"FRANKINCENSE and myrrh": Hearing those words, I am again a girl wearing a new red sweater and red and white taffeta bows on my braids, sitting on a church bench, enthralled with the story of Christmas and the sight of our neighbor's son dressed like a shepherd for his part in the Christmas pageant. Even his awkwardness in his role could not spoil the wonder of it all. How splendid the interior of the little church seemed, with candles on the windowsills, poinsettias and red candles in front of the altar, and there in the corner, the children's Christmas tree.
Our small church enjoyed the old-fashioned ways of country churches, and after the Christmas program and scripture reading were done, every child in the congregation received a little gift from under that tree, as well as an apple, tangerine or orange -- and sometimes all three. This was also the time when members of the congregation would bring gifts of food for the minister and his family, piling them on a table or setting them on the floor beneath the table in the church entry. There would be jars of peach and cucumber pickles, chowchow and watermelon rind pickles. There would be jams, jellies and preserves. There might also be jars of bright red crab apples or brandied pears. A farmer with a smokehouse might bring a country ham, neatly tied in a white cotton bag, its smoky pungence mingling wonderfully with the scent of evergreen. Pies and tea loaves of all kinds, as well as cakes and homemade bread, would all be on the table, and perhaps a bag of onions or potatoes harvested from one's own garden, or jars of glossy sauerkraut, packed in the fall when cabbage was most plentiful. Those gifts from local kitchens were homey and from the heart. How special it seems today to receive a gift from a friend's kitchen. It is instinctive for me to give gifts from mine.
The old round table that once stood before the fireplace in my mother's kitchen today stands before the fireplace in mine. The Christmas holidays arrive, and, busily cooking, I sit for a minute at the table to have a cup of tea and collect my wits. How many people have sat at this table, I muse.
A fragment from my Christmas-memory tapestry floats forward. It is Christmas Eve, and my father and I had been to gather holly from the big tree in the farm woods.
We bumped along the narrow, rutted farm lane, with two bird dogs whimpering excitedly in the back of the station wagon. As soon as we parked the wagon and opened the tailgate, the dogs bolted and went barreling through the underbrush. The tree was a short walk through the woods, and with the dogs joyously charging to and fro, we lopped off branches of the waxy, green holly with its thick clusters of crimson berries. We piled the holly in the back seat so the dogs wouldn't trample it, summoned the pointers with a whistle blast and headed home. The dogs panted happily behind the great holly bouquet. Going up the back steps with arms full of holly, we rested it in a tub full of water on the back porch. On this screened kitchen porch were baskets of sweet potatoes, collard greens, turnips; hanging on a bamboo pole suspended horizontally across one end of the porch were a few long links of homemade sausage, ready to cook for Christmas breakfast. The sausage kept quite well there for a short while, in the December cold.
Stepping into that kitchen from the smoke-tinged frosty air stirred up wonderful feelings of safety and plenty and good cheer. The entire house smelled luxuriantly of sage, cinnamon and citrus, along with the tantalizing aroma of roasting pork, turkey or beef. The kitchen table would be covered with a red table cloth.
Today, I will cover that same table with a similar red cloth, and on Christmas Eve I will place in the center a basket of holly and two brass candlesticks with green tapers, just as my mother did. We will place boughs of holly along the kitchen mantle, and above the big mirror in the living room. The house will smell of sage and cinnamon and citrus, and we will feast, in a less elaborate way, with family and friends.
We may not have the same homemade fruitcakes that appeared so readily from every country kitchen, but there will be cakes and pies and roasts and all the trimmings. There will be homemade pickled peaches, and bread-and-butter pickles and relishes and jams. If we are lucky, there will be a well-cured country ham to cook and keep handy during the holidays. There will be no wine made from King James grapes from our own arbor, but wine will flow. There will probably be cold shrimp and oysters, and scalloped oysters. And we will love today and think of our yesterdays. Sometime during the happy gatherings, those same beautiful, exotic words will surely drift into mind: frankincense and myrrh. COUNTRY HAM AND BRANDIED PEACHES (20 or more servings) 10- to 12-pound country ham (salt-cured ham) 2 tablespoons light brown sugar 1 tablespoon bread crumbs 1 teaspoon ground cloves
3 tablespoons honey, sherry or sweet pickle juice
Scrub the ham, cover with cold water and soak it for 24 hours.
