Stop Me Before I Cook Again! by Julia Spencer-Fleming

It begins innocently enough with a few “holiday dinner” articles in Southern Living. Then I start taking

What Christmas dinner looks like in my dreams. Reality varies slightly.

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…”

Not our house, but very like.

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!

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8 Responses to Stop Me Before I Cook Again! by Julia Spencer-Fleming

  1. MCWriTers says:

    Will you guys PLEASE stop talking about food!! I spent all of November and much of December dieting. And I’ve barely made a dent in the new supersized me. And now this.

    We’re having turkey. Squash. Potatoes. Gravy. Peas. Cranberry sauce. And a lovely apple cake for dessert from one of Sheila Connolly’s apple mysteries. It’s not ’til New Year’s Eve that the urge to go fancy will hit. World’s Fair Chicken with exotic condiments. Roasted root vegetables with rosemary and garlic. Smoked trout starter, unless I make lobster bisque. Dessert still a debate between cheesecake and a chocolate raspberry cake.

    Readers will wonder how we get any writing done. Actually, I’m working on book proposals, which can be done in small segments between chopping.


  2. Barbara Ball says:

    Love it!!!! Have fun. I love to cook and for the first time last night made salt encrusted prime rib. It was DELICIOUS!!!!

    It took 6 hours at 200/250 F for 140 internal temperature, convection oven. Its also important to let the meat sit, covered, on the counter for several hours before putting it in the oven to bring it to room temperature.

    Merry Christmas, Julia 🙂

  3. Lea Wait says:

    Oh… it all sounds so wonderful! Everything you made (well, almost everything you made, Julia …) and everything you will make, Kate, and, Barbara … and that salt encrusted prime rib ……We’re all set for Christmas, and Christmas Eve (I’m abut to go downstairs to make a salmon mousse as part of that celebration) but haven’t even thought of New Year’s. Which will be quiet and at home. But just reading about everyone else’s celebrations is like participating in them all — and I love it! Thanks for inviting us, Julia!

  4. Barb Ross says:

    Christmas Eve on the Italian side is the feast of the Seven Fishes–this year crab stuffed mushrooms, bacon wrapped scallops, codfish salad, pasta with lobster or clam sauce, haddock, salmon and smelts (always smelts, which the WASPy in-laws, including me never touch.)

    Christmas Day is my family’s tradition, roast beef, roasted potatoes, onions and carrots, a side dish of camelized onions and raisins, beet salad (which is called in the family borscht jello–and is delicious), the traditional green bean and fried onions casserole (called in the family the Wasperole), salad, roll, horseradish sauce. People bring appetizers and desserts. 30 people this year. Whew, I’m exhausted–and stuff– and the day after Christmas we drive to my mother’s in Pennsylvania and start all over again.

  5. MCWriTers says:

    Kaitlyn…the sound you are hearing is loud gnashing of teeth!

    • Family Invades while I Host yet another dinner party says:

      They come and eat, without contributing one ounce to the dinner party except for me to clean up after them. Worst yet, the invitation for just parents – has them bringing their 52 year old unmarried son with them to each and every event since he could walk.

      Gnashing of teeth will continue as I am forced to host yet another dinner party this Holiday. No one else steps forward and I am assumed to cook for “the clan”.

  6. Lea Wait says:

    Scones? Did anyone say … scones? And, say, Kaitlynn — any chance of a Burns day blog on haggis?

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