A Southern Christmas North Of The Mason-Dixon
It's Christmas Eve, and the weather outside is frightful. My husband, Bronson, and I live in a Federal- era farmhouse about 15 miles north of Utica, in New York's Mohawk Valley, where the coldest winter days register temperatures of 25 degrees below zero—and that's before windchill. Our radio is permanently tuned to WRVO out of nearby Oswego; today, the weatherman gleefully announces lake-effect squalls. In the frosty North Country, global warming is a bad joke. On the bright side, we're guaranteed a white Christmas, which makes us the envy of my cousins in South Carolina, especially the young ones who have never seen snow.
My parents grew up in the Palmetto State. Mom was from Florence, a railroad town northwest of Myrtle Beach; my father's family hailed from Edisto, a sea island south of Charleston. In 1958, after six years of marriage, they moved north because of my father's work to rural Putnam County, an hour from Manhattan, where they raised me, my brother, and my three sisters. Despite the relocation, however, their attachment to Dixie never waned, and we spent many vacations and holidays down South. The Christmas season there was always wonderful, not least because of the food: glazed salt-cured country ham, spoon bread, cayenne-infused cheese crackers, bourbon balls, relish trays loaded with pickled artichokes and watermelon rindů. An informal oyster roast held on the banks of the Combahee River near Edisto was another highlight of the season. Burlap sacks of fresh oysters gathered from local tidal marshes were poured atop beds of live coals, and guests would sip hot whiskey punch or eggnog sprinkled with nutmeg as the bivalves steamed in their shells.
My siblings now frequently celebrate Christmas at my house, far north of the Mason-Dixon Line, but a distinct culinary drawl still resonates during our boisterous gatherings. Over the past two decades, we've made a concerted effort to preserve the holiday dishes we grew up eating—not an easy task, considering that few of our relatives ever committed their recipes to paper. Each of us has taken charge of a certain Christmas classic. For instance, to my husband's dismay, I've gravitated toward those that require a lot of time and pots—Mom's fig and dried cherry fruitcake, my great-aunt Fanny Lee Seabrook's pickles and relishes. Kaki, who recently moved to North Carolina from Connecticut, has a knack for making Nana's (our paternal grandmother) legendary chee-wees—flaky date–pecan cheese cookies. (Kaki coined the name when she was a child.) Melissa, an on-again, off-again vegetarian, prefers dishes like hoppin' john (black-eyed peas with rice), while my baby sister, Hilary, likes to whip up Nana's cocoa-enriched bourbon balls, in part because they make the ideal gift for her chocoholic friends. And my brother, Jamie, a chef and restaurant consultant in Rhode Island, is the custodian of my father's creamed onions in spicy brown sauce.
As Bronson stocks the wood bin next to the fireplace in the dining room—which, like the rest of the first floor, is draped with aromatic cedar and juniper garlands and scattered with colossal loblolly pine cones from a cousin's property in South Carolina—I haul out extra wool blankets upstairs. Diva, our black Lab, mopes on her pillow. She detests Christmas because I always strap a ludicrous Santa hat (created by Kaki) to her head. Hearing a truck shift into low gear on our slippery driveway, she perks up, and we go outside to greet my brother and his wife, Amy. Their children, Jameson, ten, and Kate, eight, immediately tumble out of the backseat and plow through a drift to make snow angels. With bells on (literally), Diva bounds after them. Meanwhile, Kaki calls from the Oneida County Airport, where her husband, Dave Mack, has just landed their twin Comanche, so Bronson heads down the valley to collect them. Hilary is the last to arrive, from Boston. (Melissa, who lives on the West Coast, can't make it this year.)
With everyone snug under our roof, Bronson uncorks a bottle of champagne, as Jamie prepares a mignonette sauce to accompany the cache of plump Spinney Creek oysters that he's hauled here in a cooler from Newport. The mollusks may not be from Edisto, but their briny taste still conjures up Christmases past. We sip and slurp and catch up in the dining room, where the fire crackles under a painting by my paternal grandfather of an Edisto marsh.
Later, as the kids get ready for bed, they demand to hear what has become their ritual Christmas Eve ghost story. Several years ago on this night, the family was jolted awake by the sound of footsteps clattering down the front stairs. The next morning, no one would admit to having made the racket, but we took it in stride: Southerners have always been cozy with things that go bump in the night. As I recount the tale of the spectral visitation, Jameson and Kate squirm under their blankets. Who knows? It could happen again tonight.
I awake early on Christmas Day to let the dog out. The creek next to our house is steaming, and as the rising sun hits it, frost crystals dance upward, lending the surrounding barren maple trees a decorative sheen. Despite the hour, my sisters soon stagger downstairs: my family takes Christmas breakfast seriously. Apart from a regrettable period that we now remember as "the Dunkin' Donuts years", we've had the same meal ever since we were kids. Hilary pours a bag of stone-ground white grits into a saucepan of boiling water, and Kaki prepares to fry the liver pudding that she's brought from North Carolina. Instinctively, I pick up the package and scan the label. "Wait a minute!" I call out. "This pudding has cornmeal in it. Where's the rice?" (Where our parents come from, rice, not cornmeal, is the traditional binder in this peppery Southern breakfast meat.) Kaki grabs it back. "It's fine. I got it from Neese's in Greensboro." A cast-iron skillet on the stove starts to smoke. Turning down the heat, I get huffy. "But this isn't real liver pudding." Eventually, we both grudgingly agree to combine her batch with a hunk of authentic rice-based pudding excavated from my freezer.
Several days ago, I cooked a country ham studded with cloves and coated with the brown sugar and mustard glaze my mom swore by. Carting it from the pantry, I look around for our master carver, who always travels with his own knives. "Is Jamie up yet?" I ask. "We need him to start in on this meat." Hilary grabs Jameson, just in from sledding, his cold cheeks as rosy as the ham, and instructs him to tell his father to get out of bed. Then, on second thought, she leans closer and says, "No, wait. Tell him I'm starting to carve the ham." Jameson grins and heads off. Sure enough, that does the trick.