Christmas eve dinner

It never occurred to me before, but there are some people who do not celebrate Christmas Eve. For some people, it’s just the day before Christmas.

In my family, there has been a big set of traditions regarding Christmas Eve.

First of all, we open our gifts on Christmas Eve. It has to do with my family’s rejection of Santa Claus, based on religious grounds that he takes away emphasis from Christ. I think my oldest brother was permitted the myth, but by the time I came along the religious fever had pitched a battle against the jelly bellied father of Christmas.

Not given the opportunity to believe the story, I didn’t really miss it. The fact was, we opened the presents a day earlier than some others, and that seemed a good trade off.

Since we did not do away with the stockings, I felt that it drew the festivities out nicely, to have presents on Christmas eve and then extra little presents in our stockings on Christmas morning, and candy!

The stockings always had a mandarin orange in the toe, to weight it down, and the rest was filled with candy and little toys. Naturally, we ate the candy for breakfast. And we’d eat the orange too, to get something healthy in there.

We could also eat any leftover cookies or anything given to us as Christmas treats for breakfast. Mom would make a real breakfast too, but that would take a long time to actually hit the table. The cookies, candy canes, and fudge would be the first course.

That’s not to say that there were not non-sugary traditional Christmas goodies in the mix. But those types of things would be served as appetizers after Christmas Eve dinner and then later, before Christmas dinner itself.

That was part of our Christmases; we always had lots of hors d’oeuvre-y things sitting around to snack on. Our appetites were never in danger of being spoiled; my family could always eat.

This Christmas I spent away from my family. But I take my traditions with me.

This year I made Christmas Eve dinner for Chris’s family. They had no Eve tradition. So I made our traditions for their dining pleasure.

Of course, you can never go home again. Things have to be changed with the times.

First of all, Chris’s family is not the gluttons mine are. The have appetites that can be “spoiled” for dinner.

No hors d’oeuvres.

But there is the traditional Caesar salad my mother always use to make. I can rip up the romaine myself and mix the dressing, and grate the hard boiled eggs and fry the bacon crumbles.

Wait. Maybe these people don’t like the eggs, and I’m sure one of them doesn’t eat pork. Better put the good stuff on the side.

Okay, I can still make the clam chowder. Clam chowder, very American, very familiar food. Hey, even Marie Callendar’s serves Clam Chowder. These people will like it.

My family’s tradition of clam chowder is a modification of a previous tradition. Apparently, in the “Old County” (I don’t know if that was supposed to be Germany or England, my grandmother had a mix of both) the tradition was oyster stew. Mom made it for us once, and us kids were horrified at what appeared to be a boiled eyeball floating in broth. After rejecting the instructions to swallow it whole, I cut a slice off. Black gritty stuff oozed out.

We talked Mom into creating a new tradition of clam chowder, as an alternative shellfish soup. It took, especially since my mom and brothers enjoyed going clamming. We would often have clam chowder made of the clams we had caught and gutted ourselves.

But with Chris’s family, when this menu item was revealed as the main course, someone asked if there would be ‘something else–in case I don’t feel like clams.”

Great. So, I’ll need another course for these delicate appetites. What can I be sure that these people will actually eat? They are a foreign culture to me, really. What do Middle Americans eat?

Hamburger Helper?
Some kind of Velveeta product?

I went for Shake ‘n’ Bake, green Jell-O, and white rolls. I do want to respect their traditions.

As it happens, there is a tradition of green Jell-O from my mom as well. For many many years, mom would always make green Jell-O with shredded carrots. It wasn’t until my brother married, that my new sister-in-law finally asked the question, “If you never eat this stuff, why do you keep making it?”

It was true. We never quite ate the shredded carrot Jell-O. It just comforted us with its presence. We switched out the carrots for pineapple, and voila, a traditional comfort food became edible.

So we have soup, we have salad; we have a main course, and two side dishes. But we still need a dessert.

My first impulse was to make plum pudding. I have a really easy recipe for it, and many people are surprised to discover this much mentioned and seldom seen traditional food is actually cake.

But I am in a warm and gentle climate; L.A. in December is citrus country. People have been shoving grocery bags of grapefruit, oranges, tangerines, lemons and pomellos at me all week.

It is not an option to refuse these fruits. People feel guilty that they cannot consume the fruit of their yards, and feel strongly that if only everyone could do their part, the fruit would be eaten no problem.

So, I came home on Friday with about two dozen lemons in three varieties. What do you do with so many lemons?

Since it was 80 degrees outside, lemonade seemed like a good choice, but then, I thought a lemon meringue pie would be perfect.

I took special care with everything, and spent a full day and a half, making the soup and the salad and raising the dough for the rolls, and shaking the chicken and whipping meringue.

The piecrust took the longest, I will confess.

In my own mouth, everything tasted glorious. Except the shake ‘n’ bake, but some things are acquired tastes. I got to use herbs from my own garden in the chowder–sage, thyme, and marjoram–and I used smoked clams for extra deliciousness.

We opened a bottle of Riesling that I had purchased on our last trip in Germany. It was yummy, even if the flecks of burnt cork floating in my vintage wine glasses were blamed on dirt from the poinsettia centerpiece.

Never fear, there is enough in the bottle to pour the offending dirt speck/cork fleck-tainted liquid down the drain and get a new glassful. I choked back my objections to such waste, and things proceeded apace.

The final result came in, with no one audibly complained or making those little breathy noises that indicate disgust. Everyone ate something of everything, too. Chris himself, as instructed, told me everything was good.

I responded, “Once more, with feeling.”

“It’s good, baby.”

I think it was a success. Truly, my only regret is that there were not more leftovers that I could enjoy later.

Merry Christmas, Everybody!