Monday May 27

hess Arlan Hess is a Lecturer at Washington & Jefferson College where she teaches Literature and Creative Writing. She received her MFA from Vermont College and has completed research at the University College of Wales-Aberystwyth and University of Padua. In 2004, she founded Paper Street, an on-line journal of poetry and flash fiction.

Feliz Navidad by Arlan Hess

I come from a family of food lovers, if not adventurous eaters. To my father, a green pepper is an exotic never to be introduced to his delicate colon. To my mother, no meal, no matter how carefully planned or prepared, is complete without a dinner roll and butter. Although I had never noticed their dietary preferences while I was growing up, as they age, I have since begun to cook more often for them in my home as well as theirs. I now have no doubt as to where my finicky tastes as a child came from.

I’ve always known that, indeed, my father could live on bread alone. However, it wasn’t until eight years ago after reading her the upcoming menu for the first Christmas in my new house that I discovered my mother’s obsession with the bun. The conversation went something like this:

“New greens salad with potato crisp and goat cheese. Saffron risotto. Crab fritter with lime wedge and cranberry salsa. Minted cucumber sorbet. Hazelnut crusted tenderloin of pork roasted with apricot currant stuffing and served with Frangelico sauce. Au gratin potatoes. Sautéed green apples and leeks. Swan pastries with fresh cream and chocolate sauce. Christmas pudding.”
Silence. “Is that it?”
“What am I missing?”
“The rolls.”
“There is bread in the stuffing.”
“It’s incomplete without rolls.”
“We already have two starches.”
“I’ll bring rolls. We can just leave them in the kitchen in case people want them.”

Now it’s a running joke among the family. Linda has to have her dinner rolls; her doughy little secret is out.

What I learned from the experience is that I can never stray too far from the expected, the traditional, especially with family at holiday time. For years, if the can-shaped cranberry sauce wasn’t on the table at Thanksgiving and

Christmas, something was wrong. It didn’t matter that hardly anyone ate it, or that we children used to sculpt things out of it when no one was looking. It had to be on the table or the meal was lacking.

During my college years, the cranberry sauce morphed into something less gelatinous and a little more chutney like, but it remained as unappetizing as ever. Funny thing was, though, everyone missed the cylindrical loaf. It was like an old uncle who told bad jokes and no one wanted to sit next to at dinner but whom everyone missed the year he stayed at home. In my family, it’s the number one rule during the holidays: Don’t mess with traditions, even if they are bad ones.

On the other hand, my foodie friends appreciate variation on a theme, particularly when they least expect it. Several years ago, probably fifteen or so now, I discovered a recipe for Cranberry Salsa in an ad for Philadelphia Cream Cheese in Cooking Light magazine. I have tweaked it over the years to suit my palate, and the palates of my friends, but it is essentially the same. I rarely serve it with dinner (though I did in the menu above), but I serve it at, and take it to, holiday parties. It’s always huge hit. Because it can be prepared and served a couple of ways, the recipe is more versatile than it looks. Throughout the season, I buy a bag of fresh cranberries every time I go to the store and freeze them so I can make the recipe even in the summer. It’s that good.
1 (12 ounce) bag of cranberries, fresh if at all possible.
1 bunch cilantro, about 2 tablespoons.
1 bunch green onions.
1 jalapeno pepper, seeded.
2 limes, juiced, about 2 tablespoons.
2 tablespoons dried ginger (or to taste).
3/4 cup white sugar.
Dash of salt.
My preferred method of preparation: I slice the cranberries by fitting my food processor with the slicing blade at the top of the bowl. Then, I funnel the fruit into the machine through the lid chute. Initially, the flesh of the berry is white, but it turns pink as it sits. This way, the cross-sectioned hollow cranberries look like little holiday wreaths; corny but cute. After transferring the sliced berries to another bowl, I finely chop the rest of the ingredients and refrigerate it all together at least a couple of hours so all the juices combine, stirring occasionally. This manner of prep keeps the salsa chunkier than the following technique, but both taste just as good.

Alternate preparation: combine everything in a food processor and chop it all up together. Depending on how long it is chopped, this makes for a saucier salsa with less crunch. This way is slightly faster if I am rushing to a party after work and need to get out the door. The action of the food processor seems to mingle the flavors together a little faster.

The salsa is best served at room temperature but refrigerated until then. Ironically, my family actually likes the recipe, just not at the dinner table. It’s Christmas, Mexican style. Younger members tend toward eating it as an appetizer with corn chips for a saltier vibe, while the older generation prefers it with cream cheese and crackers for a smoother, less pungent mouthful.

I doubt I will ever have much luck getting my mother to substitute her sweet version at dinner with my international fusion. She usually responds to such suggestions with as much enthusiasm as she does to a meal without bread, but I will keep trying to blend new traditions with the old. Maybe it will help if I butter her up with Parker House rolls.