As I type this, the boys are downstairs, gleefully exclaiming over Patrick, our Elf on the Shelf,'s latest location (inside a cereal box). They are enthralled with the magic of Christmas. But I find myself in a bit of a funk. The house is lit up, the tree is decorated, cookies have been made, presents are bought and wrapped... I feel like there's nothing left to do but wait the season out. Since I'm finding a lot of time on my hands, my mind wanders back to the wonderful Christmases of my childhood. I feel a little lonely for those days.
The days leading up to Christmas were the best time of the year for me. My grandfather was the chief Bringer of Holiday Cheer in the family, and his ten siblings (most of whom lived in the area) were his Helpful Elves. I spent a lot of time with my second cousins--the grandchildren of these great-aunts and uncles--and it helped ease this only-child's holiday loneliness.
Our extended family was large and extremely close. We all loved to eat together, and no Maxwell family holiday was complete without the family potluck. Each great-aunt was a fabulous cook, and had a signature dish, so every holiday meal was the same. In fact, at every get together--births, deaths, Fourth of July--those dishes were always present. They reminded us of good times, bad times, and every time in between. They reflected the very essence of our lives. And there was something about the strange variety of dishes, each reflecting the bearer's personality, that made you feel warm and loved and hugged with every mouthful.
I really can't describe what it was like, those years when all my great-aunts were all still living. The food was transcendent. Nothing I say will do it justice. But the food was just the prelude for the real highlight of the gathering, which was the storytelling. Our family gatherings were full of stories--The One About Sam and the Hornet's Nest, The Christmas Aunt Myrtle Eloped, When Uncle Glenn Got Sprayed By The Skunk, The One Where Pat Danced In The Creek In Her Church Clothes, How Aunt Hattie Went To School, and Granddaddy's General Store.
These stories sparked my imagination and I became a writer at these gatherings.
Writing my novel has transported me home again, and I often find myself in the world their words created. Whenever I'm stuck on a particular section, I wish I could talk to them again Sadly, most of my great-aunts and uncles are gone now. Their stories, and the food that told it, are left to my memories.
Luckily, the recipes remain.
Of all the food at our family holiday party, my favorite dish by far was Aunt Ethel's Ham Delights. Here is the recipe:
1 lb boiled ham, sliced fine
5 oz swiss or cheddar cheese
1 stick softened margarine
3 T mustard
3T poppy seeds
1 t Worcestershire sauce
1 med finely chopped onion
2 pans of small Parker House rolls (although any pan of soft rolls will work)
Preheat oven to 400 F. Slice rolls in half. Mix together margarine, mustard, poppy seeds, Worcestershire sauce, and onions. Spread between sliced rolls. Place ham and cheese between sliced rolls. Place sides of rolls together. Wrap in aluminum foil. Heat approximately 15 min or until cheese is melted. Can be frozen before cooking.
I hope you will try them this holiday season. And then tell someone a story.