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  • Eat, Darling, Eat

Messy, But Irreplaceable

Updated: Mar 1

(by Jennifer Hobbs)

I grew up in a household that was Christmas-obsessed. Somehow, no matter how much else we had going on, no matter what family crisis may have occurred, no matter whether our wallets were padded or threadbare, Christmas reigned supreme at our home in Baltimore, Maryland.

From Black Friday all the way through New Year’s Day, our lives revolved around Christmas preparations and celebrations. We went tree shopping and selected the biggest one we could haul home, which would get balled and burlapped, and eventually planted in our yard. My parents’ backyard is still peppered with pine trees, grown 20 and 30 feet tall with time. Decorating the house (inside and out) took several weekends of nonstop work. My mom even videotaped where every decoration went to simplify the process. My dad’s job had him on the road a lot; he would make note of the best-decorated houses and take us on a “Christmas Lights Tour” every winter. We would plan activities with family and friends, bake cookies, play music, and put a few dollars in every single Salvation Army bell-ringer’s pot as we shopped for gifts. When my younger brother and I got older, it became more and more difficult to cram in a month’s worth of Christmas activities between college studies and careers. Nonetheless, we persevered. One year we had to get the entire family on a conference call to map out our “schedule.”

It sounds insane, and our devotion to the holidays became somewhat of a running joke amongst family and friends, and yet ours was the house everyone wanted to visit in December.

While our Christmas craziness was one reason our house become a revolving door at the holidays, the real motivation was my mom’s cooking. Pam is one of those people who never believes she’ll have enough food for a crowd, who’ll spend a week planning and three days cooking to make sure it’s all perfect. Food is her love language, and her goal is to fill up every guest who steps foot in her home with more than just a good meal.

Unfortunately, while I inherited my mom’s love for people, I didn’t inherit her talents in the kitchen. In the days leading up to Christmas, our kitchen became a culinary war zone. My younger brother thrived in the chaos and was frequently pressed into service as a “scullery maid,” snapping green beans and mincing onion, but I avoided the kitchen at all costs. After The Great Lemon Cake Incident of 2001 (in which I somehow managed to quadruple the amount of lemon called for in the recipe), my mom wasn’t overly keen on my assistance. Frankly, while I knew she loved me, and I loved indulging in the results of her efforts, she was scary when she was “in the zone.”

Despite my strategic avoidance, my mom always managed to suck me in to the Christmas dinner process. Even when I was little, she’d ask for my help every year planning the menu. For weeks, she’d go back and forth looking at recipes, wavering between her tried-and-true staples and her desire to cook something a bit more adventurous. I’d review the ever-evolving menu at least a dozen times, even though we both knew that no matter how much I pushed to “downsize” the meal, we’d wind up eating leftovers for weeks. My mom worried about food allergies and picky eaters and whether we had the kind of wine that my aunt liked on hand. I rolled my eyes, but as I got older I began to appreciate just how deeply she paid attention to people and their preferences, a skill that has served me well outside of the kitchen.

With all the years of extravagant dishes (seven-layer Viennese chocolate torte! lobster-stuffed, bacon-wrapped filet mignon!), and all the hype around Christmas, the most important tradition of all was actually very simple: my mom’s sticky buns on Christmas morning, made from a recipe her dad introduced to her family when she was a girl, and made every year since. To this day, we still insist upon sticky buns on Christmas morning, hot out of the oven after stockings have been opened but before gifts are unwrapped. It is our golden moment of calm, just the four of us together, before all the cooking begins and our relatives descend for dinner.

To my mom’s eternal frustration, you’re unlikely to find me taking over her role as holiday chef anytime soon, but she has passed on to me a love of sticky buns and a love of family—two things that are messy, but irreplaceable.

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Jennifer Hobbs is a full-time nonprofit officer, freelance writer, and creator of the blog Grit & Banter. She drinks a lot of coffee, and her life ambition is to be Parks and Recreation's Leslie Knope. She can be found @jennhobbs28.

Pam’s Christmas Sticky Buns

1 1/2 c. chopped walnuts

2 loaves frozen white bread dough, defrosted

1 small box of vanilla pudding (not instant)

1 c. brown sugar, packed

4 oz. butter, melted

2 T. milk

Grease a 9 x 13 glass pan.

Sprinkle walnuts into pan to coat the bottom.

Pinch pieces of dough, roll into balls, and arrange in rows over nuts.

Combine pudding mix, sugar, butter, and milk, stirring until smooth.

Pour over dough, cover lightly, and refrigerate overnight.

Preheat oven to 350 F. and bake for 30 minutes.

Turn out onto a platter immediately after baking (so that the nuts and syrup can run down into the baked buns).