Every December 25th, my parents, two sisters, and I would pile into the family Ford and head from Connecticut to New York City for two family Christmases, one at each grandmother’s house. The first stop was always my father’s mother, Gram, who lived in an apartment filled with floor-to-ceiling books in every room. Shortly after we arrived, the doorbell would ring, and there was Santa (my grandmother’s brother, Uncle Dan) with pillowcases full of dolls, cuddly rabbit puppets, and potholder embroidery kits for my sisters and me. We brought presents too, but never store-bought. My mother had encouraged us to make our own gifts, just as she did. I think she always made the same thing: a wastebasket decorated with New Yorker covers. She even made one for Gram’s live-in maid Rose. Maybe her homemade gifts made up for the fact that she never cooked.
The dining room was set with the good china and silver, and my father always sat next to Gram, holding hands under the table. Nothing was ever said, but I think my mother disliked Gram because she only paid attention to her darling son, ignoring his wife. In the middle of the table was a small plastic tree decorated with gumdrops, and as candy was a rarity at home, we’d pull off the gumdrops and stuff them into our mouths in between the turkey, mashed potatoes, and petit pois. During our dessert of apple pie a la mode, the phone would ring: It was Granny Elsa, my mother’s mother, almost screaming, “WHERE ARE YOU?”
(Granny Elsa and her daughters)
So we’d pile back into the Ford and head for her house on lower Fifth Avenue. “And don’t say you’re full no matter what,” my mother warned us. Then she and my father would speak to each other in French, although it was pretty clear the subject was my father’s dislike of Granny Elsa, which was mutual. When we arrived, her first words were, “You’re late,” and she winced when she accepted my father’s peck on her cheek.
My sisters and I ate at “the children’s table”—the exact same meal except for green beans instead of petit pois, piled impossibly high on our plates, and the addition of vichyssoise, served cold because we were always late. If we didn’t eat everything, Granny Elsa would say, “Think of all the starving children in China.” After dinner, she presented us with checks, and we presented her with our homemade gifts, which she pretended to love, but we could tell by her face that she didn’t, although she was effusive about my mother’s New Yorker wastebasket.
After my grandmothers died, my mother took over the tradition, and I had to go to her house early on Christmas day to polish all the silver that she’d inherited from both Gram and Granny Elsa. Then, when my mother was gone, my aunt moved Christmas dinner to a Chinese restaurant. The new holiday meal was wonton soup, shrimp chow mein, and pineapple chicken.
I don’t miss the two groaning meals or the squabbles about who got us first, but I do like some sort of tradition at Christmas, even one of my own making. So this year I will be taking in at least two movies, and popcorn from the concession stand will substitute for the gumdrop tree I loved as a child. And while I no longer make my own Christmas gifts, I will always be grateful to my mother, who might not have been a great cook, but what she taught me about giving something of yourself is much more valuable than cooking.
Margie Goldsmith is a writer whose articles and interviews about travel and adventure are at www.margiegoldsmith.com.
(Adapted from Julia Child’s The Way to Cook)
4 c. sliced leeks, white part only
4 c. diced russet potatoes
1 t. salt
6 - 7 c. water
1/2 c. heavy cream or crème fraîche
1 T. fresh chives, minced
Bring leeks, potatoes, salt, and water to boil in a large saucepan.
Cover partially, and simmer until vegetables are tender, about 20 - 30 minutes.
Allow to cool slighting, then put in a food processor or blender, until you have a smooth or slightly chunky texture, depending on your taste.
Chill the soup, add cream or crème fraîche, and taste for seasoning.
Garnish with chives before serving.
Serves 6 – 8.