Christmas Revisited

My mom Loo-oved Christmas! Going all out, she began her Christmas baking in November. First came the dark fruit cake that soaked in brandied cotton cloth for a month. Later, all the different varieties of cookies and Christmas Stollen* would follow in December. When my mother moved to DC, she gave it all up.

I am not a baker but I tried to keep up some traditions especially when the kids were young. Year after year, the gestures, the decorations, the cooking and the baking would gradually get distilled and simplified. The only tradition that was somehow created here under my own roof, was the cookie decorating sessions. I would make the ginger bread cookie dough, roll, cut, bake and store. Then, once everyone was gathered, I’d make the royal icing, color it with natural food dyes and let everyone go to work.

My home is the meeting place for mother, siblings, family and sometimes in-laws. But Christmas happens late in our household: a direct result of a retail job that exhausted me year after year and totally sucked the joy out the holidays. I drag my feet and lack enthusiasm. Our family preparations for Christmas are just more work. We find ourselves, the last people in a darkened lot, scurrying around for the “perfect” tree, while attendants turn off lights and pack up for the year.

Christmas Eve menu is (vaguely) discussed to accommodate the vegans and the meat eaters, the traditionalist, the liberals and the rebels.  Shopping happens last minute. It involves multiple family members, young and old, tagging along for the experience of frenetic holiday shopping and to haggle over who should foot the bill.

Cookie decorating takes place hours before dinner, while putting up the tree. It’s a mad rush to make it all happen. We gather some friends and neighbors to add to the mix. Our dinner is thrown together haphazardly and chaotically—Martha Stewart would die! My mother would be somewhat disapproving— calling us “crazy”.

But we manage and we PARTY! The evening itself is an improvisational act: a mishmash of a Hawaiian luau with leis, African music, Christmas crackers, paper hats and crowns, pork tenderloin and tuna steaks. Don’t ask. A hodgepodge of people, food and drink, music and conversation. It couldn’t be more eclectic and off the wall if we tried!

My mother passed away two Christmases ago. We spent that Xmas week sadly at the hospital by her side or huddled together at home around the dining table quietly staring at a thousand-piece puzzle, trying to make conversation. Downing the drinks, we waited for a better prognosis, but the inevitable came as a shock, despite of our high hopes for a miracle.

Xmas 2015 was avoided: my husband, our two daughters and I spent five days in Tulum for a change of scene, only to come back with a bad case of food poisoning.

This year, we give Christmas another try. We begin a new cycle, by reopening the circle of life.  With my parents gone I have a mission to accomplish: our family spirit of togetherness and generosity, the care and the love we inherited must live on… and so must the baking. It began two weeks ago. It helps that I no longer have my retail job.

I considered attempting my mother’s delicious fruitcake, but it didn’t take long to nix that thought. Sorry mom! I made tiny stars and gingerbread men, some “undecorated”—for the children to do their thing. I also made Pfeffernusse, German spice cookies, inspired by my aunt Mona’s that would arrive every year by post, until, she too, could not bake any longer. I made my own candied lemon peel. I couldn’t bear to use any store-bought lemon peel with sulphur dioxide and other added junk. And although the recipe recommends freshly ground spices, there was no chance in a million that I would grind cinnamon bark and whole cloves—I do not have an electric spice grinder. I draw the line at black pepper and perhaps cardamom. For nutmeg, I use a micro plane but that is it. The rest of my spices come already ground in a jar.

I am contemplating making Chewy Molasses Cookies which I tried at a holiday party last week. The recipe is from Bon Appetit. Maybe, I should wait for my sister and my baking-loving daughter to arrive. Perhaps they will enjoy the experience of bonding over cookie-making. I think my job is almost done, the baking I have accomplished so far is probably sufficient. Delegating is a good thing. It channels guilt, teaches others responsibility and definitely relieves me from stress.

No matter how hard I try to make things right, I expect the inevitable emotional effervescence of my family to bubble over with its dysfunctions, its insecurities and anxieties, like it has at times in the past. But many of our elders are gone and we will miss them always. This year is the beginning of a new dynamic. I brace myself not knowing what to expect. Come what may…. Bring it on.

One thing’s for certain, I made some cookies and next year I will get better at it. The best is yet to come. I will keep you posted.

