It begins innocently enough with a few “holiday dinner” articles in Southern Living. Then I start taking
down the cookbooks – not the day-to-day ones I consult when I need to be reminded how long stuffed pork chops bake, but the hefty ones, with lots of full-color photos and recipes that run to twenty ingredients or more. At the next trip to the Hanneford, I linger in the produce section, picking up Asian fruits and heirloom root vegetables. I make an excuse to drop in at Your County Butchers, just to, you know, see what interesting meats they might have in stock. Finally, I’ll enter the point of no return. “Honey,” I’ll say to my husband, “I think we should do something different for Christmas dinner this year…”
You think I’d learn.
First some background: it’s been a longstanding tradition to host the big holiday dinners at our home. We live in a 200 year old Greek revival farmhouse in the countryside of southern Maine. It’s drafty and the wooden clapboard always needs painting and repair, but we can easily fit thirty to forty dinner guests, seated in the dining room and the playroom and the parlour. We frequently do Thanksgiving, often Easter, but we always open our home to friends on Christmas Day.
Naturally, we’ve developed systems to help these big dinners run smoothly. I have boxes of water glasses, bowls and napkins that come out three times a year and then go back into the attic. Everyone has certain jobs: the oldest sets the tables, our son totes chairs and wood for the fires, and the youngest writes out the place cards. But the one most significant time- and stress-saver? Cooking the same simple dishes every year.
For several years now, I’ve made a butternut squash soup to start, then served up prime rib (the easiest and quickest roast meat of all) mashed potatoes, and a few plain-as-crockery veggies. Our friends fill in with salads, side dishes, buns and breads. Everyone provides a bottle of wine and a dessert (ensuring that after-dinner takes twice as long as the meal itself does.) Simple and successful.
Except when I start getting these…urges. Urges to cook something more challenging. The problem is, it usually doesn’t come out quite the way I’d planned.
There was the year I made an “authentic” beet pie, as cooked by the Pilgrims in Plymouth. Three hours of chopping, roasting, kneading and baking later, I had a dish that tasted like bad borscht in a thick, cardboard-like crust. Turns out the reason we don’t still cook like the Puritans is because the cuisine is based around mortification of the senses. Then there was the year I tried my hand at carrot flan baked in a bundt ring. Did you know that carrot flan is basically an updated Jell-o salad> Yeah, me either. That ring of orange shame lasted for weeks in the frig, the only leftover even hungry teens wouldn’t consume. Then there was the year we experimented with buffalo meat from a local organic ranch. That was delicious, I can’t deny it. The problem was when we braised it, as per the directions, it fell apart into shreds of meat floating in gravy. So the festive centerpiece of our Christmas table was… pot roast.
This Thanksgiving we ate with friends who are, to be frank, gourmet cooks. Liz brined a turkey that came out of the oven golden brown and moist, and there was this dish with beets and walnuts and goat cheese that guests were fighting over. It got me to thinking…what if we did a turkey this year? And how hard can it be to toss together a few diced root vegetables and nuts? And what if we updated the soup to a lobster bisque? And maybe tackled schwarzwälder kirschtorte instead of pecan pie?
We’re off to the market this morning. When you’re having your holiday meal, spare a thought – and perhaps a prayer – for our guests. And where ever you are, whatever you’re eating, have a very Merry Christmas!