My mother always taught us that no one should be alone at Christmas and that we must expect miracles and mysteries. She offered these miracles from her Southern kitchen. The petite madeleines of her Christmas celebrations were her peanut-butter fruitcake, cherry and pineapple fudges. And who could resist the temptation of mother's meringue-light Divinity, studded with black walnuts?
In the fervent circles of my childhood, food was love. As one of my Jewish friends, who sampled my mother's Divinity, says, "Isn't food one of the primary reasons to be here on earth? Maybe that's what Eve and the apple were all about -- nothing to do with good and evil, or knowledge, but food, glorious food."
Perhaps because many Southern Baptists don't drink or smoke or dance, the epiphany of food is a powerful persuasion to keep coming to church. Who can resist church socials, especially at Christmas? The temptation of wild blackberry cobbler, the creamy, cold manna of my mother's homemade Rocky Road ice cream, or the church ladies' triple-fudge brownies with glazed pecans?
Southern Baptist "refreshment committees," are wizards at starches -- olive-macaroni salads, butternut squash casseroles and delicate pie crusts that a French pastry chef would envy. Around food, Southern Baptists surrender to culinary pleasures and family-style warmth like Italians. Like Russians, Southern believers share a passion for pickling -- mushrooms, cucumbers, sweet beets.
Then there is the sugared inspiration of Heavenly Hash. This holiday concoction is an mélange of Cool Whip, cherry pie filling, crushed pineapple, marshmallows and nuts. In a crystal or glass bowl it looks rather like a suspicious mishmash. But if made right -- especially with buttery French-style marshmallows -- this medley of fruits and nuts sings on the tongue.
Sometimes our church choir would go Christmas caroling to senior centers and hospitals. Any ailments that singing couldn't cure, would be eased by our Gift of the Magi Cupcakes. This was my mother's special recipe: a trinity of chocolate on chocolate on chocolate. It was like the original sin of chocolates. Why else would it be called "devil's food"?
Another favorite was Russian tea, a concoction of citrus Tang and Lipton's black tea. This spicy brew was always served on our Christmas Eve with mother's homemade sausage cookies. Battered balls of sharp cheese, sausage, Jiffy Biscuit Mix and milk -- these salty cookies cut the glut of too much sugar.
Sometimes we also toasted each other with virgin eggnog, because Southern Baptists don't drink. When I was 14, a co-worker from my father's office brought bourbon balls to our home as a holiday gift. Before Mother had a chance to deliver his candy over to the fate of all liquor in our house -- down the drain -- we kids had gobbled up half a dozen bourbon balls apiece. As the remaining bourbon balls gurgled in our newfangled garbage disposal, we spun around the Christmas tree tipsy, stringing cranberries.
At Christmas, we eagerly anticipated progressive dinners, which were basically pious pig-outs. These eating marathons paraded from house to house, from hors d'oeuvres to salads to side dishes to main course, completed by a Roman debauch of desserts. In my adolescent diary I was so astonished by one Christmas progressive dinner that I wrote down the menu:
Salads -- First House: Waldorf salad, red cabbage slaw, Heavenly Hash, hot, wilted lettuce with ham hock, honeyed pears and blue cheese, strawberry Jello-rings with celery and cottage cheese.
Appetizers: pickle chow-chow and corn relish, home-cured beef jerky, Vienna sausages and Ritz crackers, Swedish meatballs on colored toothpicks.
Side dishes -- Second House: Barbequed butter beans, cornmeal-fried okra, homemade hominy, sweet potatoes with candied ginger and pecans, mustard greens and braised kale, green bean casserole with onion rings, corn and lima bean succotash, parsnips in brown sugar, German potato salad with sausage. Cornbread, grits, and cream gravy.
Main course -- Third House: Roasted wild turkey with walnut stuffing, beer-batter fried chicken, pork roast with dried apricots, Mother's mooseghetti (from my father's recent hunting trip to Montana), bratwurst with dill sauerkraut, and salt-encrusted Smithfield ham.
Desserts -- Final House: Chocolate cream pie with coconut, strawberry rhubarb tarts, sour cherry cobbler with brown sugar crumble, vanilla custard cream puffs, double-fudge brownies with caramel sauce, Mother's peach ice cream.
After a progressive holiday dinner, we always had to lie down in the back of our blue Buick station wagon, groaning all the way home. Unlike Catholics, who must suffer Lent, no meat on Fridays and the sin of gluttony, we Baptists could eat without any spiritual worries -- until doomsday. Such holiday feasting was an offering, a communion, body and soul. A little glimpse of heaven right here on earth.
Brenda Peterson is the author of the recent memoir "I Want to Be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here on Earth," which was just named among the "Top Ten Best Non-Fiction Books of 2010" by The Christian Science Monitor. For more, visit the website.
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