THE HOLIDAYS WIND DOWN, THE CULINARY WORLD OF THE IN-LAWS AND CHURCH BASEMENTS AND AMBROSIA

I’ve found the translation of the manuscript into a blog interesting in several respects.  The manuscript is a narrative and chronologically faithful to the Dinner Diaries.  I’ve found the blog however to be more immediate and, to some degree, a dialogue.  Additionally, it only makes sense to present the Dinner Diaries in a seasonal context which is not necessarily chronological.  Regardless, we’ll get to the same place.   

 

Dinner Diary              December 25, 1996

 

 

Merry Christmas to Everyone!  Bonnie and I have had several Christmas Day menus.  But since 1996 this menu has become the Christmas Day Dinner for us.  Some nice champagne and cheeses beforehand, some shrimp or homemade fried oysters earlier in the day.  We love Iron Horse ‘Sparkling Wine’, Brut.  Crystal clear, beautiful straw color, lots of flavor, very dry.  I was turned on to it in the Robert B. Parker, ‘Spenser’ novels.  Actually Spencer’s sidekick, Hawk, was, in his wonderfully understated manner, singing its praises in one of the books.  As I, a 5’8” Polish lad, have always seen myself as Hawk, a 6’3” shaved head ebony urban Greek Hero, I couldn’t wait to taste it.  As good as it is, it has brought me no closer to being 6’3” nor have I acquired any of Hawk’s other attributes.  I will keep drinking it and hoping. 

A nice blissful time with just the two of us.  It drives both of our families crazy that we don’t spend time with the ‘family’ on Christmas Day.  My mom says, “You don’t love us.  Why can’t you spend the day with us?  Why don’t you join the FAMILY?” 

As Bonnie’s parents always thought that I was a bit different, and that this different was rubbing off on Bonnie, they didn’t question our plans.  Bonnie and I figure that we are a family, the two of us.  Yep, right there, two people – one complete family.   Not to mention the fact that my family is a four hour car drive away.  Not to mention the fact that we don’t get a lot of days for the two of us to spend time exclusively with each other.  Not to mention the fact that we both love, and like, each other and honestly treasure our time together.  So, our ‘family’ will be spending Christmas Day with – us – our family.    

We’ve had several menus before we hunkered down with a Prime Rib and Yorkshire Pudding and, who knows, I suspect that at some point the menu will change again, though it is nice to have a tradition.  The prime rib is a beautiful cut of beef.  If your butcher has any competence, it’s actually pretty hard to screw up this cut, all should be well..  Make sure that the beef is worthy; nicely marbled with fat and make sure to get, if the cut doesn’t already have it, a nice caul of fat to put over it as it cooks.  I’m like a kid seeing a magic trick with the Yorkshire Pudding.  In goes this batter – out comes this ‘pudding’!  How cool is that, very light, crispy on the outside and edges, warm chewy yeasty the inside.  Like a giant popover.  Martha’s recipes for this work very well (MSL = Martha Stewart Living).  As I note, get an internal temperature that’s above 117°.  Bonnie and I like our beef rare, but we also like it hot/warm also, so we prefer 130°.  Serve it all with the roasted vegetables or a salad and a nice big red.   After dinner, sit back and watch the new DVD that you got from Santa. 

 

Dinner Diary                          February 8, 1994

 

 

Fruitcakes have gotten a bad rap for eons.  If the ACLU were really anything other than a bunch of communists out to bring down America, they would have taken to the defense of fruitcakes long ago. 

As you see in my note, the recipe that I used is from the New York Times Magazine, December 1, 1985, by Marion Burros.  I obviously saved it, but didn’t get around to trying the recipes until February 8, 1994. I had some other things to take care of first.

These recipes yield remarkable, incredibly good fruitcakes, and I love fruitcakes.  I have since found where to buy candied fruit that radiates light like jewels (the Italian Market is one source) and carry the true taste of the original fruit.  I have found that this is one of the keys to fruitcake success.  Like anything else – the best ingredients.  Screw all those fruitcake jokes!  While not as ‘light as air’ these are not door stops.  They have substance.  Above all they have flavor and texture.  As with so many dishes, the flavors meld into a taste that is more than the sum of the ingredients.

I make my cakes a minimum of six months before the Christmas season.  They are then wrapped in cheesecloth and lightly with plastic wrap.  And then! And then!  I dose them every couple of weeks with alternating sprinklings of rum, brandy and a good Irish whiskey such as Bushmills.  The alcohol evaporates and the flavors of the spirits remain, entering into an incredibly complex dance with the fruit, sugars, flours, eggs and seasonings.   

I give these as gifts at the Christmas season.  While I ask all, “who really likes fruitcakes?” and many people say, “Yes, I like fruitcake” I can tell the chosen few by the expression on their faces:  their eyes get big and bright, they begin to breathe rapidly and a small drop of saliva forms at the corner of their mouth.  Those few, they do in fact LOVE fruitcakes, and it’s those folks to whom the prize goes.

 

From the late 1970’s until the early 1990’s The New York Times ran truly magnificent recipes and dishes in the Sunday Magazine.  It’s different now and I’ll write about that in a future posting.  As I wrote above the fruitcake recipes are from the December 1, 1985 article by Marion Burros.  The article and the recipes follow.  As my scanner isn’t large enough to take the New York Times Sunday Magazine page size I’ve had to dismember the pages.

