The Holidaze: Is that All?

I heard recently that the average American gains seven pounds between Thanksgiving and New Years. I was flabbergasted. “Is that ALL?” I thought, incredulous. I mean, we are in the middle of a season that centers, more than any other, on consumption, not only of food, but also the related bacchanalia of seasonal consumerism. We eat ourselves fat as we spend our wallets thin. And at the end of it, as we look back onto what we had hoped would be memorable holidaze, we are likely to think, “Is that all?”

What we lose, in all the frenetic effort of parties, piles of gifts and unrealistic expectations, is the reality that the most important thing we take with us from the gatherings of family and friends are the memories; not the sweater, the tie or the added pounds, but the memory of special moments. The gifts or the food may contribute, but, in the end, those are faded, broken, and we have only the memories. And this is indeed the time to build them, because in the end, that is all there is.

I grew up in a beautiful Georgian behemoth. The spirit of consumerism has since ruined its century-old graciousness as new owners declined historic preservation in favor of cul-de-sac additions, deforestation, and other modern “improvements”. But this season still draws me back to the three-storied open stairway of my childhood home, rising from the end of a center hall, with the monstrous Christmas tree at the other end. This is the stage for my Christmas memories. Much of it is a blur, with one year melding into another, but there are still those moments that stand out with a vivid sharpness that belies their distant past. The Christmas that I received the “Johnny Reb” cannon, I discovered that, given the proper elevation from the stairway landing, it was possible to shoot the tennis ball sized ammunition and shatter the antique, hand blown ornaments off the Christmas tree. One year, as I emerged from my room after changing into my authentic Cleveland Indians uniform, I stumbled upon my father paying Santa his appearance fee.

Most of all, I am drawn back to the kitchen, with its smells and warmth. The Christmas kitchen. Oh, the aromas and the delightful tasty treats which flowed from that God-awful avocado green oven. My mother would frequently refer to it as her “crummy bake oven”, but the food that emerged from it was anything but crummy. Gingerbread men and sugar cookies with colorful candy decorations and sugary sticky frosting. Sweet yeasty Christmas breads with citron and cardamom, fresh from the oven on Christmas morning with steaming plates of fluffy scrambled eggs with chives and cream cheese. Turkeys the size of my little brother, with savory herbed sage stuffing. My father’s “spoil your dinner" eggnog.

No doubt it all added some pounds, but that wasn’t all, no, not by a long shot. There were the memories, still as vivid as when the events took place decades ago. The sound of the sugar under foot, almost as if we were walking at the sea shore on the Outer Banks. Standing there in an apron several sizes too large as my mother patiently helped us to roll out the chilled butter cookie dough and cut out the cookies. The taste of the lemony frosting and the smell of vanilla and anise seeds as we artfully decorated our creations, making sure that there was always a special one for Santa. And, of course, eating any “mistakes” that we may have created, as we “taste tested” the candy decorations, just to assure that they were fresh.

There was also a burned mouth from an uncooled cookie and maybe a finger burn or two, lessons taught quickly and learned well. But also learned was the more important lesson of including everyone in the process of memory-building. Of making sure that each has an important role to play, from helping in basting the turkey, to decorating the cookies, to stirring the Christmas morning eggs. As we muddle through the busiest season of the year, remember not only to carve a perfect slice of turkey or ham, but also to carve a slice of time. It is the greatest gift of all and the foundation of the memories we cherish.

The Johnny Reb cannon is long since gone, as is the munchkin-sized Indians uniform. Countless other gifts have passed through our hands, broken, worn out, discarded. The additional holiday pounds remain a constant for those of us who love to cook (or consume the production that we create), but is that all that these times with our families and loved ones mean? The truer measure is the accumulation of the priceless memories. And as we reflect upon those, we are justified in asking, “Is that all?” for there can never be enough.

Read More on Chef Geoff
Volume 3, Issue 25, Posted 8:05 AM, 12.04.2007