Monday, January 6, 2014

Comfort And Joy

It’s the same every year here in Baltimore, Maryland, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.  My dear friends, Robert and Jan, host Thanksgiving dinner at their lovely home in the city and then I, in turn, host Christmas dinner at my farmhouse in the county.  Besides Robert and Jan, the usual suspects are present at each occasion with a few variations from time to time: Jan’s brother, Robby, his wife, Ging, and their darling eight-year-old son, Jimmy, along with my former husband and perpetual friend, Jesse.  We love celebrating these two holidays together as a family each year, and I have relished preparing a festive meal and opening gifts under the tree with this gang for several years now. It has become a lovely tradition that I hope continues for a long time.

This nine-foot tree is covered with
ornaments collected over a lifetime
Stockings stuffed with cat and
horse treats hang from the mantel
It was last December, having already chosen my menu for Christmas 2012, that I happened upon a magazine article featuring a Christmas spread that looked so tantalizing that I cut it out and filed it away for resurrection this season. A pork roast, called a “salute roast” because the bones of the chops seem to stand at attention, appealed because it was less typical than turkey or ham.  And Robert had mentioned that he’d been craving acorn squash, so I was pleased that this menu called for the gourd to be baked in brown butter and maple syrup.  With a course of robust soup, a hearty vegetable and a delicious-sounding pie to round things out, I decided that I would recreate the magazine menu exactly as described, adding only a before-dinner libation and a few appetizers.  I would be out of town the weekend before Christmas, so I started my preparations early.

Candles glow on my front porch
I receive Christmas cards
from all over the country
On the first weekend in December I erected a nine-foot Christmas tree in a corner of the living room of my 150-year-old house.  Decorating my tree is itself a day-long process.  The fresh cut spruce, chosen from a lot down the street from my home, takes eight hours to complete, starting with over 1000 colored lights.  My ornaments have tremendous sentimental value.  Some belonged to my parents in the 1950s. Others have been collected over fifty years of tree decorating.  Still others are treasured gifts.
I made this bell in Sunday school
I smile when I pull out a series of tiny, crocheted ornaments, handmade by the grandmother of my first husband.  And I still adore the bell I made in Sunday school when I was five years old, constructed from a single egg carton compartment, the cardboard painted red and tied with a dainty bow.

Sweet potatoes were whisked over
 an ice bath before being folded
into the pie crust
I made homemade applesauce and
culinary butter as gifts for my guests
I set a poinsettia on every riser of the staircase that curves from my foyer to the second level of my home, and wound a garland of faux pine around the banister. On my coffee table I set out two treasured photo albums: one a collection of handmade Christmas cards from 1953 to 1972, each designed by my father as I was growing up.  A 43-year employee of the Eastman Kodak company, first in Los Angeles and then in San Francisco, I have fond memories of my dad carting us all to Kodak’s headquarters
My father did the artwork by hand.
This is a Christmas card from 1961
on a Saturday when the building was empty, where he would arrange us on a stage in the photo studio and pose us for portraits.  A few weeks later, we would return to the Kodak dark room, where each family member would be positioned at our respective stations.  Even at a very tender age, I closely monitored trays filled with smelly developer and other chemicals and, with only the faint glow of a yellow bulb to see by, watched my timer diligently so I could call out to my father when it was time to move the prints from one stop to the next.  Such memories that old album holds!

Spiced walnut and bleu cheese terrine
was well-received by my guests
I served green beans with
Thai curry sauce in shot
glasses as an appetizer
In the other album is a collection of Christmas letters that I have sent to friends and family over the years, starting in 1991 when I first moved away from California and had much news to share about new worlds I was exploring as I shuffled across the country.  These cards chronicle my adult years in annual missives which bear witness to the agony and joy of a life lived fully. 

The dinner table was set with my
grandmother's gold-trimmed china 
Each chair was embellished with fresh
greens and berries from my yard
In my dining room I piled my fireplace mantel high with aromatic evergreens harvested from my two-acre property and hung old-fashioned, handmade Christmas stockings in front of the fire for each of my cats and my horse. I draped the chandelier over my dining table with red beads, holly, golden tassels and glittering bows.  More evergreen garlands were wound around the columns on my front porch and laid across its railing, where the undulating greens created niches for softly flickering pillar candles.  An evergreen wreath, festooned with brightly colored ornaments, faux fruit and pinecones, took a place of honor on my front door.

Onion soup was served as the
first course
Ging and her son, Jimmy, eagerly
await carving of the roast
Once the house was adorned with all the vestiges of the season and gaily-wrapped gifts had been carefully arranged on my grandmother’s embroidered tree skirt, I set about preparing the holiday meal. A bleu cheese and spiced-walnut terrine that I’d made for a festive dinner party in October would star as a Christmas appetizer, so enamored was I of the dish a few months ago, and the fact that I could make it a day ahead.  Sweet potato icebox pie, redolent with dark rum, homemade whipped cream and sugared thyme sprigs, also was assembled the day before.

Desserts await consumption
This sweet potato pie recipe is
definitely a "keeper"
On Christmas day, wild boar pâté, an impulse buy, took its place in the center of a plate surrounded by tiny toast points.  I sliced a multigrain baguette into thin rounds and topped each one with horseradish sauce, smoked salmon and capers.  And I arranged eight shot glasses on a serving tray and filled each one with Thai red curry sauce, into which I plunged barely blanched haricots verts.

I garnished the roast with cranberries,
kumquats and sage leaves
Robert loved my acorn squash
The roast, having been rubbed with parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme, all harvested from my garden, went into the oven right on time. I called my family in California as they sat down to Christmas brunch at my brother’s house and then got to work on Brussels sprouts with pancetta and a rich soup of caramelized onions broiled in individual ramekins topped with slices of baguette and Fontina cheese. 

A bounty of gifts awaited
under the tree
When it was time to choose my attire for Christmas dinner, I dressed for comfort, pulling on my favorite black vintage travel slacks by JCPenney and a red-sequined tank top by Material Girl from Macy’s.  I added jeweled earrings from a tiny shop in Park City, Utah, and a gorgeous beaded bracelet made for me by my high-school classmate, Lily, and dashed back downstairs to pour homemade mulled wine into my parents’ heirloom punch bowl and put the finishing touches on the meal.

As my guests gathered in the living room before the repast, we toasted our good fortune and steadfast friendships.  A crackling fire cast its glow upon the dining table as we dug in to our Christmas fare and enjoyed a lovely zinfandel and claret brought by Robby and Ging.  Once sated, we adjourned to the living room where we took turns exclaiming with delight as we opened gifts from one another. When the space beneath the tree was littered with torn paper and empty boxes, we returned to the dining room to partake of dessert.  My sweet potato pie was a hit, as was a remarkable raspberry bûche de Noël contributed by Robert and Jan.

The fellowship of good friends and beloved family
is what the celebration of Christmas is all about
There is much to be said for tradition.  This is exactly how Christmas day has unfolded for me and my cherished guests for at least the past five years now. I relish the comfort of being surrounded by familiar faces on this most special of days. I revel in the joy of such intimate fellowship sewn over so many seasons. I bask in the warmth of holiday tidings and goodwill.  It’s Christmas. I am at peace.

1 comment:

  1. What a feast, and what a labor of love. You had a very Merry and Peaceful Christmas for sure. May this new year bring you all good things.