 

 

 

 

The Culinary World of the In-Laws 

Spam and Tak-A-Boost 

Bonnie’s mother cooked and by God she cooked and served to her beloved family – Spam.  I have tried Spam once or twice.  I recall that it left a thick coating of grease in my mouth and throat that was virtually impossible to dissolve.  Thankfully, martinis were finally able to dissolve it.

Bonnie recounts, with a mixture of disbelief and longing (much to my horror), the ‘recipes’ that her mother employed in serving Spam.  Regression therapy does not appeal to Bonnie.  She is not appalled by the fact that she was served Spam.  She is a Spam survivor and not afraid to admit that to the public.  She remembers the Spam being sliced – ‘fried’ in brown sugar and butter (because of the unknown and unknowable chemical composition of Spam I’m not certain that we can actually call this frying – probably closer akin to what occurs in EPA Superfund Sites) and then these slices were put on a plate (probably paper) and doused with one of those – I WISH I WAS MAPLE – syrups.  Sometimes a pineapple slice was placed atop the, the, the, the, ah, ah, ah, – we ain’t callin’ it food – SPAM.  WHAT!!!!! No maraschino cherry for this baby???!!!  

Being part of Bonnie’s family has opened up many new culinary worlds for me.  Her family, on one side, is from southern New Jersey.  For those of you who are familiar with all cultural implications of that particular geographic area, and are also familiar with the central Connecticut area that I grew up in, you may imagine the ‘um, how shall I say this – I shall say it outright – culture shock that crashed upon me in regards to the ‘regional cuisine’ that I was introduced to.  Know this; I love a tremendously wide range of foods; from sashimi to hotdogs, most foodstuffs between those two poles and many items that perhaps the majority of Americans may pass on eating. 

However, nothing ever prepared me for the vin-ordinaire of her clan – Tak-A-Boost (pronounced: Take A Boost).  Pronounced, ‘tegaboose’ if you’re from that area.  To begin with, her clan didn’t drink alcohol, so I was already flummoxed.  Introduce me to Tak-A-Boost they did.  Actually I had one sip and it was enough to give me nightmares for a lifetime.  I believe that people in southern New Jersey drink this in an attempt to atone for their sins – my opinion (something to do with mother/sister/mother/daughter/mother/daughter – see the movie Chinatown). 

This concoction was supposedly invented by a demented (again, my opinion) pharmacist in southern Jersey.  It contains caffeine and was, judging from Bonnie’s clan, consumed by folks whose religious precepts frowned on actual coffee (again, my opinion).  A demented (again, my opinion) entrepreneur tried to take the drink nationwide several years ago – he failed.  The median age of the purchaser of this drink (you can buy it premixed or mix it with water yourself) is approximately the same age as those folks who used to purchase four door Oldsmobile sedans and who are now purchasing nothing as they, and Oldsmobile, have passed on.

So, what does it look like?  The color is a mixture of flat cola, old coffee and it has a slight oily sheen.  So, what does this taste like?  You’ve really got to taste it yourself to experience its Full Monty.  But, I remember it tasting like a mixture of prune juice, several days old coffee, flat cola, 4 cups of sugar per serving and a ‘delightful shimmering hint of day old cigarette butts’.  Again, my opinion. 

Miracle of miracles, it’s still being made so if you’re a truly brave and daring soul…………

Church Basements And Ambrosia

Becoming a member of Bonnie’s family had implications that reached beyond Tak-A Boost.  I was introduced to the world of the church basement.  Growing up in Connecticut I was familiar with churches, I was required by my parents to go inside them.  So I knew from an early age that churches did in fact have basements.  I simply had no idea that all of life milestones could occur within their confines. 

A Church Basement

 

Actually, my kindergarten classroom was located in a basement, the basement of the venerable and hallowed Kensington Grammar School.  The fact that our classroom was located below grade was greatly appreciated by us lads because our fire escape route was to climb up a short ladder attached to the wall and exit the basement window – ladies first. We had fire drills often, not as often as I’d have liked, but often.  Maybe that’s what brought about my kissing Sandy on the school bus.  Maybe that explains a lot of things in my life.

Anyway, in Connecticut I attended religion classes and Boy Scout meetings in the church basement.  The difference between the Connecticut church basement and the south Jersey church basement was that, in south Jersey, every single event in a person’s life is celebrated in – THE CHURCH BASEMENT. 

I mean every event: births (I gotta believe that this happened in some), birthday parties, after the funeral, bridal showers, weddings, wedding anniversary parties, Bar Mitzvahs (just joking – maybe), Christmas parties, baby showers, christenings, Easter luncheons, retirement parties, Rotary Club, women’s auxiliary meetings.  I mean, don’t these towns have fire houses just for a little variety? 

Invariably at these church basement functions in South Jersey, regardless of the function, I would be confronted with AMBROSIA!  Webster defines ambrosia as:

  1. The food of Greek and Roman Gods.
  2.  The ointment or perfume of the Gods.
  3. Something extremely pleasing to taste or smell.
  4. A dessert made of oranges and shredded coconut.

