Cooking Up a Little Christmas Cheer
A few years ago, I spent Christmas dinner with my landlords and a few of their friends. It was a potluck, and the question of what to cook nearly paralyzed my wife and me. We thought our hosts had asked us to bring a main course, but they had suggested it so offhandedly that we couldn’t quite believe it. If I wanted a guest to bring the meat, I’d double-check with them 12 ways to Tuesday. The more my wife and I talked about it, the more certain we were that somebody else had to be bringing the main dish. But we didn’t want to call our hosts and seem less than enthusiastic about our duties, so we overcompensated. We bought the biggest, splashiest main course we could think of: a standing rib roast. I knew it would be expensive, but had no idea that our beloved neighborhood butcher would give himself a Christmas bonus by charging $168. I just confirmed the precise figure with my wife, who knows it better than her own birthday. We’d never spent this much on a single grocery item, all for something we were convinced wasn’t needed at all. Roasting a standing rib of beef is one of the easiest things you can do in a kitchen, but no act of cooking has ever made me more anxious.
The stretch between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day used to be my favorite time of the year. It’s not anymore. Now I like Thanksgiving better, the one day when all you’re asked to do is cook and eat. I can handle that. But Christmas and New Year’s Eve ask so much more. The holidays, as they bear down on me, look the way an oncoming 18-wheeler does to a squirrel that’s desperately trying to thread its way across an interstate.
People who get depressed in December have different Achilles’ heels. Mine is shopping, or, more precisely, not shopping. Every gift I buy has to say absolutely everything: everything about the person I’m giving it to, everything about me, everything about what we mean to each other. This is a lot of weight for a scarf or a sled or even a necklace to carry, and usually my attempts to shop end with overwhelming evidence that I am, in fact, the worst son/ brother/husband/father/friend/employee/boss/Friend of the Nature Conservancy that the world has ever known.
That’s my own personal downward spiral; there are other versions. Some people can’t take the music; for others, it’s the office parties; and for a very large segment of the population, the trouble is family. The Christmas blues afflict so many that it seems like you can’t get through December without hearing about us on a TV report that typically ends with the number of a suicide hotline—which, for some reason, has never had the effect of cheering me up. All TV reports seem to follow one of about five basic story lines, and the story for the Christmas blues is that it’s a "societal problem." Many ills are caused by a mysterious force called society: graffiti, illiteracy, stray dogs, divorce and the Christmas blues. If only society was different, the holidays would be cheerful again, the way they were in the days of Currier & Ives. If only our lives didn’t move so fast, if only the family unit still meant something, if only the holidays hadn’t become so commercialized.
But society could fix all those problems and I’d still get the blues in December. This is when winter begins to extract real sacrifices. At Thanksgiving, you’re still coasting from summer’s last push. Thanksgiving is a harvest party, and while city rats like me don’t do any of the harvest work, the farmers who grow my food do, and they tell me that, by November, when the vines are brown and the pigs are slaughtered and the work is done, they finally have time to cook and plenty to cook with, and it makes them feel great. But a month later, the joy fades and the mean reality of the season sets in. Northeasterners who tend to cook seasonally are already tired of tubers by Christmas and are starting to remember that the grocery shopping doesn’t start to look up until the end of April, and that’s if you like ramps. December is when I finally hear the message being tapped out by the clawing tree branches against the dull aluminum sky.
In theory I should have figured it out months ago, because the days have been getting shorter since the end of June. By Thanksgiving the cycle is nearing the end and by Christmas it’s done. The winter solstice seems like a low point, but it’s a turning point. Yes, the sidewalks will ice over, the potatoes will sprout, but daylight is already fighting its way back. The nights yield to longer and longer days. This is the origin of the northern European winter festivals that are older than Christmas itself. Those ancient Germans, dressed in furs with their hair done in styles that must have appalled the Romans, knew one thing in their bones: The shortest day of the year called for a huge party. Observations of the solstice throughout Europe were so intense that the Church didn’t even try to stamp them out. Instead, in the fourth century a.d., Pope Julius I announced that, from then on, Christmas would be held on December 25, around the same time as those pagan celebrations rebelling against winter’s darkest hour.
In other words, we don’t get depressed at this time of the year because of the holidays. We have holidays at this time of the year because we are depressed. I find this immensely comforting somehow. The problem’s not me, and it’s not society either. It’s the planet. When I miss my subway stop because I’m preoccupied by grim thoughts, I remind myself that tree-worshipping pagans felt the same way, more or less. And that they figured out the cure: Light a bonfire, roast meat, get loaded and hunker down with the people you know best.
That’s roughly what I do every December, although not necessarily on the 25th. My favorite recent holiday meal wasn’t a Christmas dinner but a Hanukkah feast. In honor of the amazing self-replenishing oil that burned for days after the Jews seized back the Temple of Jerusalem from the Greeks, we fried stuff. Somebody made latkes in duck fat, and I made doughnuts. The grease shimmered away just under the smoking point for hours, and the food darkened many brown paper bags on its way to the table. I know doughnuts have nothing to do with the origins of Hanukkah, but I’m glad that the Jews found a way to tie them in. And I suspect the solstice wasn’t celebrated at the Temple, but somehow it feels right that this holiday that now roughly coincides with the solstice and Christmas commemorates the survival of a lamp that should have gone out but didn’t.
Expectation has a lot to do with my December blues. I expect to search for presents that will perfectly express my love for my family and make all our past fights disappear. I expect that search to fail. I expect that whatever I give them, I will still feel empty-handed. I expect the lamp to go out.
These expectations are almost always wrong in some sense. In particular, the event I dread all month—the actual holidays—aren’t so terrible once they arrive. Three years ago I decided not to spend Christmas with my parents and instead, I sent them a set of knives in the mail. This, of course, was a terrible idea. Gifts of knives are banned by a piece of folklore that says the blade will cut your love in two. Even if you’re not superstitious, you might still see a gift of metal designed to carve up flesh and tendons as not being the warmest expression of holiday greetings. And a real son would have delivered his gifts in person. Yet my mother and father like the knives, or say they do. When I visit them they still remark on how easily the steel falls through an onion. Whenever I prepare a meal at their house, it occurs to me that sending them a kitchen tool was my way of apologizing for not being there in the kitchen, helping them put a Christmas ham on the table. Three hundred miles away, tangled up in my anxieties, I still took part in their holiday feast.
The day we cooked for our landlords started terribly. We salted and peppered the expensive beef and slid it into the oven, feeling that it would be faster and easier to set our money on fire. Then we had one last agonizing thought: What if we were supposed to bring a side dish after all? So when the roast was done, I poured off the scalding drippings into a dozen custard cups for Yorkshire pudding.
We lived in the basement of our landlords’ Civil Warera town house in Brooklyn, so, at dinnertime, we carried all the food up the back staircase that the servants may have used in their day. When the crowd circled around me at the top of the stairs like a pack of hyenas, I knew that our roast was the one, the only, main course. We were in the clear. The worst was past. Now all we had to do was carve the meat and worry if we’d have enough left over for hash. We did—enough to feed ourselves and enough to feed a small table of friends the next night.
Pete Wells is a contributing editor to F&W. E-mail comments to him at email@example.com.