Today is the Friday before Christmas. This would normally be relevant news to at least one of us, because I have Fridays off and I’d have the time to shop for traditional Christmas dinner – you know: ham and turkey, side dishes, pie, the works. I may be a little late to the scene on that, but if you put off something long enough, you avoid the rush of the better-prepared, is my motto.
Only, it snowed last night, and I can’t get out of the driveway now. The door of my car is frozen shut, even. Good grief… I don’t have a motto for this! We almost never even get snow where I live, and so there is no local capital investment in snow plows, snow melter and the like. This lack of shopping capability presents a Mom-Level Opportunity for me, though, and I know we are both about to have a ton of fun trying to come up with a solution.
I phone my Mom.
To go back into personal history for just a moment: when my brother, sister and I were growing up, Dad was of the prepper mentality: he subscribed to Soldier of Fortune magazine, designed all sorts of drawings for bug-out cabins, drafted plans for personal munitions and defense devices. He really lived in his head with his passion, though, and nothing practical came of it.
On the other hand, Mom was the actual prepper: she gardened, canned, kept a deep larder, and was constantly adding to her skills and knowledge of things such as herbalism, handicrafts, and first aid. Mom was also a frugalist, which showed in her passions and household management.
Both of my parents were also intent on keeping our minds expanded to a world far outside of our (bomb shelter’s) walls, so they introduced us to extensive literature and contemporary news; they also came up with the idea of The Round The World Restaurant, which would feature cuisine and entertainment from a different country every night of the week. This was the big dream of their lives; unfortunately, they could never afford to execute that plan, but we did come close to it with our holiday dinners, which were never once the routine turkey and ham.
“Hello?” She inquires. She’s in the kitchen with her great-grands, baking some cookies for dinner later that night. At 77, that woman never slows down. I resolve to make it fast.
Like so many of this or any era, we didn’t think we had a lot growing up, but like most Moms, ours was no exception in going out of her way to make sure holidays were memorable despite an excess of gifts. Every year for both Thanksgiving and Christmas, we’d traipse down to our local library to pick out what culture we wanted to learn about – and that meant she was cooking their food, too! Mom was an excellent and inventive cook who could bring her frugality skills to bear, so the results were always incredible.
For instance, one year I remember in particular was when we picked Vietnam for Thanksgiving. Many of the books were Not For Children, and Mom had a hard time making the old librarian understand that we were looking for something more akin to travel guides than war accounts.
Finally, she found books with photos of the land and its people, and we children fought over those while Mom went and looked for a cookbook or two, which she brought home in order to plan our corresponding feast.
When our dinner times for the holidays came around, we three kids would put on a little info skit about the chosen culture to entertain Mom and Dad, and Mom in turn would tell us all about the dishes we were enjoying. That year, for example, we talked about the largest cave in the world, which is in Vietnam, and about water puppetry -- an ancient theater -- and how there are kitchen gods that are treated like family members. For dinner, we were eating foods that were specifically inspired by Southern Vietnamese cuisine, which made them more closely-linked to Thai foods, and thus spicier than Northern Vietnamese cuisine. I don’t know why that part sticks out to me so well, even to this day. The foods themselves were incredible, such a taste explosion of so many delicious and unusual flavors. We had spring (salad) rolls and sizzling pancakes, which I remember best; there were more dishes, but the only other thing I remember the without even trying was the coffee. We almost never got to have that at all, and it was delicious: so thick, sweet and creamy!
Anyway, you get the idea, about our little annual celebrations – in a word: memorable. In fact, I’d have to say that Vietnamese Thanksgiving was probably my favorite holiday we ever did, followed closely by Japanese Christmas. I liked the European holiday meals well enough (especially German!), but – culturally speaking – Asian and African food just seemed more appealingly exotic, to my young mind. In fact, to this day, I will not pass up a spicy peanut stew if it is on the menu, YUM!
Dad even tried his hand at doing the meals a couple of times: one year, and he never would tell us what country it was supposed to have been from, he invented a Curried Tuna Casserole in the practice run-up to the actual holiday. To this day, my stomach goes a little tricky around curry, and that was his last attempt to help with the creative dining portion of the holiday.
Granted, the holidays weren’t all about the food, but nostalgia and a current snow crisis are shortening this tale in the interest of a smoother flow. I still remember the numerous cat islands of Japan, and the ancient and mystical feeling I got when we read about Persia and Zoroastrianism, among other cultural wonders of the world.
So here I am now, returning to my roots: “What culture can I make for this Christmas dinner?” I ask her, poised for the inevitable, “Well, whatcha got?!”. Her prepper persona rubbed off on me a bit, so I have quite a deep pantry full of canned and boxed goods, plus of course a handful of fresh things in the fridge.
After chatting for a while, including some particularly fun remembrances of holiday celebrations past, she helps me come up with the perfect fit: Spam, macaroni, mayo, rice, cabbage, soy sauce, and even some canned pineapple? We can work with that. It may not be haute cuisine, but we’ll pull a little bit of a faux Hawaiian plate dinner “with a lick and a promise” to do better once the roads are clear.
According to my once-library-trip-now-turned-Google: "Mele Kalikimaka me ka Hau'oli Makahiki Hou!"