Something, as they say, was lost in translation.  If what I have seen on the church basement folding tables covered with plastic table cloths was the food of the Gods then I’m eating better than they are.  Ointment of the Gods maybe, certainly not perfume.  Extremely pleasant to taste or smell?  I would beg to differ.  An orange and coconut desert?  While one or two or five of the thirty to fifty ambrosias on the tables may have borne a passing reference to orange and coconut the remaining dishes ran a gamut of colors that are not seen in nature.  All of them were ’jello-ish’.   Some of them had a rainbow sheen to them similar to roadways after the rain.  Others had ‘things’ in them.  Some identifiable such as mini-marshmallows, which I am told are a big favorite, others had ‘things’ that I find impossible and am too faint of heart to try to describe.

God bless all of you in the church basements celebrating those milestones that are our lives – just don’t make me eat the ambrosia.

Next week: The return to the Dinner Diaries

 

MORE CHRISTMAS BRUNCH DIARIES AND CHRISTMAS STORIES

December 24, 2006 

  I really love eggnog – that simple.  There are a lot of foods that I really love – that simple.  It is said that the drink is of English origin, refined in America.  Served with the addition of rum, ‘grog’, in the ‘Colonies’ the name corrupted to eggnog.  Or if you prefer, a punch drink served from a small wooden carved mug called a ‘noggin’ and corrupted to eggnog.  Whatever, though in all honesty the derivations and evolutions fascinate me.  The perfect holiday treat as it has alcohol.   

I have been making eggnog with this recipe since Bonnie and I first got together more than 20 years ago.  Bonnie also being an eggnog lover.  This is another one of those ‘dishes’ that are really easy to make.  In all the time I’ve been making and serving it I have never had anyone get sick from the raw eggs (talk about tempting the Gods for retribution).  Actually, studies estimate that there is a 1 in 10,000 chance of your eggs containing harmful bacteria.  I’ll take those odds.  Please God be kind.  If anyone’s going to get sick let it be me and not my wife or friends – there is that one neighbor though. 

My recipe is on the computer because the cookbook that contains it is falling apart and I worry about losing it.  The recipe is from the ‘Good Housekeeping Cook Book’, copyright 1944, 7th edition.  This cook book was given to me by my mother when I left home for the Rhode Island School of Design in 1968.  Though I had no idea that I’d be cooking evidently mom thought that it would serve me well.  She was right – as she often is.  This eggnog tastes fantastically good.  Thanks Mom.

 

December 14, 2003  

 All Right!!!!!!  This is as it should be. 

This was a great Christmas Brunch.  To begin with the weather is as it should be in December – SNOWING!  OK, a little sleet.  I’m of the opinion that it should be snowing, snow on the ground from November through March.  There HAS to be snow at Christmas.  Many folks cancelled out on account of the weather –we missed them but soldiered on.  Our stalwart friends of decades had been joined with new acquaintances – soon to be old friends And we have a MONDO  hit of a new entry with the GUMBO.  I was looking for the proverbial ‘stick to the ribs, its cold out dish’ and this was spot on.  Chef Barry loved it, though he said that the roux could be darker – advise that I have taken to heart.  And one of my dearest friends, Brooke, has pronounced it the best that she has ever tasted.  This praise coming from a woman who went from New York State to years of Louisiana living.  A beautiful woman who pulls no punches and wouldn’t say it if it weren’t true.  A woman who knows her gumbo and a whole lot more. 

It is goooood.  Thick with a wonderful mahogany color  that’s broken by the red tomato pieces, pink shrimp, forest green okra, white chicken, bright green peppers and red hued crab and the hints of andouille sausage slices through the sauce.  Serve it at a perfect hot temperature over nice white rice so that you get every drop of the sauce.  A combination of spices that make a journey across  your taste buds; the immediate heat of the Louisiana Hot Sauce, the lingering heat of the Cayenne Pepper, in between the red pepper flakes and herbs – punch – counter punch – TKO with the chewy/spicy/hot andouille.  The velvet texture of the okra against the firmness of the shrimp and the shrimp/crab flavors of the marsh. A Merry Christmas indeed!!!

December 14, 2003 (cont.)

A very festive party indeed – look at the quantities of libations consumed.

 

   

I never said that I wasn’t a little off.  Here we have Santa being lead by a pair of leather moose, Mickey and Minnie, wearing Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer noses.  Not only are the moose not reindeer, they were made in India.

 

December 17, 2006

 

So here we are, the 2006 Christmas Brunch.  Our 20th Brunch and the last – so far.  As I write this we haven’t yet seen Christmas 2007.   I think on Bonnie and I having had the great and wonderful PRIVILEGE of having been able to accomplish this, to salute our friends in this manor and I am thrilled and humbled.  Oh, yeah.  I also think that I am one Hell of a cook and host for doing this!  Damn Proud Pilgrim! 

 December 17, 2006 (cont.)

 

The preparations for the 2006 brunch shall forever live in my memory.  I can laugh about it now, in the midst of the ‘event’ I really didn’t have time to laugh – too much chaos.

The Sausage Bread recipe from Anne Casale is truly produces a very good item.  It takes time so I make it ahead and freeze it (not too much ahead, you want it tasty).  It’s yeasted dough rolled with a tasty mix of cheeses, sausage, meats and seasonings.  Always a real mover at the brunches.  The recipe states, it should be baked in a shallow baking tray.  I found out why a cookie sheet doesn’t work.  I also found out that you should never have a smoke detector located in the kitchen area. 

It was getting late, it was a week night, I was tired and the cookie sheets, rather than the baking trays were RIGHT THERE for me to put the sausage breads on and pop them into the oven.  So, I did.

