Jenny was running to the bedroom to cry before Steve could catch her.
“No, I’m the worst cook ever!”
“No, you are not, you just need practice” Jenny cried louder and Steve winced knowing that was not the right thing to say.
Facedown on the bed Jenny cried long and hard as Steve stroked her blonde hair. Steve loved this girl from the moment he laid eyes on her at Billy Bob’s during Texas OU weekend. They enjoyed the great music and dancing and when the evening ended, he found out she attended TU and being an Aggie, tradition dictated he lose her number. But he didn’t and Steve and Jen were inseparable from that night on.
Flash forward to the crying jag on the bed with Steve waiting for the opening to explain to Jen how her canned salmon with candied cherries was “perfect!” Jenny finally calmed down and sat up on the edge of the bed, puffy eyes and all, glancing up at Steve.
“Steve I just want to make a good impression and I wanted to try something new.” The teetering of crying almost started again but Steve stopped her with the biggest grin on his face.
“Jenny, would you agree that your chocolate chip cookies are good?”
“Yes.” She sadly conceded.
“Would you agree that no one makes a better grilled cheese than you?” He earnestly smiled as he really DID believe that using mayo instead of butter WAS genius and delicious.
“I guess so.” A smile starting to form.
“And you have mastered sweet Tea the way I like it, correct?”
“Yes.” half-heartedly smacking him with the back of her hand.
“Er go – you cook three things well. Correct?!”
“Okay, okay…” she gave in.
Jen knew he liked salmon but also knew it was too damn expensive to buy so although her thought of using canned salmon was economically sound, it was a taste bud disaster. Steve, finding out she pureed the fish (juice and all) with candied cherries and Miracle Whip was a culinary nightmare and then piping it onto melba toast squares sprinkled with feta cheese and dill, although cookbook picture ready, did not help the outstandingly awful texture and taste. Jen was unknowingly perfect for Steve. She really could only make three things well but she always tried to get to a fourth and hoped for a fifth. She would spend hours on the internet trying to find Steve’s favorite foods and finding new and improved recipes. He hadn’t really understood how bad a cook Jenny was because they were poor college students and living off grilled cheese, chocolate chips cookies and sweet Tea fed them well over the last two years.
But now Steve was bringing the love of his life home to meet his family on Christmas Eve and announce their engagement. Christmas Eve in his house was bigger than Christmas day. He wanted to share it with Jen. He told her stories, maybe too many of his mother’s cooking and all the hors d’oeuvres they served on Christmas Eve. It was a foodies’ wet dream and diabetics nightmare – but it symbolized home to Steve. The smells of warm yeast filled breads, savory spiced sauces and sizzling bacon. Always warm and inviting the moment you opened the front door.
His family over the years enjoys the most amazing finger food every Christmas Eve as long as he could remember. All the cookie sheets coming out of the oven with rolled tater tots of melted cheese and bacon had the whole family’s mouths watering whenever an oven timer went off. They would gather in the living room around his parents’ huge coffee table which seemed like the size of a dungeon door. It was filled with amazing bite-sized adventures such as Steve’s Mom’s amazing crab salad on toasted white bread rounds with a thin slice of lemon on top, Uncle Jim’s spicy deviled eggs with hot German mustard and paprika, Aunt Carolyn’s sweet and sour meat balls made with grape jelly (of all things!), Grandma Bert’s rye bread squares with caramelized onion spread underneath melted Swiss cheese, and the infamous Cheese Dip that had everything from the kitchen sink in it but started with cream cheese (hence the name). It was the chip or Ritz cracker that had the honor of being sunk into that bowl of creamy goodness and that every newcomer turned their nose up at when seeing the pink tinted orange mush but would wipe the bowl out and essentially beg for the recipe before leaving.
Steve’s Dad contributed one thing and one thing only, beef. He would prepare a boiling oil fondue that you dipped prime choice grade A steak that his Dad carefully cut into cubes. He would prepare an array of sauces and salted rubs in tiny little cups for the guest to marinate their skewer of meat and then dunk quickly and watch the meat boil like a witch’s cauldron. No kid was allowed to skewer their own meat let alone get near the burning hot oil until they were 10 years old. That age somehow made you more responsible despite Steve and his cousins being banned one year for battling with the hot skewers of meat like Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. Not his finest Christmas Eve, but the food was never overshadowed by his adolescent antics.
