(Ed.'s Note- Every Monday, Chicago's Jason Hissong writes Windy City Cooking, a column whose title says it all, and which this week turns legal drinking age. Enjoy! -Max)
Food Traditions: Christmas
by Jason Hissong
28 December 2009
I rest my head against the tiny window of the Boeing 737 that will take me from St. Louis to Chicago in 38 minutes. I'm anxious. I've never traveled on a plane during snow, or winter conditions, really. The captain dings the intercom on to inform us that we're going to be delayed because the plane needs to de-ice. It's a small comfort. I close my eyes and try to sleep, and as I try to sleep I can't stop thinking about our family's food traditions during the holidays. And, more importantly, how they're changing.
This Christmas differences abound from the Christmases of my youth. First, there are more of us. It's not just my parents, my sister and myself. My sister is married now, and her and her husband have three daughters all under six. Second, my parents and my sister and I all live in different cities. No longer is Christmas centered around my travel plans only, the way it was until I was out of college. It's a larger, coordinated effort of my parents travelling from Omaha, me flying from Chicago, someone coming to get me at the airport. I feel different, too, because I feel I no longer have roots in St. Louis, where I spent my formative years. It might be different if my sister's family lived in the house in which we grew up. But they don't.
I remember when I was young, somewhere between 12 until I went to college, our family Christmas tradition went something like this: I'd have to be at church for many hours on Christmas Eve, as I probably had something to do in every service. Getting home shortly after midnight, my mother would have a meal ready. At midnight. It would be something simple- crock-pot smokies in a jelly/brown sugar sauce. Ham, either from the next day's meal or from the meal we had that afternoon. And cookies. Of course there were cookies. I especially like the sugar cookies that featured a single Hershey's Kiss in the center; the perfect blend of sugars, of dough and chocolate and just delicious. So, just after midnight, with the snap and hiss of a real fire, the tree providing the only other light, and plates full of food, we'd sit around and distribute presents. We opened them one at a time, taking turns and somewhere between two and three in the morning we'd all go to sleep, the Christmas haul staying in the living room until Christmas day. The dishes in the sink until Dad woke up and did them in preparation for the next day's feast.
That's generally how it went.
Things are different now. They have to be. Christmas Eve now goes like this: I work half a day in Chicago and take the packed train to Midway to wait in crowded lines. Sometimes I'll get a drink while I wait (the first Christmas I lived in Chicago is notable because Jonathan and I had flights departing from adjoining gates, and we overestimated the time we needed to get to said gates, so we had a couple of hours that we filled with Guinness and Jameson consumption before our flights. Good times. Good times). Dad, or Dad and Mom, or, this year, Dad, Mom, Zoe and Emma (my sister's two oldest girls) pick me up at the airport. We drive back to her house. We meet Jamie's parents, sister and her son for dinner at a restaurant. We go back to my sister's house so the girls can open their presents from their grandparents and parents, and somehow the adults get theirs in, too. Unceremoniously. Matter of factly. Shoehorned in between unhindered bursts of joy and laughter from the babies.
Christmas Day brings the new food tradition: a trip to my brother-in-law's aunt's house for Christmas Day dinner. She makes this incredible cheeseball. And there are two crock-pots full of hamburgers. And cookies. And pork tenderloin. And cookies. And my mom made smokies. And cookies. And relish trays. And if you go hungry it's your own fault. It's all good food. Nothing's bad. But it doesn't feel quite right. I don't feel at home. I feel as though I'm a guest. And it's that feeling that I dislike.
I'm trying not to say that one is better than the other, but it is. I'd much prefer the Christmases of my youth than the sort of hurried, doesn't quite fit Christmases of my late twenties.
Maybe it's because I'm growing older and at some point I have to realize that people change. Traditions change. I generally like change but not this time. And I need to explore why that is. The food is just a symptom, I think. Or maybe it's because of the food that I feel rootless. Nothing's familiar. It's not cooked the way I remember. Different hands prepare the meal. It has a different feel, and I'm still trying to adjust.
I do know this: food will be of vital importance to me if there ever comes a day where I host Christmas. Even if it's just me and my significant other. Or me and my friends. Or some other combination of people. Food is too important to me not to have a central role in any holiday celebration.
APPENDIX: In the seven days since last week I can add yet two more food culture experiences to topics on which I've previously written.
First, a huge thank you to my co-worker and friend Andres. He graciously provided a gift of Thomas Keller's Ad Hoc at Home. I can't wait to read this thing.
Second, another huge thank you to the following individuals for coordinating an incredible birthday day, and dinner for me: Jason, Jonathan, Shayne, Elizabeth, Kate, and Julie. The seven of us had dinner at the Wishbone Cafe in celebration of my birthday. There's nothing like southern comfort food on a cold, icy winter day to celebrate a birthday. Thank you, again!
What I Cooked, What Others Cooked For Me, Where I Ate
I didn't cook much this week, between the birthday celebration and travelling for the holiday. I did cook pancakes for the family on Saturday morning. That could, quite possibly be the only thing I cooked all week.
Others cooked a lot for me this weekend. Most notably my brother-in-law's aunt Terri. She always hosts Christmas Day dinner and there were a bunch of people to feed. Over 20, I think. So there were hamburgers and the pork tenderloin. Mom cooked her famous smokies, and there was an incredible potato dish that I devoured. The potatoes were the perfect texture and there were bread crumbs, I think, to add a seamless crunch to the softness of the potatoes. And, of course, the cookies and homemade cheesecake for dessert.
I ate at so many places this week. Potbelly's for a Big Wreck on wheat while I waited for my flight to St. Louis. Christmas Eve we had dinner at Applebee's where I split a spinach and artichoke dip with Dad and then had a chicken sandwich for dinner. The other notable meal in St. Louis was Saturday night, as the eight of us went to Outback for a nice dinner. I had the Alice Spring Chicken with a chopped salad. Very nice stuff, if a bit ubiquitous. Thanks Mom and Dad, for all the meals!