Oh, but that I could wax poetic like Christopher Kimball, editor and founder of Cook’s Illustrated. Truly one of the most beloved – if not storied – cooking magazines of all time, with over a million subscribers in this age of shrinking readership for hardcopy texts, Cook’s Illustrated is the Christmas gift my husband keeps giving me. For obvious reasons.
What’s not obvious to those who don’t pace by the mailbox every two months waiting for the latest edition is that Mr. Kimball, also the convivial host of “America’s Test Kitchen” on PBS, is a damn good writer. As steady as the cycles of the moon, page one can be depended upon to deliver an exquisite editorial morsel on the intricacies of life through the eyes of a “Vermonter,” all the beauty, wisdom, and humor in colloquial simplicity:
“The world we leave behind is small and peculiar. Its map is local not global. We aren’t bilingual; we speak only the local patois. History is made in the churches, fire departments, hollows, and town halls, not in books. One can garden stark naked (one of my neighbors still has a taste for this) or ride an electric golf cart up and down the back roads just for the heck of it. It is a small universe – the granite obelisks on the town line mark the edges of our Milky Way. But we always know where we are from the stars above, the rush of a brook, a haze of wood smoke, or the sharp odor of liquid manure. The faces at Sherman’s store tell you everything about the seasons – in late March, eyes are hollow and the stubble on the chin faded. Even the farmer’s caps seem loose as if the heads have shrunk a bit in the cold.” (Excerpt from, “The Last We’ll See,” Christopher Kimball, Cook’s Illustrated, May/June 2014)
Nary a word, as you’ll note above – or in all the years of reading page ones – about the content of the 30-something pages to follow, all things gastronomically related: the notes from readers; the collection of tips; the recipes with back stories, über directives and scientific analyses which border on something out of Scientific American; the back cover, an epicure’s homage to Walter Hood Fitch. Curious.
And yet, this foodie writer wannabe, has always been more than a little envious of the sublimity of Mr. Kimball’s expressive freedom. Until now, thanks to “The Barking Tomato.”
So here’s my “page one” of sorts, my homage to family, and ghosts of Christmas past – and a cherished family recipe.
Growing up an only child of divorced parents in an era – and in a community– where it was the rare exception, surely had its challenges, a fact I only really recognized or appreciated as an adult, happily married, and with children of my own. Living it? Just 4 when they separated, the incredible adaptability of children accounts for my innocent acceptance of “the new normal.” A mother’s love heals all.
Christmas was especially special. Instead of bad mouthing my dad or belly aching about the fragility of our affairs or sending out negative emotional cues that kids just naturally pick up on and internalize, my hard-working single mom reminded me of how fortunate I was. “How many kids do you know that get to have two Christmases?” she would ask. The answer was none. I didn’t know a single kid from kindergarten through fifth grade with divorced parents in our neighborhood or church in the small, mostly agrarian suburb of Bel Air, northeast of Baltimore.
Christmas #1 was spent with my mom – and her mother with whom we lived – from the time I woke up until about noon. My Granny Nora would say I was an old woman in a little girl’s body. I bring this up because I don’t ever remember believing in Santa Claus and was mightily reprimanded at 7 years old by my Aunt Rose, my mother’s twin sister, for telling my cousins that it was their own father, not Santa, that came down the chimney after they went to sleep on Christmas Eve. They were all of 6 and 4 at the time.
Still, there were wrapped gifts under the tree from my mom and unwrapped ones from Santa, symbolically. Mom’s gifts were of a more logical, you-need-this persuasion i.e. cute little panties with the days of the week printed on them, flannel night gowns in floral prints, blouses and skirts befitting a little girl in elementary school, and knee socks in every color since there would be no wearing of pants until the local school board changed the rules in 1970 when I was in 7th grade.
“Santa” brought the fun stuff. Chatty Cathy, Easy Bake Oven, my first two-wheel bike, the dearly loved and very scientific entomology set I got when I was 10. Of course, I had my mom to thank for always knowing just what I wanted. She would have wished for nothing more than to spend all of Christmas day and night with me but the “new normal” would create a new family tradition with me at the epicenter. Gosh, I was lucky.
Granny Nora’s gifts were as modest and frugal as she was. One year a boar bristle hair brush – all of $5 in the day – some tortoise-shell barrettes and always a miniature box of Russell Stover Chocolates. Hers was a tight-lipped, stoic life following the death of my grandfather from a heart attack shortly after mom and I moved in with them. What a balancing act my mom must have performed between the distant, uncommunicative moods of a reluctant widow and a precocious, motor mouth of a 5 year old.
Christmas #2 began when my dad decided to pick me up between 11 a.m. and noonish. He never gave me a precise time because precision only mattered at his business where he designed and installed specialized dump truck beds. I would flit from window to window in the living room in eager anticipation the moment I heard a car, any car, drive past Granny Nora’s house. After two to four excited “surveillance” flights around the living room, a knot of doubt would inevitably take hold of my stomach. “I think Dad forgot me, Mom,” I would say, resigned to my fate. “Nonsense,” she’d reply, matter of fact, “He would never forget you on Christmas Day.” I believed her.
