For the first course of my Christmas dinner, there must be something hot and inspiring – a cup of what is to me quite the most marvelous and stimulating of soups ever created, a deep carnelian-clear and concentrated fish consommè, an essence of Mediterranean fish and shellfish made aromatic with leeks and tomatoes, fennel stalks, lemon peel, olive oil and white wine. Elizabeth David, in Elizabeth David’s Christmas
Friday was the winter solstice, a typically cold, gray day in upstate New York. This year, barren of snow and darker than usual in spirit.
The 50-bell carillon in the Rush Rhees Library tower at the University of Rochester rang 26 times, followed by melodies children love: “Mr. Rogers Theme,” “It’s a Small World,” and others. In the medical center chapel that afternoon, we lit candles to brighten the longest night and welcome the lengthening days.
Snow fell that evening. The next morning, in the woodsy part of our backyard, I saw two young white-tailed deer hopping nimbly over a fallen tree.
We need comfort food more than ever this year. On Christmas Eve, I’ll make a feast of four fishes, not quite keeping up with the feast of seven fishes traditionally prepared in seaside Mediterranean villages. Seven for the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church. As for what kinds of fish you’d find on the Christmas Eve table in villages of old, I imagine whatever the fishermen caught that day.
When we travel to Sicily we stay in Scopello, a small village by the sea. We hear the fishing boats heading out before sunrise. Later, we go to the market and look over the fresh catch. One day, on a trip several years ago, our boys were thrilled to see a magnificent six-foot swordfish on display.
This year, I thumbed through an old paperback cookbook my Sicilian father often consulted, The Art of Italian Cooking by Maria Lo Pinto, to plan our holiday menu. The pages are yellow and I’ve lost the back cover of this edition, which was the 40th printing. First published by Doubleday in 1948, the cookbook was picked up by Bantam in 1955.
The Christmases of my life seem to fall into distinct phases. Do yours? The holidays of my childhood and adolescence I spent in my family’s floral shop surrounded by poinsettias, piles of fragrant evergreen boughs, and fresh flowers by the dozens.
Then came Christmases in New York. I remember the paper bags filled with warm chestnuts I bought from street vendors, the Salvation Army bells ringing along Fifth Avenue, and the department store window displays: Lord & Taylor, Saks Fifth Avenue, B. Altman, Macy’s. I’d buy a small Christmas tree and bring it home by taxi to my third floor walk-up.
On to upstate New York, and Christmases with my husband and two boys. Decorating the tree, watching the children dressed as angels and sheep in the Christmas pageant, waiting for Santa, leaving cookies and milk for him by the fireplace and a little something for the reindeer. One Christmas morning, the boys discovered a fresh hoof print pressed into the small bowl of oats.
Now, we wait for two young men to come home for the holidays. We have a wonderful time, and the holidays are over way too soon.
If you’d like, leave a Christmas memory in the comments below.
Quote from Elizabeth David’s Christmas, edited by Jill Norman. David R. Godine, Boston: 2008.
Evergreen photo by M. Hallinan