Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Simple and Abundant


"The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak." (Hans Hofmann)

When first I became host to my family for holidays, I imitated what I had experienced as a child at a great-aunt’s home where her five siblings, their spouses, and their children gathered to celebrate with their elderly mother. Aunt Ruby made egg noodles from scratch; they took prizes in taste so she made huge batches of them for all to enjoy. She also had a talent for dressing, but she made two huge pans full, one with onions and one without. Lizzie, one of the few career women among her brothers and sisters, bought, boiled and peeled dozens of shrimp for all to enjoy. I still can’t imagine a major holiday without good shrimp and cocktail sauce, heavy with horseradish.

Gerald’s wife, Nina, was forward thinking. She believed in the magical healing powers of vegetables and vitamins; she preached against fats, sugars, and salts. Of course, other family members rolled their eyes when she offered suggestions about diet, but they welcomed her vegetables to the table.

Opal made bread, pies, and cakes. My mother brought the ambrosia, the ubiquitous green bean casserole, and rich, gooey desserts. Ham and turkey appeared, sliced thickly, and the feast began.

In summer, for the Fourth of July, a holiday near Great-Grandmother’s birthday, we cranked and cranked until several gallons of homemade vanilla ice cream were thick and cold enough to give us headaches. While it cured, we ate tomatoes ripe and warm from the garden on sandwiches or grilled burgers. Later, anyone who did not want ice cream and cake could enjoy thick, sweet watermelon.

With more than thirty people at the tables, we needed and enjoyed great variety. This even extended to the fruits of hunting and fishing. One uncle brought squirrel, another rabbit. A third netted crappie from his farm pond to fry fish in deep iron skillets on hot fires outside. If the meal was close to milking time, he also brought tangy milk, still warm from the cow’s udder. The oldest cousins gigged frogs and brought them to the cooks to fry. Wild onions and soft, scrambled eggs were stirred and cooked for anyone who wished to avoid wild meat.

So it was with these memories that I began to play hostess. I bought, boiled and peeled shrimp. Several days before the event, I baked two or three kinds of cookies, several different candies, and two or three pies. I made sweet potatoes with melted marshmallow and just in case a guest preferred mashed potatoes and gravy, I made some of those, too. Every holiday table from Thanksgiving through Easter featured at least two vegetable dishes, one featuring asparagus and butter, the other involving Brussels sprouts or green beans. My mother-in-law also made a wickedly good jello salad for all to enjoy. It set beside a fruit or fresh green salad on the buffet line, just behind bread dressing, made the family way. A large boat full of gravy placed nearby added the right flavors to the dressing. Cranberry relish or jelly could be found near the end of the line. In those early years, I used fresh cranberries for the relish, and I never thought of using anything but fresh pumpkin or sweet potatoes for one pie. Another pie was fresh peach, the peaches having been picked and preserved by me. Jalapeno jam was also on hand to spice up the meats: ham, turkey or both.

As you might imagine, I began the actual feast day exhausted because I had worked long days before the event to hand-wash crystal, china, and silver; clean every corner and nook of the house; decorate; bake and stir--all after putting in a full day as a school teacher. Still, I pasted a smile on my face to greet guests, then counted the hours until I could finally relax. I made small talk over appetizers, excused myself to stir a dish or change the oven temperature for the next entrée item. Then, while diners watched football or chatted, I prepared generous platters for guests to take home. By the time I finished, they were at the door to leave, and I was left to wash everything by hand once more.

I performed this dance year after year, never enjoying the moment as much as I longed to. I suppose I would still be suffering under a false sense of duty if I had not been forced to surrender to my own frailties and scale back the menu. Then, I focused upon what people truly enjoyed, what they deemed the bare essentials. I also accepted their help.

I began to use every day dishes instead of china. I bought fine cheese, boxed crackers, and ready-to-thaw platters of shrimp. Ham or turkey, never both, was the anchor meat. I served only one kind of potato, one vegetable plainly dressed, and canned cranberry relish. Rolls came from a can or the freezer aisle, and a single pie, usually fresh pumpkin or peach, was dessert. My mother-in-law still brought that delicious Jello, and even though I have the recipe for transforming gelatin into something so tasty, I lack the gift. Now that she has passed, that menu item has been consigned to fond memory. My daughter has added her own signature to the meal. She prepares an amazing squash soup.

Thus, having eliminated the unnecessary, we enjoy what is necessary for these occasions: each other. May you always do the same on Thanksgiving and for many holidays to come.