|Christmas Eve for Kecklers|
|December 21, 2002|
Every family has their special traditions at Christmas. Ones they are loathe to part with no matter what the reason for change -- college, marriage, children, whatever. In my house we had two: a very democratic way of decorating the tree and Christmas Eve dinner. For some reason Christmas dinner -- though always delectable because of the duck, crown roast, or rack of lamb that was enticingly served on my parents' gold edged Royal Lenox wedding china -- was just not as important or highly anticipated to as Christmas Eve dinner. Christmas Eve dinner never varied from year to year and if it varied at all, it was only to add not take away. Had anything ever been taken off the menu, there would have been a serious ruckus at our house with mine and my sisters' voices at the center of it. Every once in awhile my mother tried to reason with us, wheedling that last year no one really ate many of the little chicken wings and there were a lot of leftovers so couldn't she just forget about them that year? "No," we'd insist, "We have to have them." It wasn't necessarily true that we were committing ourselves to eating any more that year than in past years, we just wanted them there as an option. Plus, one of the best things about Christmas Eve dinner was having the leftovers for breakfast the next morning once we were bored with our new loot and once the cats were so stoned out of their gourds on their special Christmas catnip they could only lie around in the ruins of the gifts and dab feebly at each other. Another plus was watching my father's face as we effectively ruined our appetites for his special French toast. He only cooked once a year and this was it, so I guess he wanted our palates undefiled by Mom's clam dip and Ruffles.
We went to the early church service, around 4:00, to see the little ones do their wobbly tableau of That Night At The Inn. My sisters and I had been forced to participate in it when we were younger and had seen Westminster through some weird phases: a not-really-Sondheim-esque musical, a faux CNN broadcast that was intent on making A Statement, and an interpretive dance. Actually, we weren't participants in that last one. It was our first Christmas in Minneapolis, and we were in the dark with the rest of the audience while some wild-haired woman with lots of streamers, bangles, and bells, contorted herself down the main aisle of the sanctuary. Reportedly, she was representing "Chaos" in the beginning of time. It was the seventies. I've been informed by my parents that when the dancer stopped flailing, there was a brief silence, and I took advantage of that by commenting, "WELL?" quite loudly. I have no memory of this.
What I do have memories of is finally being allowed to sit in the audience and watch rather than be watched. This was the best part. It didn't take long to spot them, but once you did it was hard to take your eyes off them: the really little kids who didn't know the hymns, and didn't care. They craned around to look at what was happening behind them, chewed on their neighbor's hair, pulled up their robes, jiggled themselves out of tune with the music, and ran down the aisle to converse loudly with their parents. Of course you know what happens when you try not to laugh in church. It only gets worse. Our pew would start to shake, my Dad would glare at us for Not Acting Respectable in Church, and we'd be in for a point-by-point lecture on the way home on How To Behave In A House Of Worship. Controlling ourselves was futile because one of the cherubs would fall backwards off the low risers and we'd lose it all over again.
Back at home, we'd hustle into our pajamas, and depending which sister was having a fit of the sulks at the time, there was usually only two of us helping my mother set up the food while my father built the fire. Christmas Eve dinner is eaten off the living room coffee table, sitting on the floor in front of the tree. The only utensils we use are cheese knives, tiny forks with holiday-themed handles, and escargot pincers, and what we couldn't get with those were gotten by our fingers. Our plates were cocktail-sized and the glasses were always wine, even when they were filled with sparkling Catawba juice. We ate sitting on the floor around a low table because the point of our Christmas Eve dinner was that it wasn't what many would consider a four course meal, it was more like an extended cocktail party. The entire meal is comprised of appetizers, or "tidbits", as we like to call them in our house.
After dinner we were allowed to open one present. It had to be small and it couldn't be from a member of the family. Soon enough, it became part of our tradition to open the gift from Suzie Selcer, our Jewish next door neighbor, who was like an adopted great aunt to us. There were a few years in there when my mother bought us all matching pajamas. She wrapped them up, put them under the tree, and had us open them on Christmas Eve. This was so she could get pictures of us looking grumpy in our Lanz of Salzburg. And boy, was I tasty-looking in those with my Clearisil spots and headgear. Then came carols, if one of us could be induced do our duty at the piano -- which, in the teen years, we couldn't be -- and reading stories aloud. The Littlest Angel made me cry when I was old enough to realize what it was about.
