Thursday, December 15, 2011

Early Christmas Memories

Like our parents before us, my husband and I definitely had our struggling first years - college debt, entry level pay, two babies before our 2nd anniversary, major surgery w/o insurance that first year (more debt), a decision made as a child for me to be a stay-at-home Mom, but lived out in the real world of grown ups now. Put simply, times were tight and everything was accounted for.

Although I am the oldest of six children, sadly, I didn't come to my marriage with a great many culinary skills. Essentially, I could basically make around three dishes that served eight, so when I made spaghetti my husband and I would be eating it for a week.  Poor M!  I would buy milk by fours - one in the fridge, three in the freezer.  It was an adjustment cooking for two, but living frugally and from scratch was my rich inheritance.  One of the treasures that my Mom passed on to me was her North American Cook Book.  It looked old when she gave it to me, and I knew it would serve me dependably as a much-needed guide.  The cover has held up well over the years, but the inside binding came loose long ago; and although I don't exactly recall doing so, I must have attempted to re-glue the pages back in.  Most are solidly affixed to the spine, albeit not exactly aligned with one another.  Maybe one of my kids did that.

To me, this book was the sacred writ of domesticity.  Like many cookbooks of its time, it was written in rather cryptic fashion with succinct instructions such as, 'put chicken in a hot oven.'  Um... What?!  I'd include in my allotted monthly-hour's-worth of call*  a clarification from Mom to find that everyone knows a hot oven is a standard 350 degrees.  I pored over the drawings and diagrams of various meats, trying to educate myself on how to cut up a chicken.  Never did manage that one well, but I found it saved the day to roast them or boil them whole.

Of course, for Christmas we had very little extra.  I don't just mean money for gifts.  I mean what we had in the house was what I had to work with.  No mixer. No rolling pin. No wisk.  And if we couldn't eat it, I didn't have the luxury of running out to buy it.  So for those first Christmases, I made our own gifts for our families.  Enter the North American Cook Book.  Homemade fudges (chocolate and penuche), divinity, peanut brittle, rolls of noughat covered in pecans, gingerbread pigs, and sugar cookies painted with care and artistry.  I must have read these instructions fifty times, determined to break the code:
Fudges are made up of tiny crystals; the finer the crystals, the smoother the fudge. Beating initiates the growth of crystals, and if crystal formation takes place early, they will be large.  Avoid excess stirring while cooking, and do not beat or agitate the cooling syrup after cooking until it has reached the correct temperature for beating.  The use of brown sugar, syrup, cream of tartar, or vinegar in a candy mixture tends to retard crystallization of the syrup; butter and cream also have this effect.  Always choose fudge recipes which contain at least one of these ingredients.
So... should I beat or not - and when?  I couldn't afford to make a mistake, and this was clearly a lesson in chemistry impeding my attempts to create candies of perfection!  Armed with three wooden spoons (each broken in succession) and two bowls, I did as I best I could. Somehow, I managed, and shipped off my delicacies with homely pride and satisfaction.

Our tree was another area I felt the challenge to pinch pennies while making our apartment a festive home.  M was able to bring home two boxes of store-bought ornaments, bright globes of iridescence against the evergreen tree, and twinkling strings of multi-colored lights.  Still, I longed for a more personal touch.  I popped corn and painstakingly strung it with thread, draping it over the tree - just like home.  Then, I experimented with mixing up flour and water.  No rolling pin, remember?  So I patted my dough out into the most uniform thickness I could master, cutting shapes from the fairly even plane with a butter knife, and baking them to hardness.  Bringing out my watercolor paints, I applied layers of color, striving to build up the most intense pigments possible, then coating them with clear nail polish to preserve and add a glisten. A few of my treasures have survived the years to adorn our Christmas tree even this year, although faded with time, still bearing the bumpy imprint of my palms and the homemade mark of loving industry.

My oldest daughter picked up the North American Cook Book the other morning, flipping through the stubborn pages, finding the treasures within.  Her eyes lit up, and my heart warmed within me.  I'm thinking French Hot Chocolate - but that's for my next post.

Shared at Simple Lives Thursday, Works for Me Wednesday, and Ramblings of a Christian Mom

*Yes, young mothers, we paid by the minute back then - and long distance meant each minute was more precious - and consequently, more expensive.  No internet either!
** The second year, I borrowed a neighbor's mixer and burned it out.  Wound up having to buy two - one to replace her's and the other my very first. ;D



  2. Oooh... one of my very favorite clips ever! Can you feel my big, beaming smile?