An Intimate Christmas Dinner
Memories of a Southern Christmas
Down in Florida, where I come from, we never had a white Christmas but that fact never dampened our spirit of celebration. Warm balmy air stirred the Spanish moss that grew abundantly in the old oak trees around our house, cascading from limb to ground like an old man’s beard. Red hibiscus and amarylis graced our garden while Florida holly with its red berries furnished us with appropriate Christmas decoration. My sister and I would go to the woods in search of mistletoe. Climbing the trees was hazardous. The mistletoe grew at the top of the highest trees. It was always helpful to bring with us a long cane of bamboo to knock the mistletoe down from the branches. Each year we managed to get enough to hang from the ceiling in hope of a kiss or two. As Christmas drew nearer our house filled with the aroma of the holiday season. Fruitcakes were baked, a rich dark brown sugar and spiced-fruit smell waft from the kitchen. One of my favorite memories of Christmas is the smell of mincemeat cookies baking in the oven. When you entered the house the fragrance of those cookies would rise up at you like some exotic perfume from the middle east, filling the air with the scent of dried fruit, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, all spice and clove.
Our traditional Christmas celebration was divided into two parts. Christmas Eve was spent with my mother’s family while Christmas Day was spent with my father’s family. Christmas Eve morn we would all load up the car with presents and homemade edible gifts and head over to my grandparent’s house. My grandparents lived in a little white clap-board house in an old neighborhood of Sulfur Springs. The house had a large front porch. On the porch set Adirondack chairs and pots of begonias. The garden around the house was filled with orange, tangerines and grapefruit trees. My grandfather was usually waiting on the porch for us while grandmother was busy cooking in the kitchen. The table would already be set with my grandmother’s best china and silverware. A Christmas tree stood in the corner of the living room decorated with glass ornaments and small white electric candles. After the car was unloaded my sister and I would play in the garden while my mother helped her mother prepare dinner and my father and grandfather would go out to the shed in the back of the garden to sip some Christmas cheer. My grandmother was a teetotaler so no alcohol could be drank in the house if she knew about it.
Dinner was always a grand affair. Grandmother would prepare two entrees usually a huge turkey with dressing and always a smoked ham. Rice and gravy were inevitably served at every meal. The vegetables were always garden fresh and may vary but green beans and sweet potatoes were common. Dessert was fruitcake. Grandmother prepared one each year, months ahead of time, covered it with cheesecloth soaked in brandy and put it away to steep till Christmas. The brandy soaked fruitcake was the one exception she made to her rule of no alcohol in the house. My grandfather was always happy to procure the brandy for her fruitcakes and was obliged to put the rest of the bottle in his garden shed for Christmas celebration with my father. As the day progressed my aunt, uncle, cousin and friends would arrive to join us for dinner. The house was always full of people eating, laughing, talking and exchanging gifts. In the evening my grandmother would bring out pumpkin and sweet potato pies and prepare a special drink made of lime sherbet and ginger ale for the children and eggnog for the adults. Grandfather, uncle and dad would always manage to sneak a little brandy in their cups of eggnog. This game of sneaking a sip of brandy or whiskey delighted us children. It was grandfather’s secret which we shared and kept at all cost. In the evening the women tidied up the house as the men sat in the big Adirondack chairs on the front porch. Grandfather would always smoke his pipe. We children were content to play with our new toys in the middle of the living room floor. When everything was clean and put away my mother would announce it was time to go home. My sister and I would always protest but climb in the back seat of our car and usually fall asleep on the way home.
