Sunday, December 28, 2008

Our First Kentucky Christmas

I know, I know, Christmas is over but I’m a firm believer in the Twelve Days of Christmas and like to stretch things, including belated gift and card sending, right through Epiphany on January 6. Besides, I’m a bit back-blogged so you’ll just have to bear with more merriment and celebration and discussion of the season.

This year I was invited to a Christmas cookie bake with some of my Mennonite friends. Because they spend so little time together, apart from church or community events, they like to have “bakes” instead of swaps so that they can spend a day baking, visiting, eating and singing (I knew immediately it was my kind of day and didn't need to be asked twice). We each brought three kinds of prepared dough and whatever was needed to complete the cookies, a few extra cookie sheets, and containers to put them into. There were five of us with three cookies each and from the 15 varieties we probably had about 800 cookies to divide up between us.

Despite the many varieties there were no two alike. I aimed for ease of preparation and brought a crescent cookie dough, a molasses refrigerator cookie dough and also a Toll house cookie (from the back of the chips package), with red and green M&Ms© added instead of chocolate chips. My friend Anna made a raisin-filled cookie, a fruitcake cookie and one with pistachios in it, while Irene made a sliced rolled date cookie, a peanut butter filled chocolate cookie, and one other kind. Norma and Anna May, Anna’s daughter and daughter-in-law respectfully, made roll out cookies, a filled cookie with chocolate hazelnut spread, and several other drop cookies with different festive bits in them.

This week I will post the crescent and molasses cookie recipes, complete with photographs, that I used from Anna's family cookbook (mainly because everything I've made so far from this cookbook has been delicious and foolproof and because I couldn't find my old stand by recipes--yup, in a unopened moving box somewhere). They are easy and can be chilled in advance. The molasses cookie is a refrigerator cookie that is sliced and that I dusted with red and green sprinkles on them before baking. As pecan meal was more affordable and easier than English or black walnuts, I used that in the crescent cookies with the same effect as any other nut.

At noon we broke for lunch. Irene brought a sausage pizza she had made and Norma had prepared a huge vat of homemade fruit yogurt and a potato soup. Of course, we had loads of cookies to sample throughout the day and try them we did. At one point we even sang Christmas carols and hymns together while working. That was so meaningful to me as I have missed singing in a choir and with a group.

Like the Amish Christmas, an Old Order Mennonite Christmas is very spare. The emphasis is on Christ’s birth and there is no Christmas tree, few gifts, and no décor or frenzy. There is a service on Christmas morning followed by a large noon dinner. Cards are written—many go out to people in communities in all parts of the country—and there is much baking for friends and family. It is the kind of Christmas we strive for in our home but yet can’t quite attain. As I enjoy the décor and the tree and finding and giving the right presents as much as anyone in our house, it is largely because of me that we have so many Christmas trappings. But this year, because of prolonged illness, time and significantly reduced space from our former New England home, we did not go as all out as in past years. Instead, I spent more time baking, writing cards, wrapping up and shipping parcels for family and friends (more so than usual this year as we have moved), and enjoying new friends in Kentucky. It was such a special, different season for us that Eli proclaimed it "the best Christmas ever." My only regret is that her job at a busy ski resort back in New England kept our daughter from joining us here in Kentucky.

On Christmas Eve amidst lashing downpours (the boys and I were hoping for snow but got rain instead), we delivered baskets of food to our Mennonite friends. They included hams, homemade banana bread (when your husband buys you a case of bananas from Sunny Valley Store, you make banana bread!), maple syrup made in our former town of Hancock, New Hampshire (thank you, Bill Eva!), and other goodies. It was my husband’s idea to thank several families for their many kindnesses and great welcome to us this year. For the past few weeks we have had fun thinking of things to make or add to the baskets. Early in the afternoon we loaded up our boys, the baskets and many other loaves of banana bread for friends on our ridge on our return home. [I was also reminded of banana bread--wrapped in foil with red ribbons--that my mother used to make and deliver before Christmas during my Akron, Ohio childhood.] It was the best way to spend the holiday that I can imagine: giving to others and spending time visiting. When we returned home we checked our answering machine. There was a long message from the Martin family. All eleven of them had gathered by their phone to sing “Silent Night” to us. It was heartwarming to hear and perhaps the best gift of all: the gift of a simple, quiet song.

On the Saturday before Christmas we met with friends for a lovely dinner and a nice afternoon of conversation at their ridge top home. Today, also my husband's 53rd birthday, we had a large Sunday dinner at a Mennonite home and sang Christmas hymns and carols after the dishes were done (and with six women bustling about, they were done in no time). As it turns out, Temple was not the only birthday boy in attendance: our hosts, Irene and Ammon were born earlier in December, and are the same age as Temple, and another couple there were born a day apart on December 25 and 26th. Raymond Martin, whose family serenaded us with "Silent Night," also has a Christmas birthday. [And how can I forget my friend, fellow Cupcake, pantry fan and long-time "In the Pantry" blog reader back in New Hampshire who was also born on Christmas day? Peaches, to know you is to love you. She even made her own Bûche de Noël brought to Edie's, our other primary Cupcake and dear friend, for Christmas dinner.]

