26 December, 2008

a glorious Christmas was had by all

An absolutely classic couple of days: frantic wrapping of presents ("Don't come NEAR this table until I tell you you can!" "Who took all the Scotch tape?" "Why do you get the good scissors EVERY time?"), last-minute gathering of ingredients (ice cream, watercress, ALL the votive candles that KMart had to offer - I stripped them bare in the summer as well), impromptu visitors. Rollie and Judy appeared last evening just as I was lighting the last candles for Anne and her family to come from across the road for oyster stew, to deliver a flawless poinsettia and news of their new stone wall, the wedding of young Rollie in October, the massive annoyance of their new milking cows... as always, I felt immediately that I should have invited them for oyster stew as well, but I would have had to seat them in the dishwasher, as we were awfully cozy already in this tiny farmhouse with 8 for dinner.

Oyster stew. Is there anything better? Why do I never make it except Christmas Eve? John avers that one year I did make it again, over and over, having asked myself just that question, and finally he had to say, "Stop, enough oyster stew," so perhaps once a year is just the ticket. Buttery, studded this year with no less than 8 pints of oysters. Can a pint per person be true? There was almost nothing left over of the creamy celery-laden broth, spiked with a touch of Tabasco, lemon juice, a generous amount of celery salt from the great Welsh Anglesey firm Halen Mon). Huge handfuls of oyster crackers, that was IT. Pure oyster stew with its briney breath of the sea, the Christmas Eve tradition. Anne and David and baby Kate, Anne's mother Connie and sister Alice, all gathered around the candlelit table and we all slurped our way through the evening.

Old friends, John's mom smiling around us all, photographing every moment as always, admiring Kate's absolutely unusual achievements (breathing, turning her head, that sort of thing), all of us grateful to be there, and together, in what is undeniably a magical house at Christmas. Why is it? I can't account for the immeasurable peace that everyone feels in this place, this tiny crooked house perched on a meadow and a pasture, flanked by barns and ancient trees and permeated over all by the history of what must have been happy families, or at least happiness triumphing over grief, at times.

Then today... presents, and the cooking marathon. Needless to say, the turkey who had been brined in kosher salt, fresh rosemary, thyme, oregano, marjoram, bay leaf and peppercorn for two days, was slow-roasted (sorry, Joel, for being too chicken to use your clever free-standing roaster) in the old-fashioned oven, all day long, as John's mom and I chopped, sauteed, buttered and washed up our afternoon away: dressing with fresh sage, celery, Baby Bella mushrooms, garlic, the one precious onion I had left, cream and chicken stock all soaked up by good honest white bread torn into little bits and dried overnight. Spinach casserole made of nearly 2 pounds of fresh chopped spinach, swirled into a purely American concoction of butter, garlic, evaporated milk, Monterey Jack cheese with jalapeno peppers, and more celery salt (the condiment of the holiday, clearly). Untold pounds of potatoes peeled and resting in a salty bath, waiting to be boiled and mashed with yet more butter and cream. A holiday menu not for the faint of heart.

There was time at sunset to follow Avery up the hill to John's dad's bench, to sit and reflect for a moment on our last Christmas with him, a year ago, to be glad he has such a view over the meadows and hills from that bench. Then she was off sledding! As you see, even with the melting snow, or perhaps because of it, she was able to get up a decent speed, whizzing over the little grassy hillocks and threatening the ancient stone wall. Her shrieks echoed over the beehives of Young Rollie and the pastures hayed by Chris in the summer. There is nothing but good feeling in those places. I could feel John's dad all around me, as the setting sun's light lit up Avery and John on their sledding hill.

Home to make the gravy, let the turkey rest, and light the candles on the hydrangea tree, my most quixotic and anxiety-making holiday tradition. Will it rain on Christmas day? It has done in the past, and extinguished every candle as I light it. Will it be windy and blow them out as we light them? There was a bit of that tonight, but not enough to spoil the fun. Anne and David came across with baby Kate to see the lights, and as we gazed and thought our separate, private thoughts, a waft of wind came and every candle flame turned to a fragile, temporary blue. "No, don't go out!" we all breathed, and as we waited, the blue, wavering light drew breath and turned bright gold again, with a strong, steady flame. I am sure there is a lesson there to be learned, about perseverance and faith.

Three little girls! Tiny baby Molly slept, largely, held by someone or other (not me, who has never been the biggest fan of tiny babies), Jane ran around playing crazy games with her toy cars (now, Jane, I could eat whole she is so lovely), and my own Avery, gracious in her nearly-teenage dignity, bending down to play games and sing songs with Jane. Gravy bubbling, John beating potatoes with a vigor that made us all look at his undulating bottom! "Go for it, shake your booty," we all had to sing, with great maturity. Joel carved the turkey with professional aplomb. We ATE.

And then opened presents. John explained to Jane that the whole point of her new collection of felt characters and accessories was to THROW THEM in the air. Her poor father will suffer for this, I fear, and equally I fear this was John's entire intention. Those two boys.

A jolly, warm, cozy, gently familial, delicious holiday. I felt so grateful for my sister, a great companion during childhood but even more so now, providing me with nieces to cradle and appreciate, a husband to love, old jokes to appreciate. And for my mother in law, coming to us this year, to remember and celebrate and feel both the weight and the lift of the past. Thank you, all.

Christmas Eve Oyster Stew
(serves 8 generously)

6 tbsps butter
4 tbsps flour
6 cloves garlic, minced
6 stalks celery, finely minced
1 white onion, finely minced
8 pints shucked oysters with their liquor
1 tbsp celery salt (however fancy you can go, or not, is fine)
1 quart whole milk
1 pint heavy cream
to taste: more celery salt, Tabasco, lemon juice, pepper

In a large heavy stockpot, melt the butter, then add flour and cook till frothy but not brown. Add garlic, celery and onion and saute until slightly soft, then add oysters with liquor. Stir over medium heat until the edges of the oysters curl up (this means they are nearly cooked). Add celery salt, milk and cream, and heat gently until the broth is hot. Try not to let it boil, but if it does, whisk it thoroughly to prevent any curdling. Season with more celery salt, Tabasco, lemon juice and pepper till it's just to your taste. I must warn you: a great deal of tasting may be necessary, but try to avoid getting a bowl to taste. Limit yourself to a teaspoon at a time. Glorious. Even better if you can make it a day ahead and bury the stockpot, firmly lidded, in a snowdrift overnight. Serve with plenty of oyster crackers.

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