I highly recommend the Chewy Molasses cookies. If it’s not too late, try them both. The ingredients are almost the same which makes for a more economical use of ingredients. Here are the links:

The recipe for the Pfeffernusse is from an old Saveur
Bon Appetit’s Chewy Molasses Cookies
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*Stollen: German Christmas bread.

 

Michelle Obama

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After November 8th, I dropped off the face the earth—at least I wanted to.
My silence and paralysis reflected my grief. In the face of the electoral tsunami and national disaster I could not go on about my business. Who cared about my personal memories of childhood foods, moms and grandmas in the kitchen, when the future of the healthy food movement seemed grim if not frightfully dubious?

Yet there I was, like a mourner at a wake, searching for any comforting memory—some beautiful moment in the past eight years that had brought us excitement and hope.
Yes! There! There was a book in my library that illustrated the simple and lovely story of an inspirational figure who supported the healing of an ailing nation of children with little or no access to healthy foods, whether at school or at home. It is the story of First Lady, Michelle Obama, who played a leading role in the strategy against a national health epidemic.

Sadly, the story begins with Americans dining on junk, processed foods and sugary sodas for decades. Although there were warnings and noises made by several individuals who began to make changes in their own lives and in their local communities, Mrs. Obama’s very first project to establish a kitchen garden at the White House validated the concerns over the health crisis. With that simple project, gathering the White House staff and the National Park services, she created a garden that would become a symbol and a model for the nation. She put a stamp of approval on all the work done before her and fueled the creation of new nationwide health initiatives, programs and partnerships* in the private, public or non-profit sectors: they would develop strategies to fight childhood obesity and disease and ensure food accessibility to more people. Between her own “Let’s Move!” campaign and the administration’s Healthy Food Financing Initiative* we were on our way to finding solutions and channeling resources for the country’s children and their families who were at risk.

The White House Garden (a summary of the story in the book**)

During World War II, while most canned foods were being shipped to the troops and civilians in Europe, many Americans began planting their own vegetable gardens, known as “Victory Gardens” which produced 40% of America’s food. At the time, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt managed to pull off a small symbolic Victory Garden at the White House. But by the 1950’s gardens were abandoned and supermarket and processed foods dominated the American diet.

Over the years, Presidents and First Ladies, took some interest in the White House garden: John Adams tried, but his idea for a kitchen garden never saw fruition after he lost reelection. Then Thomas Jefferson, an avid gardener, experimented with potted plants inside the White House but focused his hobby mostly on the grounds of Monticello. The first rectangular Rose Garden was planted by First Lady Ellen Wilson but later changed and improved under President John F. Kennedy. Franklin Roosevelt asked F. L. Olmsted Jr. to design a plan for the grounds. The South Lawn was thus created. And although a few herbs and tomatoes were grown for the Carters, the Clintons and President George Bush, no one had actually grown food at the White House.

With Michelle Obama’s vision of hope and gentle determination, the White House garden would become a learning resource for schools and organizations, a catalyst to start thoughtful initiatives. Mrs. Obama and students from Washington’s Bancroft Elementary School broke ground on March 20, 2009, two months after the first Obama inauguration. Their first planting was a few days later in April. The garden provided fresh produce for the first family and became an inspiration for people across the nation to start growing gardens of their own, in schools, backyards and in open urban lots.
Two of the thirty-four beds in the garden are dedicated to Thomas Jefferson, the plantings of which were grown from the seeds collected from the gardens of Monticello and given to the First Lady by its head gardener.

The White House also has beehives and harvests about 225 pounds of honey per year. The honey is used in the White House kitchen, donated to Miriam’s Kitchen (a soup kitchen for the homeless in DC), and gifted to visiting dignitaries and heads of state. How sweet is that!

In her book, Mrs. Obama says:
“Our garden also helped us begin a national conversation about the food we eat and the impact it has on our children’s health. Ultimately, the White House Kitchen Garden is an expression of my hopes for them: Just as each seed we plant has the potential to become something extraordinary, so does every child.”**

Will the White House kitchen garden survive under the new administration? I think it should be declared a national monument to be maintained and cherished. It is a small plot of land with a huge and important message and we have Mrs. Obama to thank for that.


* The Healthy Food Financing Initiative, launched by The Obama Administration is a partnership between the U.S. Departments of Treasury, Agriculture and Health and Human Services formed to provide financing for developing and equipping grocery stores, small retailers, corner stores and farmers markets selling healthy food in under-served areas.

**Obama, M. (2012). American Grown: The story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America. New York: Crown Publishers.