When I first pondered what my favorite Christmas memory might be, I automatically recalled all the Christmas Eve get-togethers my parents held at our old house on Castlebrook Drive in Franklin, Ohio. My mom and dad would invite my two sets of aunts and uncles, their children, and the friends we wanted to have over (who did not have their own family commitments on the evening of the 24th).
From around 6 to 10pm, we would gather in the combined dining and family room to socialize and talk about everything from how we were doing in school at the time, how my father’s construction business was faring that year, what my relatives in Kentucky were up to, and even our political views (dramatically different amongst the family)! We then exchanged gifts in the family room around the tree (the presents always spilling far beyond the tree skirt). Every year, the kids received far more than their behavior (including myself) warranted. All the while, the album Elvis Sings “The Wonderful World of Christmas” blared in the background. We always begged my dad to turn down the volume of the record player, but as the night wore on, it only seemed to get louder.
What stands out most for me about the Christmas Eves at my parents, is helping my mother prepare the food for them. My mom always served the food buffet style on the dining room table so everyone could eat whenever they were hungry and just come over and help themselves to what they liked best. Two items we always included in the copious spread for the party were handrolled goodies, and both possible and enjoyable for my younger sister and I (even at a young age) to help my mom make. The first item was called Meatballs in Sauce. It began with ground chuck (a higher fat content in the meat was required so that the meatballs would not crumble apart during or after baking them), and also contained Corn Flake crumbs, eggs, ketchup, onion, Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce, parsley flakes, and pepper. My sister and I were each given a turn to put our hands in the huge metal bowl and knead the mixture together until it was well combined. I remember the chilly feeling of the ground beef and the slimy feeling of the ketchup and eggs running through my fingers and the dry brush of the corn flake crumbs on my palms as I squeezed the ingredients together. After mixing a while, I would stop and ask my mom if they were ready to roll out. Since my hands are small, I was almost always told by the recipe creator to “keep mixing”. Eventually though, with the help of my sister, we were able to marry the components to my mother’s satisfaction.
We would then place each meatball in a foil-lined pan, rolling them until there was no mixture left to roll. I remem-ber how imperfect in shape they were and the size varia-tions (as they were rolled by us as children), but all tasted the same in the end. When the pan was full, they were ready to be covered in a sweet and savory sauce and baked until cooked through and the topping became caramelized. My mom served the finished product in a crockpot to keep them warm and delicious during the party.
The other rolled treat we assisted my mom in making every year was Coconut Rum Balls. Preparing them was the same sort of process as the meatballs in that we would put everything in one of her big metal bowls and use our hands to stir. The difference with the rum balls is that after combining the ingredients, the mixture must be chilled so that it will properly keep its shape when formed into balls. We often made the rum balls and chilled them on the night we prepared the meatballs. Then the next evening, we would roll out the rum balls and finish them with a coating powdered sugar. The more I rolled out, the more the big flakes of coconut and gooey condensed milk would stick to my hands in a sweet paste. It required several hand washings to avoid making a complete mess. The mess though, was part of the fun. My sister and I each had a Styrofoam plate of Domino® powdered sugar in which to roll the rum balls, and no matter how careful we were, most of the kitchen table and carpet ended up in a coating of white. After the sugarcoat, we placed each candy in a tin that also contained cookies and fudge. I always enjoyed not only being a help to my mother, but the preparation of food. It was even at this early age I realized how much I enjoyed cooking and wanted to learn as much as possible. I thank my mom who taught me what she knew, as well as my dad––he’s a great cook as well––I get my creativity in the kitchen from him.
Since then, my appreciation of food and my love to cook and bake has only grown. I spend much of my free time in the kitchen trying new recipes that in addition to the old, might also be good enough to enjoy together every year at our holiday table. I look forward to returning home this year and joining my family once again in the kitchen and around the table.