Everyone would come to Christmas Eve with their "A" game appetizers (those that made the list each year) and one other one that they hoped would make the final cut, but more importantly, possibly the honor of being banned. This is where Steve knew his darling fiancée would shine the brightest. Let me explain.
Steve’s Mom spearheaded this time honored tradition and every year would comb her cook books for the newest of the new recipes. As she put it, “We can’t just keep melting cheese on everything and calling it an hors d’ oeuvre.” Through her Betty Crocker bakeoff phase, Julia Child's French Cuisine to Gordon Ramsey’s scream fest on Hell’s Kitchen, Steve’s Mom attempted every new appetizer recipe that did NOT include cheese or bacon. Her family would groan in despair when she made them try her newest incarnations. But then, they welcomed their mother’s gastrointestinal experiments. Her tried and true appetizers would always be there but the new ones, became a fun and entertaining tradition. There were screams of horror when she made them try broiled cherry tomatoes stuffed with raisons and mincemeat, drink the holiday spritzer that was Apple Cider, Lone Star Beer with a cinnamon stick and the unforgettable mushroom caps stuffed with marzipan dipped in hard white chocolate. All immediately banned upon taste. Other one-time appearances were made by Aunt Carolyn’s spicy beef stuffed habanero peppers and Uncle Jim’s fried coco puff chicken planks. Then there is the herring. Herring is never banned. It turns up not only at Christmas Eve but every family get together. You see, Steve’s parents come from German stock and pickled herring on a platter covered in capers with a bowl of club crackers is a permanent staple. Only the elders partake in it along with the occasional dare between Steve and his cousins when they see how long they can hold one piece of pickled fish on their tongues.
However, all appetizers were welcomed and all cooks were given a little space in the kitchen to prepare them and present them for consumption on the door size coffee table. Presentation was everything to Steve’s Mother – she NEVER put a cookie sheet of her melted delectables out, they were always transferred to a festive serving platter and properly garnished. As Steve looked down at his beloved’s beautifully arranged and garnished cherried salmon pate puffs, he noticed she placed them in a cherry pie plate with raised ceramic cherries. He loved her so much.
Jenny’s tears had dried as Steve held her hand, the one with the pretty princess cut diamond on it and started to explain. The thought and care behind this pink disaster was exactly what his family’s Christmas Eve was about. An innocent and earnest need to give someone something that they hoped they would enjoy. He made Jenny laugh out loud when he shared the story when his Mom tried to serve the pickled herring in “a different way” by baking it into little tarts to impress her mother-in-law. The fishy aroma stunk up the entire house! That dish was not only banned, the whole family dumped her tarts, serving dish and all right into the fire pit outside! The worst dish being banned was something, but being burned – well that was the highest family honor in his house. Food experiments were expected and encouraged, because it meant you were trying. Trying something new, taking a risk and that is why Steve’s family knows when “misery loves company” it is best enjoyed with family. Steve’s family embodied, “it’s the thought that counts”… but with a twist. If your attempt fails, you have to be able to acknowledge it, laugh at it and then take your humorous lumps. That is why the fire pit outside in his parents’ backyard is fully stocked with firewood and matches ready. If the best cook in the entire family can have her herring tarts burned in effigy, no cook has anything to fear if they are part of his family.
Jenny stared into Steve’s eyes in disbelief.
“You mean my salmon pate, is really that good… I mean bad?”
With a swell of love and emotion Steve answered, “YES!”
They hugged and laughed and Jenny shook her head and tried to fathom that this sweet wonderful man came from such a whacky and odd family. It brought her a very strange kind of joy knowing that all her fear in meeting his family had now disappeared. Unknowingly, her sincere need to please this beautiful man with a horrible candied cherry salmon pate gave her a sense of belonging, and was the very thing that she hoped would make it to the fire pit.