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.
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?”
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!!!!