When my mother was nearing the end of her life she began to withdraw from the world little by little with each passing day. She sat in her recliner with her eyes closed, but not always sleeping. She spoke in simple sentences and then almost not at all. My conversations with her became mostly one-way, although I’m sure she was listening. Once, when she was days away from death, I sat reading to her from her favorite novel. I looked up and saw that she was looking at me hard, as if she were trying to memorize my face for all eternity.
During those long, final months that eventually came down to weeks and then days and then hours, I caught myself on more than one occasion longing for the time after her death when I would be free to remember the happier times, when my mother was still my mother. In the end, of course, she died at her own speed, not mine.
Like many women, my relationship with my mother was complicated. Even in her final months, she never told me she loved me; there was nothing she had to say to me that I would cling to after she was gone. Introspection and dispensing life lessons were not in her emotional wheelhouse.
This came as no surprise to me and was not in the least disappointing. Over the years, she showed her love for her family in other ways, most especially in the kitchen. And at Christmastime, she excelled.
A friend of mine who is a working mother with a demanding job, recently told me that this year she was ordering in her entire Christmas dinner. She was so pleased that she had finally let go of spending her Christmas in the kitchen feeling cranky and short-tempered on a day when she would rather be playing games with her family. Spending time with her children on Christmas Day, she told me, was what her children would remember.
That may be true for her and her family, I thought, but it is exactly my memories of my mother in the kitchen on Christmas Day that I hold so dear.
It started in the morning and didn’t let up until the last dish was dried and put away in the evening. While my sisters and I were luxuriating by the fire, sorting through the rubble of Christmas morning and reviewing the stacks of presents we each received, my mother was toiling away in the kitchen.
First, there was a glass of orange juice and a slice of coffee cake to get us through the frenzy of unwrapping our presents. Then my mother would disappear into the kitchen to make us eggs Benedict, with hollandaise sauce made in the blender that was always a triumph. When I think back on it, I now realize what a feat it was to turn out ten servings (two each) of perfectly cooked poached eggs, toasted English muffins, Canadian bacon and the hollandaise sauce. That alone would have tested me, but my mother had the procedure down cold.
“Your eggs Benedict are ready!” she would call out from the kitchen. And then we would pull ourselves up from where we were sitting on the floor in front of the tree sorting through the Christmas detritus around us, and march into the kitchen, still in our pajamas, to collect our eggs Benedict as one by one, she would plate them on her special Christmas china.
We carried them to the dining room where she served every meal we ate on Christmas Day and for the entire week up until New Year’s. The table had been set with a red table cloth, her Christmas china and, for dinner at least, the good crystal and sterling silver flatware. Christmas was when my mother treated her family like guests.
When we sat down for breakfast, there would always be one more present for each of us at our places—something my mother had held back so that the childhood joy of opening presents would be extended a little longer. It was always something small, like a book or a little necklace or maybe our first bottle of perfume when we were teenagers. I always looked forward to that bonus present that, like the eggs Benedict, was an offering of love.
After the breakfast dishes were cleared—and let me just say that my mother may have spent all day in the kitchen, but my sisters and I were still required to do the washing up—we would retreat to our bedrooms to dress for the day. In my mother’s house that meant formally. When we were very small we donned a velvet dress and wore patent leather shoes. As we got older it was usually a skirt and sweater. The point was, if you were eating in the dining room, you had to dress up.
After a big breakfast, we skipped lunch. But around two or so in the afternoon, out would come what we referred to as ‘heavy hors d’oeuvres’, that would tide us over until dinner: shrimp cocktail, chips, and clam dip made from a packet of Lipton Onion Soup mix. There may have been a few other offerings that varied from year to year, but shrimp cocktail and clam dip were de rigueur. My mother would set them out in the living room by the fire where we spent all of Christmas Day. Sometimes we would work on a jigsaw puzzle together as we listened to Bing Crosby’s Christmas album on the stereo. Other times we would just lounge, reviewing our presents again and again as we inhaled the shrimp and clam dip.
