake was from a box. We ate both with great enthusiasm.
The food was wonderful, but it was the effect of the fire and the flickering bayberry candles—and the anticipation of gifts and the arrival of our grandparents—that made the evening magical. Later there would be Bing Crosby on the record player, eggnogs carefully mixed by my father (plain for us, and certainly spiked for the adults, dusted with just the perfect amount of nutmeg), and Aunt Patte’s big tin of assorted homemade candies. When it was nearly bedtime my father would play the violin, and we would go upstairs to bed, falling asleep to his carols.
Christmas Day could find us anywhere. Sometimes we went to my grandparents’ house and had turkey. My grandfather would sit at the head of a mile-long table and serve each person, beginning with the youngest. As one of the youngsters, I usually had a plate of cold food by the time we were allowed to eat.
When we were hosting dinner, we would usually have a turkey or a big beef roast. If we expected a lot of people throughout the day, my mother would make her special “Company Casserole,” a wickedly rich mixture of crab and olives and eggs.
Nuts in their shells were poured into large bowls, stubbornly resisting our attacks with nutcrackers and picks. Satsuma oranges, each in their paper wrapper, were a seasonal delicacy that we found irresistible. The pretty candy dishes with foil-wrapped chocolate balls were for “looking at,” not eating. This still makes me laugh. From experience I can assure you there is no way of rearranging chocolate balls to make them look untouched.
When company arrived, my mother made it all look effortless, though I remember well being put to work before the big day—washing windows, polishing silver, dusting, and waxing. We stuffed dates with walnuts and cream cheese, mixed the punch, and arranged crackers on platters. When my parents weren’t looking, we picked all of the Cheerios out of the Chex Mix and ate them. We picked the cashews out of the mixed nut dishes and ate them. We sneaked black olives from their bowls and ate them. I’m certain this didn’t go unnoticed, but it usually went unremarked.
My Christmas Eve menu is different, though crab still holds the place of honor at my table, cooked in a steaming pot of crab and corn chowder.
|Crab Chowder|| |
- 1 stick of butter
- 1 large onion, chopped
- 2 cups bell peppers, chopped (I use red and green)
- 2 cups fresh corn cut from cobs (about 4 ears)
- 2 medium potatoes, cut in small cubes
- 3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- ½ to 1 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes
- 1 can (14 ounces) chicken broth
- 1 cup whipping cream
- 4 tablespoons flour
- Crab (NOT imitation) I usually add at least 8 ounces—more if my budget allows
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Melt butter in large skillet.
- Add onion, peppers, and corn. Sauté gently for about 3 minutes. Add potatoes and garlic, sauté for 3 more minutes. Peppers should be crisp/tender.
- Add pepper flakes and chicken broth. Bring to simmer. Whisk flour into whipping cream, adding slowly, stirring constantly until thickened.
- At this point, you can add milk if you want to make it thinner, or a little more flour in milk or cream to thicken. Simmer very gently until potatoes are tender.
- Add crab, heat through.
- Variations: You can add prawns if you wish, and serve with small bowls of green onions and bacon bits to sprinkle over the top. This is also wonderful when served in crusty french bread bowls. If you must use frozen corn, add it with the potatoes since it won't need to cook long.
My rolls are homemade, as is the angel food cake. I have all of Aunt Patte’s candy recipes and make them faithfully each year. We don’t have a fireplace, but I make sure the bayberry candles are lit. And if I close my eyes and listen hard, I can hear my father’s violin.
My warmest wishes to each and every one of you. Have a wonderful holiday!