Place the ham, skin down, in a pan with enough water to cover; bring to a boil, and then reduce heat and simmer, covered, for 20 to 25 minutes per pound. When done, skin the ham and trim off excess fat.
Combine brown sugar, bread crumbs and cloves and press mixture into the ham. Place the ham in shallow baking pan and bake at 375 degrees for 15 minutes, or until sugar melts. Remove from oven and drizzle honey, sherry or sweet pickle juice over the ham. Return to the oven for 15 minutes. Serve garnished with brandied peaches, crab apples or any spiced fruit. BRANDIED PEACHES (6 to 8 servings) 2 1-pound 13-ounce cans peach halves 1 cup granulated sugar 1/2 cup brandy (preferably a peach or fruit brandy) 3 to 4 drops almond extract
Drain the peaches and reserve 1 cup of juice. Mix the sugar with the reserved peach juice and boil until the juice is half the original quantity. Cool, measure and stir in an equal amount of brandy, approximately 1/2 cup, and the almond extract. Pour brandy syrup over peaches and serve, or pack peaches in sterilized 1-quart glass jar, add the brandy syrup and seal. CROWN ROAST OF PORK (8 servings) A minimum of 16 chops is required to make a circle, as pork is bulky. Have the butcher saw the chop bones evenly, to a length of 1 1/2 to 2 inches above the eye of the chop. This 2-inch portion of bone should be peeled bare. The ends of the rack of chops should be sewn together (bone side out) forming a crown. Crown Roast of Pork may be stuffed, but it is easier and more successful to cook the stuffing separately, and mound it inside the roast just before serving. The center may also be filled with cooked vegetables or bouquets of parsley. Allow 2 chops per serving.
To cook: Cover the ends of chop bones with aluminum foil to prevent charring. Sprinkle roast lightly with salt and pepper. Place roast in a shallow roasting pan and cook in 350-degree oven for 30 minutes. Reduce heat to 325 degrees, and continue cooking until done -- allowing 25 minutes per pound. Before serving, remove aluminum foil from chop bones, and replace with paper frills (from the butcher). Fill with a nice garnish for crown roast of pork. (Note: Keep watch on the roast to avoid overcooking. Cooking time may vary, according to the texture of the pork.) FRUIT STUFFING (4 servings) 1/4 cup butter 1 cup diced bread cubes seasoned with sage and thyme and 1/4 cup parsley 1 tablespoon orange rind, grated 1/4 cup seedless raisins or currants 1 large apple, grated with skin
Heat butter and 1 cup water in skillet. Stir in remaining ingredients and toss. Put in buttered ovenproof baking dish, cover and bake in 325- to 350-degree oven until thoroughly hot -- about 30 minutes. Remove cover the last 5 to 10 minutes. EASY ROAST BEEF SAUCE 2 10 1/2-ounce cans beef bouillon 4 tablespoons arrowroot 1/2 pound mushrooms 2/3 cup madeira wine
Heat bouillon with arrowroot for 5 minutes or until slightly thickened. Marinate mushrooms in wine about 10 minutes and add both to bouillon mixture. Cook for 2 minutes. Serve over roast beef or steak. EASY SCALLOPED OYSTERS (6 servings) 1 quart standard oysters Saltine crackers Salt and pepper to taste Butter Milk or light cream
In a shallow baking dish, place a layer of oysters, then a layer of crumbed crackers. Season with salt and pepper dot with butter. Repeat, making 2 layers of oysters. Pour in enough milk or light cream to nearly cover oysters and place in 350- to 400-degree oven until oysters curl and most of liquid is absorbed -- 25 to 30 minutes. SOUTHERN CORN STICKS (About 2 1/2 dozen) 1 1/2 cups white cornmeal 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour 1 teaspoon salt 1 tablespoon sugar 1 teaspoon baking soda 2 cups buttermilk 1 egg, beaten 2 tablespooons melted shortening
Combine cornmeal, flour, salt, sugar and baking soda and mix well. Stir in buttermilk and egg just until dry ingredients are moistened. Stir shortening into batter.
