December 2004

Tom Bernard

cookslut

Hot Tomatoes, with a side order of rank seasonal sentimentality

Old business first: I'm man enough barely to admit when I'm wrong, and boy was I wrong in my last column. No, I'm not talking about the general tone of rambling semi-coherence (that's called style, baby) but rather about my contention that the impossibility of finding truly excellent pizza required me to do the job myself.

It’s true that my former stomping grounds in the greater Boston area were, in general, a vast pizza wasteland. Sure, there were a couple of high-end, celebrity chef-owned venues that boasted high-class pies, and that’s great, but I’m talking about being able to find good pizza at your friendly neighborhood corner pizza joint. This culinary deficiency was the mother of some truly tasty invention on my part, with the result that I taught myself to make a hell of a pizza. Since posting my last column however, I have seen the saucy, cheesy, baked to perfection light.

I’ll never deny the joy that comes of preparing food with your own two hands, and there’s something, well, homey, about home cooking that makes things taste better when they come out of your own oven, but at the same time, superior quality will out. In the case of my quest for pizza, I’m happy to tip my chef’s hat to the nice folks at Hot Tomatoes in Williamstown, Massachusetts. If pizza is alchemy, they have the secret to combining dough, sauce and cheese into something golden brown, delicious, and more than worth its weight in precious metals, especially when you factor in the toppings. Hell, anyone who can make me not only tolerate eggplant but get me to reach for another slice of eggplant pie (with goat cheese, no less) is obviously doing something right. Mine was not so much a failed quest as an incomplete one.

Having eaten crow, let’s turn our attention to Christmas dinner. I’m not quite sure how it happened, but somehow, between sitting down to dinner the other night and getting up to clear the dishes, I inherited Christmas Eve. Somewhere amid “Pass the ketchup,” “How was your day at school, The Kid?,” and “Man, this project at work is really stressing me out” we went from planning to be guests at my parents’ house on December 24th to hosting the entire shindig.

On the surface, this seems like no big deal. All I’m really talking about is a change of venue. I already tend to do my share of the cooking at most family celebrations. Although my parents hosted this year’s Thanksgiving dinner, I brought the turkey (embrace the Good Eats roast turkey recipe. Learn it, live it, love it. You’ll thank me.) and cobbled together a raspberry merlot sauce that was nothing short of transcendent (remind me to tell you about it one of these days). What’s the big deal about hosting one more dinner party, right?

Here’s the thing: in my family, Christmas is a whole other kettle of fish or would be if our traditional family dinner included fish. There’s a whole Polish Catholic meatless thing going on with this meal, so fish is right out. This didn’t stop my grandmother from sneaking all of us kids L’il Smokies when we were young and foolish and turned up our noses as the traditional menu, but that’s between her and Saint Peter these days, and frankly, she could take him with one hand tied behind her back.

So I’ve got some pretty big shoes to fill this year. This is a torch that has been passed several times already. My grandparents inherited it from my great-grandparents. As my grandparents got older and as their grandchildren started marrying off and bringing a new generation to the party, we outgrew their small house. There came a point when their holiday dining table went from cozy to cramped (don’t get me wrong; I like my cousins, but a whole table full of us trying to maneuver soup spoons without getting an elbow in the ear tends to dampen anyone’s enjoyment of their meal) and my mom stepped up to the plated and took over the hosting duties. Now that both my grandparents have passed away, Christmas Eve has coalesced around several new, vital centers as my mother, aunt and uncle have branched off and started playing host to their own children and grandchildren. Although we no longer all gather around the same table, there is something powerful about knowing we’re all sitting down to the same meal, and building on memories and traditions we shared for a generation.

This is definitely an inheritance; make no mistake about that. Fortunately, it’s one I’ve been preparing to assume for the better part of the past decade. I started learning the Christmas Eve dinner ropes while my grandmother was still alive, and still able to supervise, correct and pass on her culinary wisdom to those of us faced with the nigh impossible task of filling her shoes. One of the main recipes I will use this year is a heavily annotated transcription of my aunt’s notes from the original attempt to document my grandmother’s Christmas soup-making routine.

I’ve found that unless people have a whole rustic peasant food thing going on, our Christmas Eve menu is one of those things that has to be experienced to be believed. Over the years, trying to explain the meal to friends has resulted in some truly puzzled looks. “You see, the meal starts with the cabbage soup that you serve over mashed potatoes and white beans…” Most people check out right about the time I get to the cabbage part, and no amount of fervent, over-zealous assurance on my part can convince them I haven’t taken leave of my senses. Mentioning the pierogi sometimes helps. These are, fundamentally, a member of the dumpling family, which means nearly every culture in the world has some variation on the “small pouch of dough with a savory or sweet filling” routine. People can get on board with the idea of cheese pierogi, and they usually understand that there is continuity between the cabbage pierogi and the cabbage soup. Mention the prune pierogi (a favorite of my grandfather), and people’s eyes start glazing over again. Trust me, though, it works, and this year, I’m the one who gets to make it all work.

All of which brings me to this month’s cookbook “review.” The book in question has no title. It has no fancy cover art, and will never rank as a spotlight review on amazon.com. It exists in an edition of one, and it contains all the secrets for making Christmas dinner (and the world’s most perfect oatmeal cookies, but that’s another story) between its distressed loose leaf cover wrapped in cracked and torn butcher’s paper covered in handwritten notes concerning everything from measurement conversions to the recipe for a “kill or cure” hot toddy that’s all you need to get through flu season to a listing of different varieties of wines to, for reasons that surpass understanding, my uncle’s Social Security Number. It was my grandmother’s repository for everything from the not so much secret as sacred family dishes to random recipes culled from newspapers, magazines, Jell-O boxes, and anywhere else that happened to catch her eye. If cooking is alchemical, then this is the philosopher’s stone. I hope that someday I’ll have the wisdom and experience to be worthy of what’s inside. Hopefully, this Christmas Eve is a step in the right direction.

And to all a good night...