Monday, December 13, 2010

Creating Our Own Traditions

When I was a child, I was blessed to have four grandmothers and a grandpa still living. Every grandmother had her own "flavor" and style. They were the glue that held our families together.
Lots of grandparents meant lots of wonderful Thanksgiving and Christmas meals. I have SUCH amazing memories of our family and relatives packed into each of their houses, laughing and cutting up. It was so cheerful and comforting.
My great-grandmother was from Mexico. She was a wonderful cook and spent so much time in her tiny little kitchenette creating amazing food for the people she loved. I can get close, but I don't think I'll ever be able to re-create her food exactly. Still, my husband appreciates my efforts very much :). She lived in a retirement community of buildings containing individual apartments. She had a tiny little one-bedroom apartment but found a way to pack us all in and around her table. Tamales, fideo, beans and rice ( and Tang! lol) were our Christmas feast at her house. She'd almost always have Mexican wedding cakes, an apple pie or a yellow cake from scratch for dessert. She did it all herself. All we had to do was show up with lots of hugs.
My grandmother Campbell ( her daughter and my paternal grandmother) has her own style as a result of her Mexican culinary roots and the influence of her mother-in-law who was from Kentucky and made lots of traditional Southern style dishes. The blending of the two styles is absolutely out of this world and I've never found anything even close anywhere. I remember ham with her own unique spice, a dish made with cabbage and sausage, the most amazing coleslaw ever ( her mother-in-law's recipe), and an out-of-this-world warm applesauce spiced with vanilla, cinnamon, raisins, brown sugar and butter. Everyone would bring their own contributions, but her food was always the star.
My grandma Mitchell (maternal grandmother) was a second or third generation Hoosier and her style was solidly Midwest- baked ham, mashed potatoes, deviled eggs, sweet potatoes, rolls and the requisite carry-in side dishes. Very "Wonder Bread" ;).
My Papaw and Grandma Margaret ( my dad's step-mom) lived on a farm and their two blended families made for the most amazing spread you can imagine. Easily over twenty-five people on Christmas. My grandma would prepare the turkey, and I think ham and one or two sides- along with a card table loaded with "appetizers"- cheeseball and crackers, vegetable tray, etc. , and everyone else would bring one or two carry-in dishes and a dessert contribution. It was a spread that spanned the main table, the side-board, a card table and sometimes flowing back into the kitchen. We have some amazing cooks in our family, and as kids, we could pack it away! I remember seeing male relatives sprawled out all over the furniture snoring while we kids would waddle outside to run it off ( eighteen acres of room to run!) and the women stood around and talked.
The common thread through all was the comfort, security, coziness and cheerfulness.
I only have my grandmother Campbell and Grandma Margaret now, and with three grandparents gone, our extended family has scattered to the winds. Add that to the fact that we've moved two states away and don't drive home for Christmas because of the threat of bad weather ( btdt- not doing it again) and it's a given that my children won't get to experience the Christmases that I did. It weighs heavily on my mind and heart. For the last couple of years, we've been trying to work out our own traditions to give our kids wonderful memories and a heritage of their own to pass down. I've been trying to figure out how to blend elements of all the different "flavors" into Christmas for my kids and adding some of our own.
We're slowly getting there.
I've been conflicted as to which direction to take for Christmas dinner- Mexican or "Traditional" and I think I've come to a solution this year.
Christmas EVE breakfast will be a wonderful breakfast my great-grandmother used to make for us- a mixture of chorizo, potatoes and eggs served with a side of beans and fresh corn tortillas (I'm pretty sure they serve it in Heaven. I've been a vegetarian since I was 14 and it tempts me)
Christmas Eve dinner will be tamales, beans, rice, fideo and yellow cake with chocolate frosting- I might even serve Tang to drink ;).
Cinnamon rolls and "breakfast casserole" have come to be expected on Christmas morning. I have a hard time giving my kids "dessert" for breakfast, so cinnamon rolls are reserved for Christmas ;).
Christmas Dinner will be a gut-busting compilation of all my favorite traditional dishes- a little bit of my grandparents and extended family shared with my husband and children.
I'm thinking cheeseball and crackers, veggie tray, ham, scalloped potatoes, corn bread casserole, green bean casserole, baked beans, cole slaw, rolls, deviled eggs, warm applesauce, iced tea, spiced cider and of course, apple and pumpkin pie.
We've even begun a tradition for New Year's Day entirely by accident. It's become a day for hunkering down as a family and just "being". We'll watch a Christmas movie or two for the last time, play games, have a "nacho bar" for lunch and spend a few hours goofing around outside.
The day after New Year's? We begin a culinary cleanse, lol.

They just don't make them like they used to...

It's become very obvious to me as of late how things just aren't made very well anymore.
Not too long ago, companies took pride in their products and made them to last and we appreciated things that lasted. Not anymore, though. Supercenters like Walmart sell cheap, poorly made products mass-produced in China. We've been conditioned to accept that things just don't last. When they break, we go out and buy another piece of junk to replace them and companies continue to profit off of junk they should be ashamed of. Well, I'm tired of it!
For the last eleven years, I've made do with hand mixers that generally cost around $10. They'd last about a year and a half and then we'd have to replace them- usually as I was trying to get something ready for a carry-in!! Well, about three months ago, my little cheapie broke and my sweet husband thought he'd do me a favor and replace it with one that cost about $30. It was manufactured by GE and came in a cute little case. I was surprised at how flimsy the beaters seemed, though. They weren't welded together, the tines of the beaters were just stuck ( and I think glued) into holes at the top. Sure enough, after only a couple of weeks of use, one of the beaters began coming apart on a regular basis. We were disappointed, but I would just stick them back in and keep going. My husband tried to fix it permanently for me, but they continued to give me problems. I finally gave up on using it after struggling through several batches of cookie dough last month.

For the time being, I'm mixing things for my family with my (clean!) hands, but it's really putting a kink in my usual Christmas baking for neighbors. I've decided no more junk! I'm going to skim ten dollars a week off our grocery budget until I have enough for a decent mixer.
Another kitchen tool that's really let me down lately was my can opener. Now, the one we had lasted me a good five years. I can't remember where I bought it or what it cost me, but it was a faithful little can opener. Fast forward to last week. It finally broke. I finished opening cans with a knife ( and miraculously avoided ending up in the ER with a finger on ice in a baggie) and called my husband at work to ask him to pick up another one on his way home. He did. A few days later, I went to open a couple of cans of tomatoes and it broke on the first one. The culprit? plastic gears in a metal can opener- what kind of sense does that make?! I bought another, slightly pricier one to replace THAT one. It skips, leaving little bridges of attached metal all around the can. I mean- really?!
I know the difference well-made products can make. About two years ago, my husband's former boss gave me some professional-grade chef's knives he'd bought himself and no longer used. It really opened my eyes. The knives I'd been using- that I thought were okay suddenly cut like butter knives to me. I have now made a personal vow to only give our business to companies that still take pride in their products and stand behind them.
We've always chosen carefully when buying large appliances. My husband pores over Consumer Reports, compares and reads reviews for hours and hours. It takes days and sometimes weeks to make a decision. The small appliances in our house need to work just as hard, so it only makes sense to choose them with just as much care. No more cheap junk! Viva la revolucion!!