A Picture-Perfect Christmas
Once again this year, Chow Bella writers are gnawing on the holidays -- in the form of stories of Christmas and food. Hope you have some Alka-Seltzer handy. Enjoy.
It's the day after Christmas, and my spouse is showing photographs of dumplings to total strangers.
"We were going to make treacle, instead," he is saying to a pair of twentysomethings in the grocery checkout line, holding up his phone to display a picture of our holiday goose, the star of our recent Charles Dickens-themed Christmas feast. "But then I found this Yorkshire pudding recipe and, well, you know!"
The nice young couple exchange dismayed glances.
"Here's a shot of the whole table!" Tevye exclaims, beaming at the picture he took of our holiday repast.
When I met him, this man did not take photographs of food. He cooked expertly and was a pretty good baker, but after he pulled a pan of pain au chocolat out of the oven, he didn't spend a half-hour taking their picture. He just ate them.
I've ruined a perfectly good Jew from Long Island. And it's all my mother's fault.
My parents documented, in home movies and thousands of Brownie snapshots, every important moment of their life together. And because my folks were nice, ordinary first-generation Americans from the Midwest, those important moments mostly involved prosaic things. It makes sense that parents would want to capture the lives of their children (and, later their grandchildren and great-grandchildren) on film. It took me awhile to figure out what made them so determined that every holiday meal also be lovingly captured on film.
Flip through one of the dozens of black-paper-paged photo albums at my ancient mother's house, and you'll find, right next to a picture of six-year-old me, smiling to reveal that I've just lost my first baby tooth on Easter Sunday ("Quick, grab the camera!"), a stunning portrait of the glazed ham my mother served later that day ("Hurry, before the glaze hardens!).
I inherited my great-grandmother's colossal nose, my paternal grandfather's profound lack of patience, and my parent's inability just to eat a holiday meal without first forcing it to endure a full-on photo shoot involving lighting and garnishing and, occasionally, a smiling relative holding a pie aloft.
This peculiar habit is, I have come to suspect, a way of leaving behind proof that my family was happy and well-fed -- synonymous in Italian culture. "We never shared a moment of misery!" the black-and-white headshot of a pepper-crusted lamb shank announces. "Look how rich our lives were!" a Polaroid of a plate full of mustaciolli putanesca proclaims.
Our stomachs were full of the expertly prepared food my parents created for us. We were happy, goddammit. The photos prove it.
This year, Tevye and I made sure every dish we prepared on Thanksgiving got a fully lit, soft-focus Glamour Shot. The turkey was posed with and without stuffing; in color and sepia tone, because it looked so old-fashioned with its drumsticks dressed in curly white paper sleeves. The hand-cut, no-rise yeast rolls Tevye created were the subject of their own making-of video documentary. Every image got posted to Facebook or sent in an email or, for the benefit of our older, off-the-grid aunts and uncles back east, printed out onto photo paper, old-school style, and mailed away.
We spent the day cooking and baking and photographing, circling one another in my mother's kitchen while she sat nearby, leafing through the same photograph album, over and over again. Neither of us spoke of why, this Thanksgiving, we were even more maniacal than usual about documenting the perfect turkey dinner.
This was our first holiday without my father, who died in August.
We were happy, goddammit.