A colorful Christmas
December 12, 2016; Savannah, Georgia: I’ve neither a religious nor a nostalgic bone in my body, and I’m neither a shopper (except for food and books) nor a parent (except of grown children I claim as my own), so Christmas doesn’t see me, as Joni Mitchell sang, “cutting down trees, …putting up reindeer [and] singing songs of joy and peace.” But I do cook and try to see as many as my loved ones as I can, taking advantage of time with those not in school or on holiday from work. I have shared and shared my favorite Christmas story over and over, in conversation, in print, online, and on NPR. You’ve probably heard it or read it before, how my father, at age 75, bought himself a computer, taught himself to type, and painstakingly transcribed my mother’s culinary notebook from the years 1942-1953 while his then wife Lila (Mother had died years before) tested recipes, giving each of us four kids a tin of cookies made from Mother’s collection alongside a copy of the newly bound book. To this day the best gift I’ve ever received. I’ve also written about the next-best Christmas present that my sister Sue gave me one year when I was a penniless graduate student, after I had told everyone that there was nothing that I needed or wanted. She waited until after the grand celebration was over, then gave me a cardboard box full of soap, toilet paper, shampoo, toothpaste, and laundry detergent.
Recently, both my “daughter,” now 26 and living in Brooklyn, and my niece, 30, and until recently living in Georgia where she has been her entire life, moved into new homes with their boyfriends. I do give gifts to family and friends sometimes, but they usually do not coincide with birthdays or holidays. And I feed people often. But I know from personal experience that moving in together, with no other roommates, is a big step in relationships, so I gave both Ella Grace and Jennifer what I think are the best gifts I’ve ever given anyone: a cast iron skillet I seasoned myself, a “rice root scrubber” to clean it with (and which you can buy from my “son” Scot’s shop, P W SHORT General Store in Savannah), the book “Chef’s Secrets” for which I wrote the section on cast iron, and most of the ingredients needed to make cornbread, including cornmeal, baking powder and soda, and a jar of strained bacon grease. Ella Grace said, “Getting a jar of bacon grease in the mail is the most southern thing that has ever happened to me in my life!”
After my father died, Lila gave me the original copy of “Purdue,” Mama’s old, tattered original. Its pages are yellowed and falling apart. How my father was able to transcribe her minuscule handwriting, and fill in the blanks where pages were torn is beyond me, and I am a culinary historian, used to testing recipes from old manuscripts with arcane culinary terms. He and Lila tried dozens upon dozens of recipes and many became regular stars of his own emerging culinary repertoire. I have posted some of her amazing instructions before, such as her brilliant method for cooking asparagus so that it stays “crisp and green.”
This recipe echoes Mrs. A. P. Hill’s instructions from her Southern Practical Cookery and Receipt Book, originally published in 1867: “Take them up as soon as done; too much cooking injures the color and flavor.” This of course belies the myth that southern vegetables were always cooked to death. Only in the poverty that came after the Civil War, which coincided with the loss of farms and the emergence of industrial canning, refrigeration and a vast network of railroads, did overcooking bland dried and canned goods become a norm. “Vegetables intended for dinner,” Mrs. Hill wrote, “should be gathered early in the morning. A few only can be kept twelve hours without detriment… They lose their good appearance and flavor if cooked too long.” But I digress.
I’m no Grinch. I cook. Fruitcakes and candies and breads and compotes, for which recipes appeared on the blog on November 14, 2007 , cookies and country hams and biscuits, Danish pastry and duck confit and hearty soups and stews (even though it’s rarely cold here in the lowcountry), most of which you can find here on the blog by searching via the Google engine. The menu, recipes, and timeline for my family’s traditional Christmas brunch, appeared on December 20, 2007. I gladly share my recipes all the time via the blog, Facebook, and Instagram (@hoppinjohns). But you’re not going to find twinkly lights or wrapped gifts at my house during the holidays. Egg nog, yes. Bourbon balls, absolutely. Fruitcakes, heavily liquored. And, even in this heat, quite often a festive fire in the fireplace!
We were an odd family for the small southern town where I grew up. Both of my parents were trained as scientists, and while Daddy ran a big chemical plant, Mama ran the household. How she managed to put three meals a day on the table, do all the laundry and cleaning, and still actively participate in Circle, Garden Club, various bridge clubs, the church, Girl Scouts, Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, and the Concert Series never ceases to amaze me. She could be parsimonious in some respects, which my spendthrift father ribbed her about to no end. They were both adventurous. He planned exotic sailing trips throughout the Caribbean and she took us to many foreign lands via her cooking. She was adamant about recycling long before anyone else had heard the word. And she loved a fire. Once in high school during the Christmas holidays, a friend was making fun of how many candles my mother had burning around the house. I brushed his claims off, but when he came home with me that afternoon, he proudly counted off two dozen! She saved cardboard egg cartons along with the tag ends of burned candles. Into the bottom halves of the cartons she stuffed the dried lint from the washing machine lint trap (we never had a dryer; she hung everything outdoors). When a carton was full, she melted the candle ends and poured the wax over the lint “eggs.” She would cut a couple of these eggs off with a serrated knife and use them as fire starters. And what fires she made!
Though Daddy’s transcription of Mother’s recipes is complete and accurate, he did not include the notes on the end paper of the notebook (right). Her fires always glittered and sparkled, green and blue and orange and violet, emerald, yellow, purple and red. With the intoxicating resinous fragrance of the evergreen tree (kept fresh for weeks with her “Christmas Tree Preserve” 5 gm citric acid, 6 gm malic acid, and 15 gm CaCO3) and her dramatic fires, our living room during the holidays was magical. Here are her notes for making pine cones, yule logs and colored fires. Some of these chemicals are readily available today, and there are myriad sites online about substances to burn safely for colored fires. But Mother never had to worry: she simply gave Daddy the list to bring home from the plant. I must add that I have no idea where you would find a wooden bucket* these days!
Pine Cones: Use crockery or wooden bucket*. [Wear] gloves. About 1/2 # (pound) [to] 1/2 gallon H2O. Soak cones thoroughly. Drain well & dry on newspapers.
Potassium chlorate — violet
Strontium nitrate — red
Potassium nitrate (or salt) — yellow
Copper nitrate — emerald
Lithium chloride — purple
Borax — green
CaCl3 [Calcium chloride] — orange
Copper sulfate — blue
Yule log — paint small size log with a solution of 2 parts chemicals to 5 parts shellac. Let dry 48 hours.
Colored fire — mix chemical and shellac with sawdust.
I am not nostalgic, but I must say that having scientists as parents was always interesting! Happy Holidays to you all!