We’ve been cocooning in the house these last few evenings, feeling the wind buffet the siding after the midweek cold front came through. Those many of us who live in old, drafty houses here in New Orleans know the place never gets completely warm. About the best you can hope to do is dress for the cold occasions, enjoy a stiff toddy and try to not move off the couch or chair too much. Very Southern Winter and, of course, Very Holiday.
Those of us who live foodcentric lives (i.e. most of us) are particularly drawn to our local grocery stores this time of year, if for no other reason than just to look at the displays. As a child of the ‘50s and ‘60s, I looked forward to going downtown during the holidays to gape, Ralphie-style, at the windows of the major department stores that later moved to the ‘burbs. Most finally abandoned their original locations and the big holiday displays turned dinosaur and disappeared. But, at the time, it was an occasion to get dressed up. Sometimes I feel that way about the grocery displays these days, since real effort goes into many of them. Even non-native items like chestnuts make a brief appearance. As inedible as I think they are, I love seeing them.
I used to be mystified when my parents would put an orange in my stocking. Why? I could go to the store any day at any time of the year and get an orange. I drank orange juice every morning. We had oranges in our refrigerator all the time, so why would one make an appearance in my stocking on Christmas Day? It was only years later that I understood a fresh orange was a rare and glamorous treat in December for Central Texas back in the pre-refrigeration, slow transportation, Dust Bowl days of the 1930s. It was my parents’ idea of Something Special. Anymore, I’m sorry I didn’t see it the same way.
My work these days keeps me pretty much locked, head down, in a particular section of a grocery store, doing my best to produce as much holiday as I can and as well as I can for our customers . The glory of this is, when I am done with the job, the rest of the store remains as new to me as it was to Buddy Holly-glasses me when I was 11. The cakes! The cheeses! The breads! How do they DO this? I mean, I can do some things myself. But I can’t do what they do. I do a job. They produce magic at holiday time. I’m impressed.
But, then again, I get to thinking all of us who put some effort into the food we make this time of year are in the magic business. On these recent nights, when the wind howls and the house gets a little cold and we plug in the lights around the front door, even the most basic food tastes a little deeper and the wine is a little rounder. Even when it’s 70-something degrees on Christmas Day (as it will be this year, I understand), our cultural pause and our individual memories add flavor to whatever we do. Even if some of our memories aren’t overly tender, we still know it’s a special time of the year – particularly if we’re around children. I cherish that.
When we’re young, the holidays are all about what we’re going to get. When we’re older, it’s more about what we’re going to give to our significant others, our kids, our friends and, if we’re lucky, how much we can give back. But, if we’re lucky enough to live so long, I think the third phase is finding out and then enjoying how much we’ve given ourselves. We have experience, memories, stories and (hopefully) a little wisdom. We made it this far. It’s more than enough to just Be There.
We’re lucky in our part of the world, in that “the holidays” are only a beginning. While much of the world winds down at the first of the year, we see it as the start of the best time of the year, through Carnival and into Festival Season until Memorial Day. It’s glorious.
I’ve already bought the duck I’ll be fixing, Greg Sonnier style, with a whole onion and a lot of garlic jammed up its rear end and slow-smoked on Christmas Day. Not sure yet what else we’re going to make to go with it, but this is the wonderful thing about living in the House Of Chefs – it’ll be fun and it’ll be good.
From our little Creole Cottage in the Irish Channel to your house – Merry Christmas and Happy Eating!
Craig Giesecke has been a broadcaster and journalist for over 30 years, including nearly two decades at the AP and UPI covering news, sports, politics, food and travel. He has been the owner of J’anita’s for five years, serving well-reviewed upscale bar food and other dishes. Comments are encouraged and welcomed.