Monday, December 09, 2013

Christmas Eats - Jana Richards

Christmas Eats
Jana Richards

My maternal grandmother wasn’t happy unless we cleaned our plates. Actually, she wasn’t happy until we’d stuffed ourselves silly and could barely walk out of her house. She showed her love by feeding us, and she loved us a lot.

Never did Granny show us more love than at Christmas. In our family, cabbage rolls, tasty packets of ground pork and rice, seasoned with salt, pepper, onions and garlic, and stuffed inside leaves of sour cabbage, were staples at every function. Depending on what had been raised the on the farm that year, we had turkey or goose for Christmas dinner, expertly roasted by Granny to crispy brown perfection. The bounty of Granny and Grandpa’s gigantic garden the previous summer meant that we always had bowls filled to overflowing with fluffy mashed potatoes and steamed vegetables. In the “not from the garden” category were salads made from Jell-o and canned fruit cocktail, or perhaps Jell-o and mini marshmallows. Sometimes we’d have lettuce salad, but the quality of fresh vegetables in our 1960s small town store in the middle of a Canadian winter was hit or miss.

Always accompanying the main dishes were homemade breads and buns that melted on the tongue. The aroma of freshly baked bread filled Granny’s house, making this simple staple a highlight of the meal. Next came an array of pickles from the extensive collection in Granny’s cellar. There were always pickled cucumbers, preserved with dill, garlic and tiny chili peppers to give them a spicy bite. Granny also pickled beets, pearl onions, carrots and beans in various combinations in a range from sweet to spicy. If it grew in the garden, Granny pickled it, canned it, froze it or preserved it in some manner.

And then, if we could expand our stomachs just a bit more, along came dessert. The baking had started weeks before with the fruit cake, stuffed with dried and candied fruit in a moist, dark batter. Once baked, the fruit cake needed time to age and ripen. Granny wrapped it in brown paper and stored it under the bed until it was ready. There were cookies of all kinds including jam-jams, two layers of moist cookie with homemade raspberry or strawberry jam sandwiched in between. Then came Granny’s famous butter tarts, a delicious concoction of butter, brown sugar, egg and raisins baked inside a flakey tart shell. I have a memory of my cousin and I sneaking into Granny’s freezer and stealing the tarts she’d made for a special occasion. We got into trouble but it was worth it for a taste of mouth-watering, sugary goodness.

But my favorite dessert of all was strudel. The strudel was also made weeks before Christmas and required a team to assemble. My mother, one or two of my aunts, and perhaps a neighbor lady or two, arrived and the work began. Granny mixed up a batch of dough for the strudel, a kind of phyllo pastry that could be worked and stretched like a rubber band. Despite its flexibility, the delicate strudel pastry required careful handling; too vigorous a pull would result in a tear. Granny and her team gently stretched the pastry, slipping their hands underneath and carefully pulling and kneading until the pastry reached every corner of Granny’s dining room table, an area about six feet long and four feet wide.

Sometimes I was allowed to help spread the pastry with chunks of peeled apple, raisins, generous sprinkles of cinnamon and sugar, and dollops of butter. Once that was finished, I stood back and let the team begin the delicate task of rolling the strudel. With one aunt on each end, one working the middle, and Granny supervising the whole operation, the strudel was rolled, jelly roll fashion, until it was a long tube consisting of layer upon layer of paper thin pastry with pieces of apple and cinnamon sugar trapped in between. Granny cut the strudel into family sized portions, giving several sections to her helpers and popping the rest into the freezer to be eaten at her own Christmas dinner.

I looked forward to the strudel every Christmas. It didn’t feel like Christmas until the strudel had been served.
Our family followed the German tradition of celebrating on Christmas Eve. After the Christmas Eve children’s concert at the church, in which my cousins and I recited our memorized parts and received a brown paper bag filled with candy and mandarin oranges for our efforts, we all congregated at Granny and Grandpa’s tiny house to open presents and eat. Delicious cooking smells mixed with the cold night air as we entered the front door. Pungent sour cabbage intertwined with roast turkey and cinnamon and apples. Every window in the house fogged from the cooking heat and steam. The house was filled to capacity with aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents. Though all the leaves had been placed in the dining room table, we still had to eat in shifts, the men and children going first and the women last. Granny would hover over us through both shifts, refilling empty bowls, clearing dishes, and always exhorting us to “Eat, eat!” We did our best to comply.

Granny’s been gone now for many years, as are my father and grandfather and several of my aunts and uncles. I live far away from the cousins I grew up with, and don’t see them as often as I’d like to. Life now is far different then it was in my childhood, and so is Christmas. It’s time to make new traditions.

My daughters and I have attempted to recreate Granny’s cabbage rolls, with mixed results. They might not be as good as the originals, but the joy we get from making them together makes up for whatever they lack in taste. We’ve replaced salads made Jell-o and tiny marshmallows for ones with lentils, beans, and arugula. Apple pie is substituted for apple strudel, the recipe for my favorite dessert having died with my grandmother.

But one thing will never change. Christmas means getting together with friends and family over a sumptuous meal. For me, food is synonymous with love. When I find myself telling guests to “Eat, eat!”, I think of Granny and smile. a Rafflecopter giveaway


Karyn Good said...

Love memories, Jana! Now I'm hungry. I made cabbage rolls the other day which is a dish that always reminds me of my own grandmother.

Jana Richards said...

Some of my fondest memories are of food! I'm not sure what that says about me, but they're happy memories none the less.

My husband actually made cabbage rolls this year, all by himself. My only function was as official taster. He did a great job!

Karen Michelle Nutt said...

I have wonderful memories of certain foods my Grandmother used to make... her special Italian dumplings and homemade pizza... just to name a few. :)

Debra St. John said...

Oh my, that strudel sounds yummily delicious.

Foods do tend to trigger cozy I say bring it on!

Liz Flaherty said...

Oh, yum, Jana! I loved your post.

rbooth43 said...

I sure miss my mom's, grandmom's and aunt's cooking! Also all the fun we had when I was a child! I lost my parent's when I was a teenager, but I sure did have fond memories of all our holiday get togethers!