The Food Network and the Cooking Channel have exploded with holiday-related shows as Thanksgiving and Christmas approach.
And the host of each show somehow incorporates their own holiday memories in each recipe they demonstrate.
Isn’t it interesting how we so associate food with our most special of holiday memories?
Every family has that certain something made by a certain someone that means the holidays are here.
So I thought I’d revisit an earlier run-down of my favorite holiday foods made by some of my favorite people.
Two of my favorite things at the big Wilkinson family table – when the large extended group got together – were Grandma Wilkinson’s baked macaroni and cheese and her famous homemade bread. The macaroni was crunchy on the outside, sort of dry yet flavorful on the inside.
It could only be made in a certain oblong, glass baking dish. It was learned in the later years of her life that the mysterious dish required the use of lard – who knew? And I’m proud to say that specific baking dish now has a special place in my kitchen – even though whatever I bake inside it will never compare with hers.
As for Grandma Wilkinson’s bread – no one knows the secret. Her daughter and daughters-in-law physically saw the process take place . . . but they say no one can replicate that dense, wonderful loaf that grown grandkids actually hid in their cars after they confiscated the coveted leftovers. It was a talent of Irene’s hands that apparently left this world with her.
In the present, my favorite food item is the ham at the table of my mother-in-law, Tarri. It is a work of art – with just the right texture, the perfect saltiness, the most wonderful flavor. It’s never over-cooked or under-cooked. There’s no unnecessary sweet glaze or Food Network tricks – the taste and the tone come from the perfectly crafted meat and the love she puts into it.
And I would be remiss to not mention Tarri’s Princess Salad. The Wilkinson Mama started making this creamy pink concoction many years ago and called it the Princess Salad to entice her six granddaughters. And along the way, the people who didn’t want to be princesses (one grandson, three sons, three daughters-in-law and husband) learned to recognize that signature dish.
When it came to my Grandma Onie – her holiday specialty was one we were weaned into through sips. Onie’s homemade wine for the year was unveiled each Christmas, as the special bottles were brought down from a cold upstairs closet. It was so red, it was nearly black, and it was rich in taste. I remember her serving it in these specific plastic glasses adorned with images of what else but grapes. Her old vines and nimble fingers combusted into an original creation year after year. I don’t know if it had a kick – I never got old enough to drink enough to find out. Well, except for the night my cousin and I snuck into the wine closet and proceeded to throw up for several hours. But on Christmas, under her watchful eye – just a sip would do.
Grandma Ridder was the consummate maker of gravy and stuffing. I remember standing in her little kitchen while she presided over the stove with a Virginia Slim in one hand and a whisk in the other. It was all about timing – if I wanted to help, I had to be next to the Lazy Susan turntable in her corner cupboard. If I was there at just the right time, she would ask me to hand her the secrets of her success. It was in those moments the mysteries of holiday joy were revealed to me – an arsenal of culinary weapons I utilize today.
My husband’s grandma, Cassie, was the queen of soup. There were occasions where I could stand in her tiny kitchen and sample the best combinations (Grandpa Mark insisted the credit went to the beer they added). And it was the first and only place I ever had oyster stew. I’m not necessarily a seafood person, but I remember loving the unique taste she presented in that creamy broth with curious pieces of something I’d never experienced before. I especially enjoyed the look of love in Mark’s eyes as she held a tasting spoon to his lips.
And there was my mother. She was a master baker who celebrated Christmas morning with hot, gooey, homemade cinnamon rolls. No matter how hectic life was with seven kids and hundreds of milk cows, the cinnamon rolls were present. My mother could take yeast, flour, brown sugar and other simple staples – and turn out the most wonderful pieces of heaven known to mankind.
But maybe my fondest food memory was what Mom did on Christmas Eve. Between chores and presents, we were treated with over-baked Totino’s pizzas and a rare liter of Pepsi. Our oven never baked evenly, so half of the cracker-like crusts were burned, the other halves were raw. And there was never room in the freezer for ice cube trays – so we just placed the Pepsi on the step outside, under a bucket so the dog wouldn’t pee on it. Mom would put away the Melmac – we were allowed paper plates on that special night, so no one would have to do dishes. It was heaven.
It really is amazing, isn’t it . . . how food somehow becomes a big part of our holiday memories? Maybe it’s an association with taste . . . maybe it’s an association with smell.
But I just think it’s all about the love special people put into their specialties.