With these breads you fold and press together a nice little seam on the bottom to hold all of the ingredients as they bake.  If you haven’t closed this seam, or if you’ve overstuffed the bread something’s going to leak out.  That something being the cheese. 

December 17, 2006 (cont.)

So, the first faint, gauzy tendrils of smoke start to issue from the stove vent.  Pop open the oven door and notice that some cheese is indeed leaking onto the cookie sheet and from there onto the floor of the oven.  Should have used those baking sheets.   

Turn on the exhaust hood over the stove and crack a window open to get better air circulation.  There, that’s better. 

The smoke detectors in the house are wired to a central alarm system.  I hooked up to the system because we do live off the beaten path and if the house caught on fire it’d be a while before anyone noticed. 

Hey! Look at that!  One hell of a lot more smoke!  And then, the smoke alarm goes off.  The noise that the alarm makes is enough to shatter your teeth and pop your eyeballs out of your skull.  The poor cat is clinging to the ceiling, Bonnie rushes into the room and I can barely see her through the smoke, we’re opening doors and windows as fast as we can and waving dishtowels at the alarms in hope of dispersing the smoke.  And the alarm continues its assault.  When the alarm goes off the central alarm station calls you.  IF you answer and tell them that everything is more or less under control they say goodnight.  If you don’t answer their call they call your police and fire departments, telling them that your house is burning down. 

December 17, 2006 (cont.)

 

The alarm continued to scream, we continued to wave dishtowels, we did not hear the telephone ring.  In an eternity of a few minutes we got most of the smoke out of the house, turned off the alarm and pried the cat off the ceiling.

We were genuinely surprised when a couple of minutes later the doorbell rang.  Nobody rings our doorbell late at night on a week night.  Peer through the window next to the door to see – four fire trucks with all lights flashing, two police cars with all lights flashing and a whole lot of policemen and firemen on our front porch.  The firemen carrying axes and hoses.   God bless the alarm company they had in fact done their job.  I open the door and say to the police officer, “Good evening officer, how can I help you?”  It was an automatic response to the axes that the firemen were carrying.  The officer says, “The alarm company has called us reporting a fire here.  We need to come in to be sure that everything is OK.”  All the lights still flashing and I’m getting the sense that the firemen, God love ’em, really want to swing those axes through parts of our home.  My shock is slowly receding to be replaced by panic and fear, “No fire officer, just a lot of smoke from some cooking that ‘got away from me’.”  I’m picturing axes going through the walls of our home.  The red white and blue lights are still flashing and four BIG fire trucks and two police cars look pretty scary sitting in front of the house.  And then our friend is standing beside the police officer.  The alarm company also calls any additional contact on your list and our friend was on that list.  Our friend and the police officer look at each other and the recognition for both is instantaneous – there had been some ‘history’ between them in regards to a past ‘matter’.   It was the kind of thing that you could see the officer thinking, for a split second, “If she’s a friend of theirs ……”  The police officer says hello to her and she says hello to him.  I can sense the axe hands getting more and more eager.   I’m trying to find my ‘happy place’, but it has fled the scene.  The officer says to our friend, “these are friends of yours?”  Our friend, “Yes.”  Me, “She’s one of our best friends.”  I’ll always stand by you.  The officer turns back to me, “Are you sure that there was no fire?”  Me, seeing a pinpoint of light at the end of the tunnel, “Positive, just some melting cheese in the oven.”  The officer, “Well, I guess that we’ll be going then.”  Me, “I’m sorry that we got all of you folks out here for nothing, thank you.”  The disappointment of the firemen not having a reason to chop holes slowly, very slowly, evaporates.  The fire trucks, police cars, firemen and police officers made quite a procession as they exited our lane.  Our friend came in, gave Bonnie and I a hug and, at her suggestion, my trembling hands opened a bottle of Tequila and the three of us each had a pretty sizeable shots.  Goodbyes and thanks were said and it was back to baking the breads – in shallow baking sheets.

I shall always be grateful to the alarm company and most certainly to our township fire and police departments.  I did feel bad that all that manpower came out for nothing.  Next time – follow the recipe.  Chances are good that it tells you what to do for a reason.

 

 

My parents gave me this Santa on my first Christmas.   

 

 How interesting that the last ‘page’ of the 2006 Brunch has to deal with the booze, ice and ‘A LOT OF WORK’.  Interesting because in reality the wine and Dave’s Bloody Mary’s are not the core.  The core, as I’ve written before, being that we make this effort so that we can share the Holidays with our friends.  I am always proud and grateful that we can do this.  Which is why it hurt as much as it does when we can’t. 

  

Dessert: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens 

“Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.

He had no further intercourse with Spirits.  And it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!”

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays.

With Love,

Ebenezer, Tiny Tim & Big Dave

 

Next week: The in-laws and food, church basements and ambrosia and more Dinner Diaries

 

 

THE CONTINUING DINNER DIARIES OF DAVE AND BONNIE’S CHRISTMAS BRUNCH

I’ll be skipping some years of the Christmas Brunch Dinner Diaries.  As I’ve written before, Christmas gets here much too quickly, too quickly to include all of the brunch stories.

