Treats for a Sweet Season
by: Amanda C. Lydon
photography by: Janie Dretler
Three stories with giving at their center make an annual appearance in our house over the long holiday season: Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi” and Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory.”
We read them aloud to the kids mostly, to justify putting another few logs on the fire, to feel soundly occupied on a December evening at home in an otherwise relentless tide of open houses, recitals and concerts.
If my father happens to be visiting for dinner, I ask him to tag in to read while I cook dinner. It pleases him and he slips into his stentorian bass to enunciate, “Marley ... was DEAD!” in precisely the same intonation he’s used for the last 35 years.
Each of the stories can seem thoroughly modern in parts, with scarcity and poverty thrown into unsparing relief by the season’s feasting that teeters on over-consumption. All of the writing is sentimental to varying degrees, but together it documents the ways in which holidays with or without our families churn up the full spectrum of emotion: love and thankfulness, to be sure, but also anxiety, hope, disappointment, loneliness and hunger of all kinds.
Capote’s “A Christmas Memory” might be the least familiar, though his barely-fictionalized memoir of life with his elderly cousin in rural Alabama in the 1930s always struck a chord for my sisters and me.
“It’s always the same,” Capote wrote. “A morning arrives in November, and my friend, as though officially inaugurating the Christmas time of year that exhilarates her imagination and fuels the blaze of her heart, announces, ‘It’s fruitcake weather!’ ”
Our mother might not have exclaimed audibly, but every November she made her own fruitcakes, wrapped them neatly in cheesecloth in a corner cupboard and basted them with whiskey for weeks on end.
In “A Christmas Memory,” the old woman and the boy she calls Buddy embark together on a sort of dogged scavenger hunt for ingredients: windfall pecans, “the main crop having been shaken off the trees and sold by the orchard’s owners, who are not us,” illicit moonshine whiskey from a scar-faced Indian neighbor, citron and canned pineapple bought with a year’s worth of hard-earned pennies hoarded under a loose board under a bed.
Halfway through the story, the cousins make and mail off their 30 precious cakes that have taken a year to save for, and a week to source and produce. Their flurry of loving effort, “the blaze of her heart,” has always seemed to be my secular cook’s notion of the “Reason for the Season.”
“Who are they for?,” Capote wrote. “Friends. Not necessarily neighbor friends: indeed, the larger share is intended for persons we’ve met maybe once, perhaps not at all. People who’ve struck our fancy. Like President Roosevelt ... Or the young Wistons, a California couple whose car one afternoon broke down outside the house and who spent a pleasant hour chatting with us on the porch (young Mr. Wiston snapped our picture, the only one we’ve ever had taken) ... Is it because my friend is shy with everyone except strangers that these strangers, and merest acquaintances, seem to us our truest friends? I think yes.”
As kids, of course we turned up our noses at those coddled fruitcakes in our home kitchen. Instead, we thumbed wistfully through the Swiss Colony holiday catalogue that appeared, year after year, despite our never actually ordering any of the meat and cheese crates, packed with Wisconsin’s finest wursts, weiner sampler packs and smoked cheddars, or (as much as we coveted them) the knee-high tins overflowing with three kinds of flavored popcorn.
Now, whether or not it’s my slower metabolism talking or a manifestation of the national mood, I crave seasonal restraint more than those pages of bounty. I dread culling the pantry and refrigerator in January, and imagine that the people on the receiving end of my holiday production feel the same way.
To my mind, a perfect (edible) present is a one-shot wonder, something small and delicious enough to most likely be opened and finished in one fell swoop. I try to think of recipes with a long shelf life, or that have multiple uses, increasing the likelihood that they’ll disappear more quickly. When a friend tasted an extra-fiery hotpepper jelly for the first time last year, we sent a jar home with him and his wife texted tri-
umphantly within the week that the jar was empty. He will be getting another (larger) jar this Christmas, a smoky variation this time with chipotles, or smoked jalapenos.
Our young apple trees bore fruit for the first time this fall, so apple butter seemed like a natural way to use up our harvest. Spiked with cider vinegar, this year’s version dials back the sugar, so the tart butter pairs as well with a roast turkey sandwich or a stinky cheese as with an English muffin.
Other additions to the holiday experiments this year have Nantucket ties. For years I’ve wondered what else I could make with the intenselyfragrant fox grapes that cover the island, until last fall I tasted a friend’s minimally-sweet Concord grape juice served over ice, diluted with sparkling water and lime. I was slightly aghast at how quickly my family tore through the bulk of her brilliantly-colored juice hot-water-processed in oversized Mason jars, but I can imagine also that it was immensely gratifying to watch guests enjoy it so voraciously.
Another search for a wine biscuit to pair with cheese turned up a lightly-sweet variation on a redwine, olive oil and fennel-seed cracker I remember from the lamented island restaurant Sfoglia.
To round out the usual cookie plate for Santa, yes, for the first time this year I have made my own fruitcake, using dried sour cherries in place of the green glacéed ones of my 1970s childhood. It turns out that my own kids have better taste than I did at their age: they pass over cocoa nib shortbread and cardamom-scented stamp cookies for thin-sliced fruitcake slathered with funky, redolent Epoisses cheese.
Scrooge’s cheerful nephew gets the last word. “I am sure,” he says, “I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round – apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that – as a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time. The only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shutup hearts freely, and to think of people ... as if they really were fellow-passengers ... and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.”
To my fellow passengers, all the joys of the season. ///
Amanda Lydon was a professional chef for 15 years in Boston and Nantucket. She is a regular contributor to Nantucket Today.