Christmas in a Small Town

Blair Jensen

Two weeks before my family arrives for the holidays, it begins to snow. My husband Mike and I and our 2-year-old son Nash walk up to the Victorian Stroll on the square in Albia, Iowa. I'm trying to see this town through my parents' eyes. I've been talking it up, convincing my mom and stepdad (and myself) that moving a thousand miles away from them was the best thing for us. So what if the Albia Theatre is showing Mortal Combat? Steve and Ed, the guys who run it, still sell penny candy; admission's just $3.50, and we're going to need those movies as winter drags on and on. Anyway, right now the snow is new, the four blocks of the square are outlined in twinkling white lights, the courthouse is hung with old-fashioned colored bulbs, and Mike and Nash and I are excited.

"So, where are you from?" is a question I always dread. The answer says so much about you: sophisticated or domesticated, hip or hick. I hem and haw, then answer: I was born in San Francisco, and when my mother married my stepfather, they decided the big bad city was no place to raise us girls. My sister Verity (then 10) and I (12), like many city kids, knew the maitre d's at our favorite restaurants by name but had no neighborhood kids to play with. So, we headed for the heartland: Galena, Illinois. I pictured Little House on the Prairie; my new classmates thought I knew the Village People. But gradually, I became a Midwesterner. Then, in 1985, when I started college—Grinnell, in Iowa—my parents moved east to Bucks County, Pennsylvania, just over an hour from Manhattan.

When I tell this story, people seem dazed. They may never ask this question of anyone again. But then they look at me with new respect, as if I somehow have the power to fit in wherever I find myself. I think this is what everyone wants: to fit in. I knew I wanted to live somewhere a long time, and to establish my own history that would mingle with the history of somewhere, no matter how elusive.

In 1996, my husband and I found ourselves in suburban New Jersey. Nash was a year old. We didn't fit in. Mike was from Iowa, so we decided to move back. But back where? We knew it had to be right—small town, good schools, not too developed, but with a healthy town square. We'd driven through Albia for years on the way to visit Mike's mother in Corydon. Was I remembering it correctly, or was I so anxious to belong somewhere that I couldn't trust my memory? Then I found out that Albia starts planning its Christmas festivities in April—and I knew I'd picked the right town.

Albia was settled by corn farmers in the early 19th century. Its stately town square was laid out in 1845 and, after the original wooden structures burned, rebuilt in brick. New coal-mining money—lots of it—began to flow into town late in the century. By 1904, the square was complete, and Monroe County's population had swelled to 40,000 (it's now down to 8,000 souls—3,870 of them in Albia itself). The square was recently renovated—and placed on the National Register of Historic Places—thanks to the efforts of Robert T. Bates, a hometown boy who made good in Hollywood, decorating houses for big-time stars like Joan Crawford. Bates had a vision for this once-proud town, and his foundation donated $2 million for its restoration.

And now we're here at Albia's Victorian Stroll, with our hands freezing and our noses running. I had no idea people still celebrated this way. Shops stay open very late—9 p.m. is very late here—and in each store window, sponsored by a business or a club, local citizens in costume play out Victorian scenes. We dash into the courthouse for free coffee and cocoa. Celebrated local baker Dorothy Koffman has rounded up 600 dozen cookies—decorated sugar cookies, rich fudgy mint bars—mainly from the church ladies, who now stand proudly behind long cafeteria tables, pressing samples on Nash.

Part of the tradition of the Victorian Stroll (first held, only ten years ago, for all its old-fashioned feeling) is to urge newcomers to become committee members for the event. At my first meeting last spring, everyone already knew who I was, thanks to a front-page write-up in Albia's Union Republican: I was the one who'd bought Greg Morehead's house. At first, I was amazed at how much work so many people were willing to donate, not for personal gain, but rather for our town's pride. I must admit thinking that there was no way I could take this seriously. But tonight, as I walk around the square, I realize that I know these people; they're my neighbors. And when we stop in front of Santa, he speaks to my son: "Ho, Ho, Ho! And what do you want for Christmas, Nash?" My son's eyes widen and he stares at that Santa and says, "Woody and Buzz [characters in the movie Toy Story]."Santa looks up at me and says, "Have you got that, Frances?"

Now we're getting hungry, so we wander over to the Albia High School Band Parents' Soup Supper at the First Christian Church. The supper starts at 4:30 p.m. and lasts as long as the soup does. The evening is run by tireless women who not only work 40-hour weeks—teaching, cleaning, nursing, or farming—but volunteer for their church societies, smiling all the way. Everyone helps, and there is an easy camaraderie in the kitchen—and a definite hierarchy. (A first-timer, for example, should definitely not attempt to adjust seasonings; I don't.) The hearty vegetable or creamy potato soup we buy tonight will help send the band to Kansas City this spring, forever shaping a memory for these kids, some of whom have never left the county. The band plays through supper, guaranteeing that no one can hear my child as he loudly announces how icky his soup is. A church lady nearby laughs: "Oh yes, I've been there. Wait until he's three"—then offers him a big piece of banana-cream pie, says she's never seen a cuter child, and bets he'll be a great tackle one day for the Albia Blue Demons. Wow, I think. They expect us to still be here.

