by my dear friend, Craig Shifflett
Then someone says ‘Santa Claus was here’
One by one by the tree we all appear
Grandmother saves paper to use next year
How wonderful life is on Christmas.
— “Merry Christmas Eve,” Better Than Ezra
Most of the memories I have of my family in some way relate to food. Directly or indirectly, it seems. And it really isn’t that surprising, considering both sides of my family hailed from Virginia and believed in the virtue of southern hospitality. Some of my friends would ask me how it was possible that my father always seemed to have food at the ready to serve to guests. One even remarked he was sure that if he stopped by at midnight, my dad would just be pulling a turkey out of the oven.
Yet, cooking in my family, for the most part, is most fondly remembered for the baking. My mother, a fair cook on her own, was a very good baker. I think the first box cake I ever had was after I was married.
My grandmother loved baking as well and excelled at it. One of the most joyous times in our family would be getting a call around 4:00 in the afternoon telling us that Nanny, my grandmother, was making bread and we should stop by for some rolls for dinner. I swear I could smell the yeast before we ever got close to her house.
Walking in the door you’d see the table with a big block of butter, strawberry jelly, and apple butter. You had to sit down and eat a few rolls while chatting to the baker while she shuffled her trays in and out of the oven. My cousins or my Uncle Don would inevitably arrive for their allotment as well. It was like happy hour at the pub, but instead of beer, we all held hot buttered rolls.
Nanny died in 1991, and my sister and I have tried to replicate her recipe, which of course was not written down, but instead was created by taste and feel. We have still not succeeded, but I vividly remember the taste and texture of those rolls, and how they melted on my tongue. And it makes me sad that I will never be able to enjoy them again.
The biggest event of the year was Christmas cookie day — continuous cookie baking from early morning to evening. While one batch of cookies was being formed and baked, another was being mixed. Sugar cookies, snickerdoodles, sand tarts, and on and on.
One variety I remember as being very dry — like a shortbread with no flavor. The dough was split, half colored green, the other … red. Surprise! We’d use cookie cutters to shape and decorate the cookies, and I remember using little silver balls for eyes on the reindeer-shaped, snowmen-shaped, and angel-shaped ones. I guess they were a sugar cookie, but they were as hard as could be. It’s a wonder no one broke a tooth. Since these cookies were nobody’s favorite, they were usually the last ones in the tin come January.
Christmas season also brought the Christmas Day dinner. Remember the bit about southern hospitality? My grandmother didn’t want anyone to be disappointed with their Christmas dinner so we had plenty of options, including a turkey and a ham. And If that wasn’t enough, we had three cakes: coconut for my Uncle Don, cherry for my dad, and chocolate for everyone else.
The best part about the dinner was not the leftovers we’d have for the next week or so, but my grandmother’s homemade TV dinners (that’s what they were called back in the day, you little whippersnappers). She would save trays from store-bought TV dinners and would portion out Christmas dinners into them, wrap them up, and freeze them.
My brother and I would forget about them, but inevitably, one summer day after we’d mow her lawn, Nanny would emerge with a hot shiny tray of Christmas dinner. As my brother would say, “Christmas in July!” It was always freezer burnt, but it was wonderful!
A Shifflett Family favorite:
Graham Cracker Pie
(Click here to view and print recipe)