Then my mother would retreat back into the kitchen for the final push towards dinner. By late afternoon when the heavenly smells of the standing rib roast began to waft into the living room, we backed off the shrimp in anticipation of her Christmas feast. Dinner was the culmination of my mother’s long day in the kitchen. A red or green Jell-O mold, roast prime rib of beef, mashed potatoes, gravy, a green vegetable, buttered rolls and for dessert, crème de menthe parfait because, you know, it was green, white and had a red cherry on top. (Back then, seasonally appropriate food referred to the color.)
Year after year, my mother’s Christmas menu never varied. None of us would have stood for it. One year, though, everything nearly ended in calamity.
In my memory, it all happened on the afternoon of Christmas Eve. Someone was emptying the dishwasher and pulled out a rusted potato ricer. My mother had always given us strict instructions about never putting the potato ricer in the dishwasher or it would rust, and yet one of us had taken a short cut and the consequences were obvious. “Who put the ricer in the dishwasher?” my mother bellowed. By then we were all standing in the kitchen with the full import of a rusted potato ricer the day before Christmas weighing down on us. “What was this going to do to our Christmas dinner?” we were all thinking.
My younger sister, to her credit, stepped forward as the guilty party. My dad immediately offered to run to the store for a replacement and without further delay, put on his coat and was out the door. In the meantime, my sister, knowing that the outcome of Christmas dinner was now hanging in the balance, began calling stores to find out if they had any potato ricers in stock. With just hours to go before closing time, she called one after another store who reported that the shelves were empty of potato ricers.
How could this be, I wondered? Was there really such a thing as a run on potato ricers in the days leading up to Christmas? She had one more store to call and then it was going to be game over. We hovered around her as she dialed the local hardware store in town. It was the kind of old-fashioned establishment with hardwood floors that creaked and moaned as you wandered the aisles stocked to the ceiling with all manner of inventory. My father was a regular there and often declared that it was the kind of place where “if they don’t have it, you don’t need it.”
We practically held our breath as my sister dialed. “Do you have any potato ricers in stock?” she queried when a clerk answered the phone. “Hold on a moment”, the clerk replied. The seconds ticked by as we anxiously paced in the kitchen. “No, we’re all out of stock I’m afraid. We just sold the last one.”
My sister hung up the phone and repeated the news. “They just sold the last one!” she cried. We were crestfallen. Christmas was ruined. No mashed potatoes. My mother’s mood began to darken as we all continued to just stand there in the kitchen, not knowing what to do next.
Suddenly we heard the garage door open and my father’s car pull in. The car door slammed, and seconds later my father opened the door into the house grinning from ear to ear brandishing a small paper bag which he held aloft in his right hand. “I got the last one!” he cried.
We dissolved into peals of high-pitched laughter that went on for minutes while my dad looked on quizzically. When we finally caught our collective breath, we filled him in on the phone call and then he burst into laughter, bringing on a fresh wave from the rest of us.
For the rest of the day and the next we began to tell and re-tell the story of the pre-Christmas run on potato ricers that has now become part of our Christmas lore. And every time, we laugh and laugh until our sides hurt.
Mashed Potato Casserole
At a certain hazy point, when we were no longer children, but maybe not quite adults, my mother jettisoned her traditional mashed potatoes and gravy for Mashed Potato Casserole. These are rich enough and flavorful enough that they don’t require gravy—a fact that must have greatly appealed to my mother who was famous for her lumpy gravy. It is also a do-ahead recipe, which means there is more time to spend with your family on Christmas Day if that is your wont.
This casserole is not part of my adult Christmas tradition. My once-per-year potato indulgence at Christmastime is potatoes gratin, loaded with cream and gruyere cheese. But I felt I needed to offer up a recipe from my mother’s stash. These are certainly more foolproof than potatoes gratin.
5 pounds russet potatoes, peeled and cut into large cubes.
8 oz. package cream cheese
8 oz. (1 cup) sour cream
2 teaspoons garlic salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
4 tablespoons butter
Heat oven to 400˚
Cook potatoes in abundant boiling, salted water until soft. Drain and press the potatoes through the ricer into a large bowl or the drained pot used for cooking the potatoes (or use a potato masher).
Whip the riced potatoes with the remaining ingredients with a wooden spoon and spoon into an oven-proof dish. (Make ahead: at this point, cover and store in refrigerator for up to 3 days before proceeding.)
Cover with aluminum foil and bake for one hour, or until heated through.