One thing I knew I wasn't romanticizing about, when I imagined living in Iowa, was the food. There was little romance involved. Iowa cooks traditionally had to use what the seasons provided, or what could be preserved, and the selection was not great. When my family first moved to the Midwest, I knew my mother missed the fresh produce so readily available in California—but she improvised wonderfully with vegetables and sauces she had canned through the summer and fall; she was on scurvy patrol the six winters we spent in Galena. My generation has it much better. Not only do local grocers carry a wider and better variety of produce than they used to, but fresh seafood has become available—and in Des Moines, an hour's drive away, there are now Asian, Hispanic, and Italian markets. And there's always mail order.

One thing you don't have to get by mail here is wild game. An abundance of deer, rabbit, quail, and pheasant make them common fare from late fall to early spring. Mike shot his first pheasant at the age of 12, out in the snowy fields with his father and his brothers, Allen, Gary, and Scott. Eighteen years later, the brothers gather at their Dad's house—in his garage, really—dressed alike in their requisite Iowa farmer⁄hunter uniforms of dun-colored Carhartt coveralls and hooded sweatshirts pulled over Pioneer Seed caps. And big rubber boots—which is why they meet in the garage. Nothing provokes the wrath of a good southern Iowa woman more than muddy boots on the linoleum. In the predawn darkness, they stand around the garage, hashing over pheasant hunts of old. The stories hang in the air like the great clouds their breath makes. But this is their tradition. I want to be in on it, too. So Mike and I decide that our tradition should be pheasant potpie for Christmas Eve. Pheasant season opens the last weekend in October and ends in early January. Perfect timing, perfect use of ingredient.

Then I remember the morels. The memories of spring days searching for them on my mother-in-law's 200-acre farm on the South Skunk River; hitting the hot spots under dead elms and apple trees; watching for switchgrass, thorns, ticks; being glad to be out after so many long months inside; and hoping not only that we've hit the right day but that we're the first ones there. Even though Iowans fry morels up in batter, straight from the woods, I dried some of mine. Could I use them in our pheasant pie? Yes, I think the mushrooms' earthiness will work well with the spicy dark meat of the pheasant—and I can use the morel-infused water from reconstituting the mushrooms, in a rich sauce with the peas, potatoes, and pearl onions. This will be an elegant use of the day's hunt.

My parents and sister arrive on Christmas Eve. This is to be my first Christmas as the big girl in the big house. I need my mommy, yet find myself slightly territorial in the kitchen. It will come to a head the next day, when she suggests mildly that the roast might be done, and I end up crying face down on the bed. The best thing about mothers and daughters is their ability to make up by blaming everyone else in the family. But tonight we're laughing, interrupting each other, and steaming up the kitchen windows. After everybody has finished off the pheasant potpie (excellent!), we lounge on the living room floor and debate the perfect Christmas Eve video. The grown-ups (my parents) predictably pick It's a Wonderful Life, while Mike, Verity, and I push hard for Romy & Michelle's High School Reunion.

Before bed on Christmas Eve, we have another tradition. No, it's not setting out the milk and cookies. We assemble the ingredients for what we call "never-fail souffle", actually a mixture of white bread, eggs, cream, and sharp cheddar cheese, which spends a night in the fridge before baking. While we open presents on Christmas morning, the alchemy of those ingredients creates the highest, lightest, cheesiest breakfast.

My family is so food-obsessed that the breakfast dishes are barely in the dishwasher before we're discussing not only the agenda for preparing Christmas dinner, but what we'll eat between now and then. Mike groans from the other room (he's not a true foodie), but nonetheless manages to put in his order for Maytag Blue cheese dip. A trip to Newton, Iowa, just 20 minutes from our college in Grinnell, was for us a tradition in itself, because Newton had a Chinese restaurant (crucial to a girl from San Francisco). What I didn't know then was that Newton is also the home of Maytag—those washing machines—but, even more important to me, of the great Maytag Blue cheese. Maytag Blue is the key ingredient in our family's favorite holiday snack food—blue cheese dip. Forget the crudites; this is a real dip, sprinkled with green onions and cracked black pepper, one that demands to be scooped up with thick, salty Ruffles potato chips. This dip, I suspect, is why my husband married me.

Iowa is the country's number-one pork producer, so our Christmas dinner tribute had to be crown roast of pork. I remember how Charlie, the butcher at the Albia Super Valu, looked at me oddly when I asked him not to leave so much pork on the bone, since I needed a deeper cavity for my corn and apple stuffing. I may have chosen to live in a small town in the middle of nowhere, but I've got style, baby. I know this for sure on Christmas Day when I peek over the top of the crown roast I'm triumphantly carrying to see my entire family seated around my dining table, silent for once, all eyes on me.

Now we're stuffed, too. With stuffing. And crown roast, and glazed carrots. Nonetheless, I cheerily ask, "Who has room for dessert?" We've tried a new one this year—turning a classic drink, eggnog, into a custardy, bourbon-laced tart. But there are no takers. I leave it out anyway—and soon, all that's left of the tart are a few crumbs. My mission is complete. I've started another tradition.