Posts Tagged ‘Christmas’

So anyway, here I am back home after a refreshing day out at Marian’s snow-covered blog, cozy inside and ready to talk fudge. My dad never claimed to be much of a cook, but he always held the sorts of jobs that meant he had to live by himself most of the time. When I was little he was a logger, and either cooked for himself, or ate in the mess with the other loggers. When I got older he worked on a ranch fifty miles away from home. We spent our summers and most of our weekends there, but in the winters he had to feed himself. In short, he had certain basic skills–he could make pancakes, sandwiches, and potatoes and onions (my Grandpa swore there were none better). He could open soup cans. By and large, though, he considered cooking women’s work.

Except at Christmas. Dad had two contributions he made every year. He made potato candy, and he made fudge. Because he was always at work during the day, he made it at night. I can remember kneeling on a kitchen chair and watching his hands–scrubbed specially for the occasion–working the powdered sugar, chocolate, and butter into a smooth, creamy mass, mixing in walnuts, which he loved, and then pressing it all into a wax-paper-lined pan and sliding it into the freezer.

He cooked by the box, and by the cube. He spooned in “about enough” unsweetened chocolate, dumped in a box of powdered sugar, added a cube each of margarine and cream cheese, and then stuck his hands into the bowl and got to work. Measuring cups, candy thermometers, pans, and recipes never dared rear their heads. This was manly cooking, as done by a man more familiar with engines than mixers. Like Samson pulling the honeycomb from the corpse of a lion he had killed, dad’s fudge owed its smooth, sweet, creamy texture to brute force. It still does. I, too, mix my fudge with my hands. I recommend you do the same.

And since we’re talking Christmas, here’s another one of our traditional Christmas treats:

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So have you made it yet? Have you noticed that this chili has–ahem–no chili powder in it unless you tempt fate and deviate from the recipe? It took me years to realize that “real” chili contains chili powder, and even when someone told me I didn’t believe it. For me chili was Grandma’s chili, and it was made of more than just beef, tomato in several glorious variants, onions, black pepper, and (if someone other than me was making it) kidney beans.

Chili was driving from Oregon to Wisconsin in December, feet freezing, car windows frosted inside and out. Chili was turning onto Grandma and Grandpa’s street just as the night was closing in, and seeing their lights golden in the deepening shadows. It was opening their squeaky screen door and stepping up to the little landing where you had to make up your mind if you were going down into the earthen-floored cellar for a Coke, or on up the steps into Grandma’s exuberant hug. I always went up the steps.

Grandma grabbed us, squeezed us, gave us big smacking kisses and told us how happy she was we were there. And behind her I would see her deep pan, steaming gently, and smell the chili bubbling away.

Suitcases came inside and went directly upstairs and out of Grandma’s way in our bedrooms. And then we came back down to the kitchen and there were the Melmac bowls ladled full of chili, and the sesame-topped Italian bread Grandpa favored, and Grandpa himself, in his green workpants and t-shirt, saying, “Well, well, well, look who’s here?”

And I would open my arms to hug him and he’d say, “Careful, I ain’t showered yet,” and I hugged him anyway, smelling of sweat and Christmas trees from the nursery where he sold wreaths. And then I took my bowl of chili, and my slice of bread, and walked into the TV room where my cousins already sat with their bowls, and we talked, and laughed, and watched whatever we could get on Grandma’s TV, and that was the beginning of Christmas.

Just double-click on the graphic to download your recipe.

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Christmas is upon us. At least, it’s close enough that we can smell its rank and fetid breath. I love Christmas. I really do. I love Christmas carols. I host Christmas in July every year. I love the idea of a fresh start in the dead of winter, the idea that Christmas reminds us that the most precious of all things are seldom those things we receive, but those things for which we hope beyond the point where hope is reasonable.


Christmas is not a season for ‘buts.’ It’s a season for mindless optimism and giddy assumptions. It’s a time for tinsel, for foolish philanthropy, for tipsiness if you’re inclined that way, for sober rejoicing if you’re not. Christmas is about abundance, about overflowing tables, trees teetering in the centers of Everests of gaudy packages. Christmas is cinnamon, and sugar, and nutmeg, and hot chocolate, and standing in the snow in warm boots and a scarf and staring at the lights on the house.

Christmas is about overdoing it–eating too much, traveling too far, spending too much, and too much time spent with too many relatives.


But this year, like lots of people, my sisters and I have had to rethink Christmas. We all own businesses that provide services. We don’t have bosses; we have clients. Economic climates like the current one tend to send clients scurrying for shelter. For the first time, we sat down and cold-bloodedly decided to not give each others’ kids Christmas presents. This was neither easy nor comfortable. Over the years life has taught us that warm, loving bonds are to be treasured and celebrated. It felt wrong not to give the kids anything.


Wrong or right has little meaning at the bank, or the grocery store, or the IRS. It took me about five minutes to realize that this year, if I wanted to show my love for my family, I was going to have to do it in some way other than whipping out my checkbook.

And so I resorted to that old standby that everyone always claims to believe, but few have the nerve to actually put into practice. I’m making my sisters’ children a gift. To be precise, I’m making them a recipe book, filled with the chili Grandma made when we visited for Christmas, my father’s fudge recipe, my mother’s cheese cake and vegetarian casseroles, my sister’s potato soup, four recipes for potato salad, my nephews’ barbecue recipes and chicken enchiladas recipes, and on and on.

Gathering the recipes has reminded me that families like ours mark our history with food. As my mom, my sisters and I decided what should go in (everything we could think of) we found ourselves asking each other, “Do you remember when…?” I’ve realized that this is more than a recipe book; it’s a code to our family history. It’s the literal trail of bread crumbs, leading from who we were to who we are. Why, for instance, are there so many potato recipes? Specifically, why do we need four recipes for potato salad? And a recipe for potato pancakes? And a recipe for potato candy? Why do we have a recipe for chowder that goes down well with chemo patients as well as one for healthy people? Why are there a few Vietnamese recipes in a German family’s cookbook?

The book is our code, as integral to us as our DNA. We are what we have eaten. This year I am giving the children in my family the key to the code–starting with Grandma’s chili recipe.

Want this recipe for your very own?
Double-click on the image and you’ll get a downloadable pdf.
Happy holidays!

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