And just like that, I heard the deep purr of his Chevrolet Impala or his Malibu or his red Dodge Charger in the driveway and the “beep, beep” of the horn signaling me to jump in for the “funnest” ride of the year. Seat belts? Only librarians and old men wore seat belts.
“Oops! Gotta go back to the house to get your presents ‘cause I forgot to bring’em along,” he’d say the same thing every year by way of greeting. He was a prankster and a jokester to the hilt.
“This time I’m serious. Look. Look in the backseat. Nothin’. I forgot everything.”
He pulled into 7-Eleven. “I need a Slurpee before we head to your Aunt Norma Jean’s. Run in and get us one, ‘k?”
I’m all of 8 years old, scrawny as a string bean, and no front teeth since I was three after falling face first into an old well sealed with cement on my grandparent’s farm. A face only a mother could love, I now think.
“Sure, but did you really forget my presents?” my voice cracking, I’m sure.
He put his hand in his jacket pocket like he’s getting some cash and pulls out a ring box, placing it in my hand. I feel my eyes get wide as saucers and meet his. He can barely contain himself, grinning from ear to ear – a big kid who just didn’t know how to navigate marriage and fatherhood with his obsession for cars and trucks and gambling. I wouldn’t know any of this for some years to come, of course, because my mother wisely decided that the day would come when I would see “the writing on the wall.”
But that year he stole my heart with the beautiful gold ring and the garnet birthstone. It fit perfectly. We laughed all the way to his sister’s house, where my Grandmom and Granddad Choate would be waiting with heaps of presents for everyone including me and my cousins. They were the Liberace of grandparents; everything was grand and opulent including Christmas dinner, which we had to eat before gift giving began. Smoked ham from Vermont that Uncle Richard carved, fried oyster stuffing, green beans with shallots and mushrooms, and the silkiest mashed potatoes with chives and bacon bits. Grandmom’s colossal carrot cake with pineapple frosting was served after presents.
There are but three granddaughters on my father’s side and since I am the oldest, I got to open my gifts first. Beginning on our 6th Christmas, Grandmom gave each of us three Akoya pearls a year, our strand of pearls would take 19 years to complete and I treasure them. From Steiff teddy bears to monogrammed terry bath robes, Kodak cameras to backgammon games, Christmas with my grandparents was always a memorable day.
They were both elfin in stature, Granddad was 5-foot-4 and Grandmom was 4-foot-11. The latter had a BIG personality and didn’t think twice about sharing her opinion with you about any topic – whether you liked it or not. The former was the epitome of a gentleman – quiet, gregarious, humble. My grandmother definitely ruled the roost and my grandfather didn’t mind being ruled. Regardless, they loved their granddaughters with a passion. Sadly, as a result of the divorce, I didn’t get to spend as much time with them throughout the year as my cousins did, until I became a teenager and would drive myself to their house a couple times a week. They taught me so much.
Grandmom was an awesome organic gardener, cook and baker. Perfect Maryland crab cakes with lump back fin and Maryland fried chicken, homemade cream of mushroom soup, pureed yellow squash with seasoned salt, the best French apple and chocolate silk pies with flaky crusts. And her favorite Christmas dessert, carrot cake with pineapple frosting. When she died in 1993, Aunt Norma Jean made sure I got my grandmother’s recipe collection, as I was the only one who truly aspired to carry Grandmom’s torch for preparing and serving great food. For sure, every December 25 I harken back to those halcyon days, when I thought I was the luckiest kid in the world.
Grandmom’s Carrot Cake
3 cups flour
2 cups sugar
2 tspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 tespoons vanilla
½ teaspoon salt
2 cups grated carrots
1 ½ cups cooking oil
1 ½ cups chopped pecans
1 6-oz can crushed pineapple, including juice
3 eggs, beaten slightly
½ cup coconut flakes
Mix all dry ingredients together. Add remaining ingredients and mix well. Bake in a greased and floured tube cake pan in 350 degrees for 1 hour or until done. Cool and remove from pan.
Frost with pineapple frosting:
1 3-oz. package softened cream cheese
½ stick butter, softened
1 6-oz. can crushed pineapple, including juice
Cream together butter and cream cheese. Beat in pineapple until mixture is thoroughly mixed. Beat in confectioner’s sugar until mixture is thick enough to spread.
About The Barking Tomato: Carolyn Choate loves to chew on food. Literally and figuratively. In the kitchen from her garden in Nashua or her favorite market, a restaurant across town or across the globe. When not masticating, Carolyn is likely swilling wine or spirits as neither is far from her heart – or lips. Forget diamonds and Louboutins, she’d rather blow a wad on Pinot Noir and grass-fed filet with fresh sautéed morels. And write about it. You taste the picture: The “Barking Tomato” aspires to push your “foodie” button. Carolyn’s day job is producing local affairs programming for WYCN-CD. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.