 December 11, 1988

 

How boring is this menu?      I mean really Dave.  Didn’t you give any thought to this particular brunch?  There are only four real ‘dishes’ on the menu here: the Sausage Breads, the Ham Brunch Torte, the Gravlax (as I wrote; not a mover – pre Sushi and Sashimi times) and the Meatballs in Almond sauce.  I remember those meatballs.  Heavy, heavy heavy, with a grey-brown ‘gravy’ and an overpowering garlic flavor.  The gravlax turned out well.  It was a good sized salmon fillet with a nice pink-red color, firm and the wonderful cured fish flavor of slat, sugar and dill.   With the level of expertise that I had at the time I’m impressed that I made this dish.  Too bad the rest of the assembly wasn’t as hot for gravlax as Bonnie and I were. 

Beyond the gravlax and the ham brunch tote everything else is just so boring.  Nothing with style, imagination or flair.  Bagels and quiche?  Been there too often.  And sometimes it goes like that.  If I were exec chefy in a restaurant I couldn’t get away with this for any length of time, but here, on home turf, maybe I’ll forgive myself.  Maybe not.   As I accumulated more culinary expertise the desire to reach for the stars menu-wise grew.  However, just a few years into the brunch I was satisfied if each dish turned out well and was ready.  

  

Christmas ornaments ready to be hung on the tree 

 

December 10, 1989

 

OK, trying to make up for the laziness of the previous year.   As you can see, I began to expand on my instructions and comments.  Finally realizing that It’ll help in the coming year.  The menu?  Some classics and traditional: sausage breads, salmon brunch torte and glazed ham.  Some new entries: warm tortellini salad with cheese and cream sauce and the plum pudding. 

 The Sausage Bread from ‘Italian Family Cooking’ was, still is, a favorite.  The Plum Pudding with Hard Sauce; I don’t believe that it was a ‘mover’.  However, what the Hell is potato salad doing on the menu?  Maybe I thought that it paired with the ham, but that’s just wrong, so wrong. 

December 1990 

 

This one still hurts.  In December of 1990 I had been unemployed since the late summer.  It takes a couple of dollars for us to throw the brunch so there was no way that we could do it that year.  As good as Jasper White’s potato pancakes were, and they are very good, they couldn’t save the situation.   I know that we had an OK Christmas, my present to Bonnie being a handmade wooden box with intricate joinery.  The box was filled with several sheets of water colors that I had done, each illustrating the ‘promise’ of an event or present for the coming year.  I think that I still owe her some of those. 

But when all is said and done I had let us down.  I consider Bonnie and I keepers of this tradition and through my unemployment I had failed to keep the tradition.  You might think that it’s silly for me to consider that a simple social gathering has that kind of import for me, but it does.  It’s the opportunity to cook for friends.  The opportunity to ‘show off’ certainly; if you love to cook all of your cooking carries that to greater or lesser degrees, but it also gives me the chance to thank folks for their friendship, to let them know that I consider them important, to be able to ‘provide’ for them.  As with all traditions, and with cooking, the foundations, the causations, are seldom simple nor are they one dimensional.  It’s up to each of us to both add to them and take from them what we will. 

 

Christmas decorations on the picket fence 

 December 21, 1997

 

And then there are the times that our cats have taken center stage in the proceedings.   

I love cats.  That’s not always been the case but I have in the past 20 some odd years I have come to treasure their independence, affection and intelligence.  Dogs are good but they’re always so damn pleading and needy compared to cats.  I like the feline attitude which is basically, “I’ll get to you when I get to you – now leave me alone”.   

Our cats actions prior to the Christmas Brunch, and when I say ‘prior to’ I don’t mean a day or two, I mean the hour of, have let us say ‘strained’ the limits of my affection and patience for these ‘members of the family’.  Our cat population has varied between one to three cats – at present we’re at one and for now that’s just fine.  You may recall my ‘mentioning’ one of our cats ‘Rick’.  Rick was an odd one;  unable to focus both eyes in the same direction (how did he ever catch any animals?), had six toes on one of his feet and an expression that made you wonder if he was really all here, I suspect that his body was here but that his ‘mind’ was wondering The Faraway Lands.   

December 13, 1998

 

  

At this particular Christmas Brunch preparations were going along very well.  That is to say, that the chaos was at a minimum, all of the dishes were at the point that they should be, the shotgun house in Princeton was nicely decorated in a traditional somewhat reserved manner, Christmas music playing and no cats were climbing IN the Christmas tree.  We were ready for the arrival of the first guests and looking forward to a wonderful party.  I was in the kitchen and Rick the cat strolled in, rubbing against my leg – the universal cat gesture for ‘you may pick me up and lavish me with affection – now!”  I did as demanded.  I was ‘making nice’ to Rick when Bonnie walked in to the kitchen, dressed to the proverbial ‘9’s’ for the festivities – and froze, her face expressing extreme concern – calling it what it was – a scared shit look. 

Her words, “MY GOD DAVID!!!  WHERE IS ALL THAT BLOOD FROM!!!???” 

December 12, 1999

 

    

I was, of course, wearing a white shirt.  I looked down and saw that I was wearing a shirt that looked like it had been in a Sam Peckinpah movie.  Nice and white and covered with big, big blotches of bright red blood.  Now I’m more than a little freaked out!  Stigmata?  Are you eligible for Stigmata if you’re a much lapsed Roman Catholic Polish Lad?  I thought that Stigmata was associated with Easter?   Where the hell is all that blood from?  I think I’m OK.  I feel OK.  Nothing hurts me.  Look down at the floor and see … these bloody little paw prints.  Pick Rick up, look at his paws and sure enough – the paw pads are sliced on one of his feet, blood pumping out.   