My parents would go off to hear "Nine Lessons and Carols" at the eleven o'clock service and us girls would sneak down to the basement and look for not-yet-wrapped gifts. Then we'd put out cookies and leave a spiked glass of eggnog for Santa. The spiking thing came because we wanted to "catch" my father at being Santa. One year we were out of the traditional additive of rum so we substituted gin instead. I seriously hope my father didn't really drink that concoction. I don't know why it never occurred to us that my father could easily pour the whole disgusting mess down the drain.
As soon as we heard the garage door going up, we scampered upstairs and into bed. There were the years we insisted on all of us sleeping in one room, but one of us always got annoyed with someone's snoring, "letting poops" (the delicate Keckler way of saying "fart"), or general bed hogging and so crankily ended up in our own beds -- not necessarily dreaming of sugarplums.
The Vander Weide Menu for Traditional Christmas Eve Tidbits
-- with notations explaining the Mathra-Keckler way of doing things
The snails are dredged through a paste of butter, scallions, and garlic and packed back into their natural shells or perched on pastry nests. More of the butter paste is applied on top to seal them in. This Christmas Eve, I plan on changing tradition a bit by making Escargots Bourguignonne from The Nero Wolfe Cookbook where mushrooms are called for instead of natural shells or pastry nests.
Sweet-and-Sour Chicken Wings
Mom asked for "drummettes" when she got these from Byerley's. They were more mini-drumsticks than they were wings, which have an inadequate amount of meat. The sauce came out of a Lowry's jar, unfortunately, I don't believe they make it anymore. I usually like to make my own sauces now anyway. That way I can know exactly what goes into them.
Clam Dip with Ruffled Potato Chips
This is an amazing dip. You can't not eat the entire bowl and scrape down the sides. Even in my picky childhood, I loved my mother's clam dip. I just tried to avoid the minced clams. Once I spread it between two pieces of white bread and took it to school for lunch. That wasn't a good idea. This dip is so thick it really needs hearty chips to stand up to it.
Everyone has some rendition of this recipe somewhere. I don't really think there's anything special about this particular one
Never had them and probably never will. My mom and dad liked them. Dad ate them whole, out of the can.
I'm not a fan of these, either. All I can think of is Edith Potter in The Women saying, "Ooh! Don't mention smoked oysters, they turn me emerald green. Now lay off my reputation, girls, while I unswallow." She was pregnant, of course.
Herbed Boursin or Alouette
Other than the Boursin and brie, our "indulging time" cheeses now come from Formaggio Kitchen in West Cambridge, and we save all the wrappers to remember each purchase. Christmas 2001 we had: a Keen's Farmhouse Cheddar, a Morbier Fermier by Poulet Père et Fils from Haut-Jura, a crumbly Lancashire, and a Valençay from the Loire Valley/Touraine.
Carr's assorted table water biscuits
Stoned wheat thins
Melba toast (rounds or slices)
Usually we only have Carr's which go perfectly with brie and Boursin and Old London Garlic Melba Toast for the artichoke dip. The rest I never really liked and francese bread is better with goat cheese any day.
Sliced French Bread
Just add slices of Iggy's Francese to that and you've got it about right.
Pickled watermelon rind
Marinated artichoke hearts
Olives (various - Greek, black, green, etc.)
Gherkins (tiny sweet pickles)
Cornichons (tiny sour pickles)
These days Mathra and I go for less pickled stuff than once my family did. Other than some picholines and kalamatas, the only other pickled thing we now have are Judy's homemade cornichons. I never did know what the pickled watermelon rind was supposed to be and I use marinated artichoke hearts so often in everyday cooking, they seem less special now. Sweet pickles to me are just not pickles so I say "phooey" to those. I do miss the marinated mushrooms, though, but I can't find the same ones my mom used to get.
I don't recall this ever being a part of the menu but that could be because I wasn't big on the healthy foods in my reckless youth.
Crab and Cream Cheese Filled Wontons
My mother only tried these once. They came out fabulously, but she didn't like "all the tinkering" she had to do.
The Chocolate Pie
This is another topic in and of itself. It tastes of heaven but is so rich it can only be made a few times a year. Several choice friends have even been lucky enough to have this made for their birthdays. Once it even healed a shattered heart. It has that kind of power.
Stuffed Mushroom Caps