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