No problem.  We’ll just try to grab Rick’s paw and apply some pressure (all of you out there that know cats know how easy that was), take him in a car to the emergency vet (of course this was late Sunday morning – try tracking down your own doctor on a Sunday) all the while keeping Bonnie’s clothes blood free and dealing with the guests that would be showing up in about – 15 MINUTES.  How in the hell do animals develop that kind of sense of timing?  Why couldn’t this have happened the day before or the day after? 

 

Rhetorical questions I know but, Jesus what timing.  So, Bonnie’s off the vet with a blood soaked Rick, I’m cleaning up the floor and looking for any other places that his bleeding paw may have landed, finishing up the food and – changing my shirt and what I have recently discovered are blood soaked pants. 

Hi!!! Come On IN!!!  Merry Christmas!!!  Where’s Bonnie!!!??? 

She’ll Be Here In A Bit!!!  Let Me Take Your Coats And Tell You What Just Happened – Edited For Holiday Consumption!!!

Not to be outdone, our other cat ‘Jazz’ pulled, more or less, the same stunt a year or two later.  This time it was several abscesses (we no longer let our cats outside – and we don’t declaw them either).  Same time, same place, “hey, do you smell something bad?”  Doing sniff tests of all the food, the bathrooms, the laundry, the refrig, the drains and finally – Jazz.  In all honesty I thought, for a split second, this can wait until tomorrow, I’ll just lock the cat in the basement for now.  But then my ’innate goodness and compassion’ (Honest!) won out and it was Bonnie and Jazz to the vet – again and me single handedly finalizing the Brunch.  Our vet does, I presume with some ‘gleefulness’, send us Christmas cards. He writes, “See you soon!”  We’re going to have to start inviting him to the brunch.

 

Bonnie’s Christmas Eve Lasagna

Bonnie is a fine cook in her own right, though she prefers to bake rather than cook.  Christmas cookies that our friends DEMAND and wonderful pies.   We’ve had friends who received the cookies at Christmas call, asking for more.  She is the absolute queen, nay, Supreme Empress of pie crusts.  As with many exceptional things the recipe for her pie crust is simple.  No gee gaws or flashy useless bling.  If I gave you the recipe you wouldn’t make a pie crust that is anywhere near as good.  It’s all in her technique.  The way she incorporates the ingredients, how she lets it rest, how she rolls out the dough and how its baked.  It always turns out flaky, light, tasty and – perfect.   All her doing; the whole being greater than the sum of the parts.

Bonnie also makes the Christmas Eve Lasagna.  We celebrate with her brother and his family and the lasagna is enjoyed by all.  Of course, I make lasagna and it’s different from Bonnie’s – as it should be.  Dare I posit the question, which of us makes the better lasagna?  Well, I do of course.   Bonnie’s is wonderful – mine is better.  We have a different approach to cooking a meal also, as you might have imagined.  I sweat all the details, everything item and action is on a list.  I mean, I’m the kind of guy who went out and purchased a book on how to fold napkins in decorative ways.  I just wanted to make sure that the table looked nice.  Bonnie’s approach is different.  Our typical Christmas Eve Bonnie Cooking Dinner Conversation goes like this,

Dave, “Do you want me to pick up the fixins’ for the lasagna and dinner?”

Bonnie, “Yes”

Dave, “Have you made a list of what you need?”

Bonnie, “No, I haven’t made a list.  You know what I need.”

Dave, “No, I don’t know what you need.  Look, just tell me and I’ll make the list.”

Bonnie, “lasagna noodles, ricotta cheese, meat, tomato sauce, you know.”

Dave, “You’re really going to use a canned tomato sauce?”

Bonnie, “Ask me that one more time and you’ll be very sorry that you did.”

Dave, “Do you need onions?”

Bonnie, “Oh, I do.”

Dave, “Do you need garlic?”

Bonnie, “Oh, I do.”

Dave, “How much of these ingredients do you need, one pound, two pounds?”

Bonnie, “you know, the big ones and the medium ones, you know that can size”.

Dave, “Can you be more specific?”

Bonnie, “Do I need to be?”

Dave, “what about an appetizer, wines, bread, salad, desert?”

Bonnie, “Oh yeah.  Get some of that.”

I give in first, there’s just no point in continuing.  It happens every year so who’s the idiot here?  Despite it all, or maybe because of it, a wonderful Christmas Eve dinner is created and all is right with the world. 

 

Next Week:  More Christmas Brunch Diaries and Christmas Stories!!!!

 

THE CHRISTMAS BRUNCH AND THE CHRISTMAS GOOSE or DONNER PARTY EAST

DAVE & BONNIE’S CHRISTMAS BRUNCH

One of the things that have resulted from my cooking has been the tradition that Bonnie and I started in 1985 – THE CHRISTMAS BRUNCH.  The intro had to be in bold type for this is one of Bonnie’s and mine greatest, most holy and hallowed traditions!  Damn, do we both shine with this fest!  

A group of friends eating MY food to celebrate Christmas and the Holiday Season.  The first one took place on December 22, 1985.  At the time Bonnie and I were renting a small house in Princeton.  A shotgun layout with a powder room on the first floor that had a sink and a toilet in a room so small that you had to straddle the toilet to have room to shut the door.  That bathroom was barely heated so it could be used as a refrigerator if you stacked things judiciously – and made sure that it had been cleaned.  I’m not sure where the idea of the brunch came from except for the fact that I love to cook for people and Bonnie has friends (I have been described as an irascible, tactless, crusty old fart – my friends are few and far between).