Christmas day would arrive with great fanfare. Santa always visited in the middle of the night leaving presents under the Christmas tree. Mother and father were woken up early by squeals of delight. Presents couldn’t be opened until all of us were gathered around the tree. Mother would put on a pot of coffee and fix cinnamon rolls for breakfast. After opening our presents mother would start to prepare plates of food to take to my father’s parents Christmas celebration. My father’s family was a numerous family. My father was one of five children, each sibling had married and had children of their own. Counting all the aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents and a few friends, our number was more that thirty. None of us had a house big enough for the entire family to fit into so our tradition was to go to a park and have a picnic under a pavilion on Christmas day. Each family would prepare part of the Christmas meal as prearranged by the women in the family. When we all arrived table clothes were spread out on picnic tables under the pavilion, paper plates and plastic forks and knives would be set on the end of one table and all the plates of food would be arranged according to meat, vegetables and desserts. We would all stand together as grandfather said grace for our meal then line up to fill our plates with food. There was always more than enough for seconds and thirds. After Christmas lunch we would organize a game of baseball, throw some horse shoes or play badminton. We children would wander through the park, usually bare foot like savages, looking for some kind of trouble to get into. In the late afternoon we would all be called to help clean up and load the cars. We would say our goodbyes and drive home.
Some things have changed since my childhood. Living in the Czech Republic we usually have a white Christmas now. Christmas dinner at our house today is more likely to be a small intimate affair with my husband, son and an occasional friend or two. But I still try to prepare traditional food and drink. The background setting of our Christmas may have changed, but the spirit of Christmas remains the same. It still means joy, warmth and good cheer with friends and family here and a toast to those who are far away.
An Intimate Christmas Dinner
Roast Pork with Savory Dressing
Wild Mushroom gravy
Potato and Pumpkin Puree
Green Beans Seasoned with Garlic
Green Tomato, Apple and Zucchini Chutney
Czech Christmas sweets and Coffee
Roast Pork Loin with Savory Dressing
- 4 pound pork loin roast with bone
- 1 crushed garlic clove
- Salt and Pepper
- 3 tablespoon melted butter
- 2 medium onions, diced
- ½ cup chopped celery
- ½ cup chopped carrots
- ½ cup chopped walnuts
- ¼ cup chopped parsley
- 6 leaves of fresh sage, chopped or 1 teaspoon dried sage
- 4 to 6 cups soft stale-bread cut in cubes, rye, whole-wheat and white
- 1 cup broth
- 1 egg
In a large roasting pan melt butter; add onions, celery and carrots; cook slowly for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add walnuts, sage and parsley and bread cubes, mix well. Beat raw egg into broth with a fork. Pour broth and egg over bread mixture. Stir together until broth is absorbed. Spread dressing evenly across the bottom of the roasting pan. Rub pork roast with salt, pepper and crushed garlic. Set the roast, fat side up, on top of dressing in roasting pan. Do not cover. Roast in preheated slow oven at 325 degree Fahrenheit (165 C) for about 40 minutes per pound. Until internal meat thermometer registers 185 degree Fahrenheit ( 85 C) . Occasionally stir bread dressing to distribute drippings for pork.
Pumpkin and Potato Puree
- 1 small pumpkin about 2 cups cooked pulp
- 2 large potatoes
- 4 tablespoons butter
- A dash of nutmeg
Peel and boil the pumpkin and potatoes. Once soft, pour off remaining water. Puree pumpkin and potatoes together. Season with salt, nutmeg and butter. Serve hot.
Green Beans seasoned with Garlic
- 4 cups green beans
- 1 cup water
- 3 tablespoon butter
- 1 clove of garlic, pressed
Prepare fresh green beans by washing and snapping them into bite size pieces. Put green beans in a sauce pan with a cup of water, season with salt. Bring to a boil and cook until just tender, about 20 minutes. Drain beans in calendar. In sauce pan melt butter add garlic and cook for a minute or two. Toss green beans in butter and garlic. Serve hot.
Wild Mushroom Gravy
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1 small onion, diced
- 1 clove of garlic, pressed
- 3 tablespoons of flour
- 1 cup of frozen wild mushrooms, defrosted and chopped into small pieces
- 2 cups of milk
- ½ cup of cream
- Salt and pepper
In a heavy sauce pan melt butter. Add onions and cook for about 10 minutes on medium heat until wilted. Add the garlic and flour. Continue cooking until the flour begins to brown. Add the mushrooms, milk and cream. Cook for about 15 minutes until the gravy has thickened. Season with salt and pepper.