Place a well-greased cast-iron corn-stick pan in a 400-degree oven for 3 minutes, or until hot. Remove from oven; spoon batter into pan, filling 2/3 full. Bake corn sticks at 450 degrees for 15 minutes, or until lightly browned. DILLY ONION RINGS (6 servings) 1/2 cup white vinegar 1/3 cup sugar 1/4 cup water 2 teaspoons salt 1 teaspoon dill weed 1 large, mild onion, cut in rings
Combine vinegar, sugar, water, salt and dill weed. Stir until sugar and salt dissolve. Pour over onion rings, cover and refrigerate at least 5 hours before serving. PLANTATION SWEET POTATOES (8 to 12 servings) 3 pounds sweet potatoes 3/4 cup light brown sugar, packed, divided 3 tablespoons butter 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg 1 cup milk
Boil sweet potatoes in salted water until done. Peel and mash. Stir in all remaining ingredients except 2 tablespoons of sugar. Turn mixture into greased 1 1/2-quart casserole and sprinkle with the remaining sugar. Bake at 400 degrees for 30 minutes. CARROT PUDDING (10 to 12) servings) 3 eggs, separated 4 tablespoons sugar 1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch 1 cup milk 3 cups (2 pounds) carrots, cooked and mashed 3 tablespoons butter 1 teaspoon salt 1 cup fine bread crumbs 1 cup light cream 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg 1/4 cup cream sherry
Beat egg yolks and sugar until light; set aside. Mix cornstarch with small amount of milk, then stir into remaining milk and heat, stirring, until smooth and slightly thickened. Stir small amount of hot cornstarch mixture into egg yolks and sugar. Stir to mix well, then return to hot milk and cornstarch, cooking and stirring over medium heat until smooth and thick. Stir in cream and add nutmeg and sherry; stir in mashed carrots. Pour into greased 2-quart casserole. Place casserole in pan of hot water and bake at 300 degrees for 30 minutes. Increase heat to 350 degrees and bake an additional 45 minutes or until knife inserted in center comes out clean. CHESS PIE (6 or more servings) 1 stick butter 1 1/2 cups sugar 4 eggs 2 tablespoons cornmeal 2 tablespoons milk 1 tablespoon vinegar 1 1/4 tablespoons lemon juice 1/8 teaspoon salt 1 deep, unbaked 9-inch pie shell
Cream sugar and butter. Add eggs, one at a time. Add cornmeal, milk, vinegar, lemon juice and salt. Pour into unbaked pie shell and bake at 375 degrees for 10 minutes, reduce heat to 325 degrees and bake until hot -- about 35 minutes. Serve small portions, as this is rich. CRANBERRY PIE (Makes a 9-inch pie) Pastry for 2-crust pie 4 cups coarsely chopped fresh or thawed, frozen cranberries 1 1/2 cups sugar 2 tablespoons flour 1/4 teaspoon salt 2 tablespoons butter or margarine 1 egg, beaten
Combine cranberries with sugar, flour and salt. Roll bottom crust into 10-inch circle to line pie plate. Spread cranberry mixture into pastry shell. Top with butter. Put top crust on pie, brush with beaten egg. Top crust may be latticed or solid. Bake 10 minutes at 450 degrees; then lower heat to 350 degrees and bake 45 minutes more. This is especially good served with lemon ice cream.
(Variation: To filling add 3/4 cup chopped nuts, 1/2 cup chopped fresh orange sections, 1/2 cup raisins and 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon.)