After hosting these brunches for more than 20 years or so there is a routine about them but not complacency and certainly not boredom.  There is always the excitement of the cooking and the excitement that comes from our friends enjoying my cooking.   I love the Christmas season so there’s that too.  The house looks nice, we don’t go crazy with a lot of weird decorations (unless you count the light-up snowman, penguin and Santa Claus that grace the small balcony in the entry hall – yeah, my doing) a live Christmas Tree with multi-colored bulbs that do not flash and do not sing, shiny bright (quite literally for some of them) glass ornaments. No outdoor ornaments except for the pine bow wreath on the door and the red ribbon bows and fir branches on the picket fence posts.  Above all, the cooking.  I start planning about a month or so ahead.  Fine tune the menu, the shopping lists, the plan of attack – what gets done when.  I Love It!  Excitement builds, I do nothing but cook and for the week before we’re eating pizza and take out sushi for dinner.

 

The First Christmas Brunch                December 22, 1985 

 

 

OK, the melon & prusciutto are a bit weird in the winter, the rest pretty simple and fitting. Some dishes did show some real flair and audacity: the Sausage Bread, the Brunch Torte and, of course, the Croquembouche.

 The (Italian) Sausage Bread recipe comes from Italian Family Cooking – Like Mama Used To Make, by Anne Casale.  Anne died in 2002.  The book, signed to me in Anne’s very own hand, was given to me by one of her relatives Nina (the “Nina” of our guest list).  It’s an absolutely wonderful cookbook  – buy it (it’s still in print!) and use it.  The Brunch Torte was one of those recipes that came in a brochure when you bought your Cuisinart.  Great looking and great tasting, its layers of seasoned spinach, eggs with cheese, salmon or ham, baked in a springform pan.  Somehow I lost this recipe but It’s imbedded in my mind (can you believe that!) and I still recreate it.   

The croquembouche was really something else.  I actually pulled it off perfectly – how the hell did I manage that?  As with all of our Christmas Brunches I’m usually up about 3:00 AM to finish off the cooking.  That’s getting harder to do as I get older.  But back to the “Croq”, I actually made the pate a choux and Crème Patissiere from scratch, assembled them the day of the brunch so that they wouldn’t get soggy and spun caramelized sugar over the assembled pyramid.  Actually, Bonnie reminds me that several batches of both the pate a choux and the Crème Patissiere were made – AND TOSSED OUT – they weren’t exactly the way that they should be.  Finally, it looked and tasted fantastic and now that I know what goes into it I’m absolutely positive that my mother in law never made cream puffs from scratch – she just doesn’t love cooking.  

There was no expectation of the Christmas Brunch becoming a regular event.  Not the smallest spark in either my thoughts or Bonnie’s that we had started a tradition that would become so important to us and to our friends. 

 

We have two stone pillars that flank the entrance of the lane that leads to our home.  They cry out for Christmas decoration so naturally we wrap a ribbon around them and attach a bow to the front of them.  Santa hasn’t missed us yet.  We’ve asked around, but nobody seems to have a clue as to what these pillars heralded.

 

The Christmas Goose Dinner Or Donner Party East

Being who I am, that would be a middle aged guy flawed in so many ways, I have no right to throw stones at the dinner and our friend (well she was our friend) in the story that I am about to tell you – but I will.  Every once in a while a dinner disaster befalls someone else and I can’t but gloat a little.  Knowing, of course, my turn will come up again.

And so it was with The Christmas Goose Dinner.  We were invited to a Christmas Holiday Dinner where a roasted goose (geese) was to have been the centerpiece of the festivities.  The evening was Christmas card perfect with a little snow falling, snow on the ground from a previous snowfall that had yet to turn gray, Christmas lights decorating homes and I was in a wonderful mood.  Bonnie was by my side and I’m really looking forward to dinner and the evening.       I was mildly curious as to how this would come off , this goose dinner, because, at the time, the woman cooking dinner was incapable of finding her way out of the proverbial paper bag or tying her shoelace.  However, it was Christmas, someone was cooking me dinner and I put any concerns from my mind. 

We arrived, a festively decorated Christmas House, and a group of about 8 or 10 merry holiday people.  Immediately upon our arrival our hostess whisked me aside and said sotto voce, “DO YOU THINK THAT I SHOULD PUT THE GOOSE IN THE OVEN NOW?”  My mind exploded and froze simultaneously – I’m hungry and want to eat TONIGHT damn it and how the hell is ONE GOOSE going to serve 8 OR 10 GUESTS?  My voice was thin, nervous, quivering as I responded by saying, “uh, uh, uh, you mean you haven’t started to cook the GEESE (please God let the plural be correct) yet?”

It must have been the tone of my response.  A tone that would have been the perfect accompaniment for the following phrases, “Yeah, we saw an iceberg, but it’s nothing to worry about.  I’m just going to put on my life preserver to see if it fits and take a stroll on the deck to see where the too few lifeboats are in case we ever want to take a photo of them.  Don’t wait up for me.”  

