12/23/2010 04:05 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Ghosts of Christmases Past

"So Dad, did you boil the chicken first, or bake it with the pasta?"

I am trying to pick my Dad's brain for his infamous Chicken-Spaghetti recipe.

"Did you use tomato sauce, tomato paste, or both, Dad?"

He just smiles at me. He doesn't remember the recipe. He probably doesn't remember me.

Dad was a great cook and Chicken-Spaghetti was his signature dish. Unfortunately, I never took the time to ask him for the recipe and now it may be too late. Dad is in the latter stages of Alzheimers and doesn't remember much. But, I remember and I'm haunted by memories of years gone by. Especially during the Christmas season.

I look back on happy memories of family, friendships, and good times. It is a bittersweet journey because so much has changed over the years.

In some cases all I'm left with are remembrances of people who were once a part of my life -- like my Aunt Rosa and her husband Will. As we got older, my brother and I started to resent our annual family Thanksgiving trek to their home in Oxnard. When I started UCLA, I stopped going altogether. There were too many more 'important' things to do like parties, football games, and hanging out with friends.

At the time, I did not know that my aunt and uncle would not reach old age, and that today I'd give my right arm for just one more holiday dinner with them.

We think things will stay the same, but they don't. All we can do is enjoy the time that we have and try to keep alive our family traditions. So, during the holidays I serve dinner on Aunt Rosa's good china, just like she used to do. I use her husband's carving knife on the turkey. And, I may not have Dad's exact Chicken-Spaghetti recipe, but I do have his Nat King Cole Christmas album, and his well worn recording of "Merry Christmas Baby." (Yes, I have to wipe the dust off of the turntable and reconnect it every year.)

When I play them I don't even mind the scratches on the records. They remind me of the record players of my youth, when we'd pile on a stack of 45's to listen to while wrapping presents or decorating the tree.

Looking back, I now realize that the adults of my childhood faced a lot of the same issues at Christmastime that we face today - loss, grief, disappointment, stress, financial difficulties, health problems, you name it. However, no matter what was going on, they all came together to celebrate Christmas. It was the time of year when problems were put aside and everyone focused on remembrances of better days and hope for the future.

Every year, I try to continue my family's legacy of gathering together for good food, good music, and a true celebration of the season. It's not always easy. Christmas today can be overwhelming at times. Still, I celebrate the traditions of the holidays with my own family to honor all the people of my past who gave their all to give me a merry Christmas. I celebrate a little extra for those who aren't with me anymore. I say 'Merry Christmas' to everyone who crosses my path, and I mean it!

And maybe, just maybe, if I think back to my times in the kitchen with Dad, I might remember the way he used to do things and the spices and ingredients he liked to use. Who knows? I might be able to make a decent Chicken-Spaghetti myself!

I don't bother Dad about the recipe anymore. I'm just glad he's still here with me.

"Dad, we sure used to have some good times, didn't we?" I remind him.

He looks at me and I see a flicker of recognition. "Yes we did," he says. "Yes we did."

Have a Merry Christmas!

This was written in 2003. Dad passed in 2005. However, his Chicken-Spaghetti, and our family traditions, live on!

Chicken Spaghetti
Very Close to my Dad's Recipe!!


* 12 ounces spaghetti, cooked until just tender
* Olive Oil
* 1 to 2 tablespoons bacon drippings or butter
* 1 cup chopped onion
* 1 cup chopped celery
* 1 cup chopped green bell pepper
* 1 6 ounce can sliced mushrooms
* 1 teaspoon garlic powder
* 1/2 teaspoon oregano
* 1/2 teaspoon seasoning salt
* 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
* 2 teaspoons chili powder
* 1 tablespoon flour
* 1 1/2 cups red wine or unsalted chicken stock
* 1 small can diced tomatoes
* 2 small cans tomato sauce
* 3 to 4 cups chicken; cooked, chopped (1 whole chicken should suffice)
* 1 6 ounce can black olives, drained & chopped
* 8 ounces (2 cups) Cheddar cheese, shredded

Preheat oven to 350°. Grease a large baking dish. In a bowl, toss the spaghetti with the olive oil, and set it aside. Warm the bacon drippings in a skillet. Cook the onion, celery, bell pepper, mushrooms, garlic powder, Worcestershire sauce, salt, oregano and chili powder. Sprinkle in the flour, stir. Add the wine or stock, the tomatoes, and sauce. Bring the mixture to a boil, reduce the heat to a simmer, and cook the sauce for 30 minutes, until it has thickened slightly. Pour the sauce over the spaghetti, and toss well.

Layer half the spaghetti and sauce mixture in the baking dish. Top with half each of the chicken, olives, and cheese. Add the other half of the spaghetti and sauce, and top with the remaining chicken, olives, and cheese.

Bake the casserole 25 minutes, or until the cheese melts and the sauce bubbles around the edges. Serves 4 to 6.