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December 29, 2012


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I am well known for my poor memory

Times and places are fuzzy to me. I have to think hard to remember when I graduated from high school and can only remember two words from Spanish class. I can’t remember street addresses where I lived for decades or the names and faces of old girlfriends. I recall very few details of Christmases past.
Try as I might, there is no recollection of a single Christmas present I received as a child. There is a vague memory of carrying a candle at a Christmas Eve service at the Presbyterian Church - driven more, I suspect, by latent pyromania than religious fervor. I can still feel a bit of the anticipation of Christmas mornings in those years between when my father served in WWII and our family began to fret about Vietnam. There was a neighborhood cat that my mother let in for a dish of milk that was chased up the Christmas tree by our cat. I remember the tree toppling over, but I can’t remember the cats' names or the color of their fur. About the only thing that my mind has stored is the aroma of the Christmas Eve meals at my father’s mother’s house.

Grandma Wesie lived alone in a huge Victorian home right beside our modest, brick house on the corner of Locust and Main. My father’s sister and her family lived a dozen blocks away in another modest house and so it made perfect sense to have the holiday gathering at Grandma’s house. In later years, the modest homes would be expanded, with two-car garages and patios built in landscaped back yards. And as my brothers, cousins, and I wandered off to lives of our own, the old Victorian that housed my grandmother would fall into disrepair. But in those most important years, between cognizance and college, that castle of a house would generate my only fully formed childhood memories of Christmas. And thankfully, those memories were not of simply material things - unless you consider food as merely material.

In fact, although we had much more than many people, ours was not a material Christmas. I recall very clearly the Christmas Eve when the food, the conversation - and no doubt, the plentitude of drink - was so intense that the cousins were gathering up their hats and coats for the trek home when some forlorn youngster pointed out to the adults that we had forgotten to open our presents. That was the Christmas Eve that I first tasted oyster stew.

For the Christmas of 2012, oyster stew will not be remarkable. But for a mid-western Christmas in the late 1950s it was about as exotic as it got. The stew was conjured up by my adventurous mother. She and my father had tasted them when they were stationed on the east coast during the war. Recently, she had been seditiously studying a great, heavy book that was so revolutionary that it was effectively banned in our mid-century Ohio hometown. The Gourmet Cookbook stood elegant on the shelf above her stove like a tomb on alchemy and I marveled at the fake, gold-leaf and the wear that was already showing on the embossed cover. I have no idea where she got the oysters. No doubt, in the middle of the country before there was anything like flown-in seafood, they were not at their peak of freshness. But the details of the oysters’ origins have faded to obscurity. What I remember is the stew itself - the way the butter floated on the rich, pungent broth, the nuggets of goodness dredged from the bottom of cup, the salt on my tongue from the nifty little crackers.

Though there were only eleven core members of the dinner party. I can remember two perfectly browned turkeys, a glazed ham, and steam rising from a dozen side dishes. There were candles, crystal, and gilt edged gravy boats with dark and light gravy in profusion. There was a giant bowl of mashed potatoes; mixed with loads of butter in the impossibly heavy, white mixer that mom would let us operate - if we were very careful. When they could, our cousins would procure, at the AME church, Ada Tate’s yam casserole. Pure decadence - cooked to a candied glaze and topped with the then-unheard-of garnish of chewy marshmallows. When it was all laid out in that thread bare, formal dining room with the built-in mahogany side boards and the massive chandelier, it was like a Bergman movie set.

In my earliest memories there were no fresh vegetables after winter killed the local gardens. Everything was in a can, and to this day, I prefer the taste of canned corn and peas. I was nearly in high school when the idea of frozen vegetables was finally accepted at that Christmas dinner table. It must have been about that time that I tasted my first shrimp cocktail - horseradish, my God. I can especially remember the cheese soufflé that mother made just for me. I remember learning to love brussels sprouts and asparagus. Beef Wellington and goose with plum sauce was easy to love. Over fifty years later I think of twice-baked potatoes, crème brulee as a side for pumpkin pie, and that virgin sip of Cabernets. I can still see a Christmas table set with multiple forks and spoons.

If your memory seems to be poor, perhaps it is simply discerning. In any case, it is a good way to prioritize your life - a surefire way to put things into perspective. Although I can’t remember my classmate’s faces, the name of my first grade teacher, the score of a single football game, or the gifts under the Christmas tree, I do remember every loving morsel of food that was laid on that Christmas table. It is as real to me as if it were, just now, rolling over my tongue. Feliz Navidad!

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