Unfortunately, she picked up on the panic in my voice.  The tone of her response coming close to matching mine with the added scene stealer of sweat beginning to bead on her brow and upper lip saying, “no, I haven’t started cooking the GOOSE (oh my God it was the SINGULAR!), is that a problem?”  My mind screamed, “NOT A PROBLEM IF WE WANT TO EAT IN ABOUT TWO HOURS AND TAKE A SINGLE BITE EACH!”  I wanted to say that but, that would be tactless.  In dulcet tones I did say, “It’s not a problem if we want to eat in about two hours and take a single bite each.”  I followed that by saying, “get me a big alcoholic drink and let’s go into the kitchen and see what we can do about this – I’m sure that we’ll figure something out.”  One option to “figuring something out” was to cut off each of her fingers, bone them, season them, pan fry them and try to pass them off as Buffalo Wings – it would be quick.  There on the kitchen counter lay this single, forlorn, room temperature, never seen the inside of an oven –  goose. 

I cranked the oven up to 500°, took a huge gulp of my drink, cut the legs and wings from the SINGLE GOOSE, removed the breasts and scorched all these pieces in a really hot pan, kinda reassembled them, put it all in the 500° oven, took a huge gulp of my drink, saw to it that the exhaust fan was on – a window open  – and the fire department phone number close at hand, took another really huge gulp of my drink – and prayed.  How the hell did I get mixed up in this?  Was this all going to be my fault?  Somebody get a rope, hang our hostess!  The guests in the meantime were getting restless.  Very restless.  This happens to me too often, I’m running with the wrong crowd.  Though the booze supply was holding up, there was little to eat, appetizers almost gone and wait until they calculated their portion size when they saw the SINGLE GOOSE.  Christmas Season and the “visions of sugarplums” were giving way to “visions of the Donner Party”.   Maybe we guests really would hang our hostess?    That would make a hell of a Christmas memory – you won’t see that in a holiday commemorative snow globe from Hallmark! 

AND THEN A MIRACLE OCCURRED!!!      A CHRISTMAS MIRACLE!!!

Not the first miracle that I’d been privy to (police not pulling me over, girlfriends not being pregnant, the house not being foreclosed on, graduating from High School and College, Bonnie loving me and marrying me and still being married to me and still loving me – all bona fide miracles).  Guests arrived that had been obligated to attend an earlier party and had planned on coming later to say hello (I’m hazily remembering that it was about 10:30 or later and all that we’d had to eat were appetizers) and

THESE NEW ARRIVALS BROUGHT DESSERT!!!!!!

Not just dessert but, LOTS of dessert.  I don’t even remember what it was except that WE HAD FOOD TO EAT.  Gaiety returned to the party, the iceberg passed far off starboard, the hangman’s rope was put back in the closet and the gallows dismantled.  I believe that we eventually ate the goose.  It was not raw, though very rare.  See, they are right!  You never know what’s going to happen, so eat dessert first. 

As a ‘fine arts graduate’ I do find the idea of the COMMEMORATIVE CHRISTMAS GOOSE DINNER SNOW GLOBE appealing: nice round classic glass snow globe, small gallows, hostess with a noose around her neck (if you build it right she could swing back and forth as you shook the globe), hood over the head or not (two versions, one is rated ‘M’ for mature), ONE forlorn goose on the snow covered ground in front of her, eight or ten hungry people circled around her their arms raised high in anger holding knives and forks and bows of holly and pine with red ribbons scattered about on the snow covered ground.  Let’s not forget the pine cones spelling out ‘Merry Christmas’.  I have to pick a good song for the music box in the base of the snow globe.  Suggestions?

 

JEAN AND THE GINGERBREAD HOUSE

My parents grew older.  We all know the story.  As they grew older they were less and less able to take care of themselves.  They moved from the home where they raised my brothers and me, moving first to an assisted living community and eventually to a nursing home.  It was a nice nursing home, but it wasn’t home.  The chopped ham and pickle, the potato salad and certainly the Christmas decorations became memories.

It was Bonnie that came up with the idea bringing Mom a gingerbread house to decorate.  Something for Mom to do, something to get the Christmas spirit flowing, a new tradition to accommodate the reality of the present circumstances.  Mom, being who she was, ate a fair amount of the decoration, along with microscopic sips of coffee from the cup at her side.  It took several hours to decorate the house, time well spent deciding what piece of candy went where on the house, catching up on the family news and discussing the state of the world.  As I grow older I realize how much my parents gave to me.  It was nice to be able to give something back – especially at Christmas.

If Mom were alive she’d smack me for putting her picture in here.  Why?  Because she was never happy with the way her hair looked.

 

Christmas Brunch             December 14, 1986

 

 

And the Christmas Brunches started, and have continued.  The menu changes and remains the same with some dishes becoming classic, must have, traditions and other dishes being tried once and put aside and some dishes disappearing and reappearing.  And it’s the same with the guests.  Some have always been, some are new and some will appear and reappear.  Life.

Regardless of where we’ve been living, how big or small the home has been and how the rooms of the home have been laid out everyone congregates in the kitchen area.  A phenomenon well known to all that have entertained a group of people in their home.  While I’m sure that there’s a logical explanation I’ve yet to discover it.  Why not take your drink, that plate of nice food and with two or three other folks go to the chairs set by the window that has such a nice view, or the sofa by the Christmas tree?  I can see only one solution to this – bigger kitchens. 

This is a pretty simple menu.  You’ll see in that the menus for the more recent brunches have expanded and become more complex.

I served venison at a Christmas Brunch?  I must have been crazy – I usually keep it for myself.

 

Next Week: More Christmas Brunches and more Christmas stories