A Southern Christmas North Of The Mason-Dixon

Ben Fink

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 rind…. 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.

Once Jamie appears and begins slicing the intensely salty ham, I bake a batch of biscuits that I've made using White Lily flour from Tennessee, which my family prefers for cookies and quick breads. A final dab of butter is swirled into the grits, Dave sets out the scrambled eggs, and then the plates are piled high.

Kate and Jameson lead the charge to open the gifts. Coffee mugs in hand, the rest of us follow them to the Douglas fir in the library, where I've placed a bunch of red velvet stockings stuffed with candy canes, chocolate Santas, and a tangerine. I pop my new Blind Boys of Alabama CD into the stereo, and the wrapping paper starts to fly. Diva is thrilled by her present—a roasted marrowbone, already clamped in her muzzle.

A brisk walk down the freshly plowed road helps work off the breakfast, and shortly after returning, we four siblings head for the kitchen again to start on dinner. Kaki's first project is to grate fresh ginger for Aunt Fanny Lee's elegant gingerbread cake, while I make the topping—condensed milk caramelized to a golden syrup. Later, watching Kaki mix the batter, I recall the Christmas long ago when she shocked Nana with a batch of anatomically correct gingerbread men. Who knew that red hots and colored sprinkles could be put to such scandalous use? Meanwhile, Hilary trims a big pile of green beans, as Jamie, who is in charge of the standing rib roast, rapidly chops celery and carrots for a mirepoix.

Soon, we're embroiled in a typical family dispute: whether our father put Tabasco into his creamed onions or worcestershire sauce. Jamie settles the matter by adding both. Out in the dining room, Amy sets the table with heavily starched antique linens and gleaming silverware. (Southerners are obsessed with sterling. I inherited a ton from Nana and my mother, who was divvying up serving spoons on her deathbed, and have to start polishing my heirlooms by the first of December so that they'll be ready in time for the holiday.)

Bronson decides it's time to break out the bourbon-laced eggnog chilling in the fridge. Everyone grabs a vintage Santa mug filled with my paternal grandfather's creamy, potent concoction. The original recipe, more than a century old, called for six dozen eggs and served 100 people. We also snack on Kaki's chee-wees, made with pecans from my mother's hometown. Dredged in confectioners' sugar, they are as sweet as the eggnog.

We serve dinner at four o'clock. It is only days past the solstice, but this far north, the sun fades early, so Dave lights candles in tall brass holders on the sideboard. Jamie pulls the roast—aromatic with garlic and thyme—from the oven and places it on a cutting board to let it rest, while Hilary pours my brother's bordelaise sauce into a Royal Doulton gravy boat that belonged to my maternal great-grandmother. I arrange a crystal relish tray with pickles I put up last summer, and then, when no one is looking, add another dash of Tabasco to the onions bubbling on the stove. The children are told to stop watching Laurel and Hardy's Babes in Toyland and get ready for dinner. Jameson dons a smart new tie; Kate looks adorable in a red velvet top.

As is our family custom, the food is set out buffet style in the kitchen. After helping ourselves, we finally sit down and toast absent loved ones with a robust Meredith-Mitchell pinot noir from my uncle Frank Mitchell's Oregon vineyard (which he owns with his wife, Susan Meredith). Then it's time to eat. The slabs of juicy rare Hereford beef are terrific on their own but heavenly when drizzled with the intense red wine sauce. Fortunately, everyone thinks the onions have just the right amount of heat and perfectly complement the green beans tossed with toasted almond slivers. Feather-light yorkshire puddings round out the meal.

Later, as we indulge in generous slices of the gingerbread cake, Kaki hands everyone a final gift: glossy folders containing her interpretation of Nana's chee-wees recipe and an essay about channeling the spirit of our mother, who apparently wants credit for teaching us how to cook. Kaki insists that I read it aloud, and it is uncanny how close she's come to capturing Mom's voice. The two of us laugh so hard our mascara runs.

We all linger together as the Yule log burns brightly in the fireplace. Suddenly, the holiday music broadcast we've been listening to on the radio is interrupted by an announcement that another storm is on the way. Who cares? Let it snow.