On Christmas Day we spoke to our daughter, my mother (who had just gotten her power back the day before after that fierce New Hampshire ice storm of two weeks ago), and many family members around the country. We lounged in our pajamas. We had a large breakfast of scrambled eggs, French toast, sausage and fruit, and mid-afternoon, after the roast was in, I prepared some hot artichoke dip and a shrimp platter with homemade red sauce (so much better that way and quick to make). At 6:30 we sat down to our traditional Christmas roast beef dinner, including the loftiest Yorkshire pudding I've ever made (for the recipe, see this former blog entry), roast potatoes, gravy and creamed spinach. It was a quiet, relaxing, peaceful day. I browsed through several new cookbooks (a person can never have too many, is my motto, and more on these later in the week) while Temple relaxed and the boys built and played with new Lego creations. All was calm, all was bright. [And what is it about Christmas that creates such peaceful sibling harmony?]

We were surprised that we could not find one of countless small local Baptist churches with a Christmas Eve or Christmas morning service! (We live on a ridge with three churches and many more within a square mile of us.) These are churches that have Wednesday evening services (but not if it falls on Christmas Eve, apparently) and two services on Sundays so I assumed that we would find a Christmas Eve service at least. No doubt this was fueled by visions of "The Homecoming" with the Waltons dancing in my head--remember the country church that John-Boy comes across when out on a winter road searching for his father on Christmas Eve? As I hail from the Episcopal liturgical tradition I am used to a lot of splash during Christmas and Easter week so expected to find at least a service to visit on Christmas Eve. We did not want to drive too far but I'm sure these services are out there further afield in more populated areas. We are still looking for a good church "fit" for our family and have enjoyed visiting different ones in the region.

But despite our church-less Christmas this year, we have felt very blessed and welcome during our first Kentucky Christmas--perhaps with even more spirit and community than we might have found in a church. Della T. Lutes, who wrote the best-selling memoir **The Country Kitchen [Little, Brown & Co.: 1937] in the midst of the Great Depression and who I quoted a few times in The Pantry--Its History and Modern Uses, wrote in her chapter 'A Simple Christmas' that in her childhood it "was not the occasion for the orgy of spending and sophisticated entertainment that it now is...Christmas was lifted, in our home, only a few degrees above the plane of any other simple holiday." After detailing the food at their feast--including goose and a Christmas pudding--and various neighbor guests and family members, she ends her book with a description of doing the chores on Christmas night with her father:

The light from the kitchen streams out,-- a lovely light, -- soft, ambient, and golden like a heavenly road to peace and safety. Here in the barn there is security. Storms cannot enter. Nothing can harm us here, for my father is in charge. The animals trust him. I trust him. Back there in the kitchen is safety, too. Warmth, and light, and food -- and Mother.

Does it get much better than that? I don't believe so.

**I highly recommend The Country Kitchen (reprinted or the original is available in second-hand bookstores) and its follow up, Home Grown, as much for the domestic and sentimental regaling as for the recipes peppered throughout these books. Della T. Lutes (1872-1942) also wrote a few other domestic-related books, some novels and was editor of two prominent women's magazines--American Motherhood and Today's Housewife--in the earlier part of the 20th century. After one magazine went bankrupt during the Great Depression, she contributed food and design articles as a freelance food writer to numerous national publications. The Country Kitchen was first published in serial form in the Atlantic Monthly and was well-received as a memoir about food and simpler living. Today the Horton Congregational Church in Lutes' hometown of Horton, Michigan hosts an annual Della T. Lutes Cook-off, inspired by this quote:

"If somebody could think up a contest so that all the housewives in the country would begin to vie with each other in the making of apple pie, it would not matter who was President or whether we lived by the Alphabet or the Roman numerals. For then the American Home would be restored, and the Home would rule the country."
from A Book of Menus with Recipes, Della Thompson Lutes, 1936


Ladyfromthewoods said...

I'm so glad you're going to post the cookie recipes! As simple as the molasses cookies looked they were surprisedly my favorite. (I'm not sure anyone else got one after I had my first taste. Shamefully, I must admit I didn't brag on them aloud for fear they would disappear.) And the crescent cookie was a close second, but they were all GOOD. Yummy. Memorable. A plate of memorable cookies.

Happy Birthday, Temple! Glad you had a good one!

Love, t and the gang

Catherine said...

Thanks Teresa! Can you believe this, however? I have a distinct memory of the typeface on the cookbook pages for the recipes. I thought they were from my friend Anna's family cookbooks (there are two) but just scoured those and can't find 'em. So now I'm wondering WHAT cookbook did I use! I know it was one of those that you can buy with the spiral bindings that people put together--it may be another from Crab Orchard or Sunny Valley. I also must have squirreled it in my mess of an office room (which "hides" behind our bedroom) I am inspired to do a bit of post-Christmas picking up just to find the book I used!

More soon...glad you liked those cookies! xo