My extended family has included many fine cooks noted for their sumptuous holiday dinners. I was never one of them. Yet my shortcomings in the kitchen never worried me. I am content to be a kitchen dropout, ranked with Roseanne Barr and Deborah Ramone. Why else were ketchup, mustard and pickles invented if not to mask our mediocre cooking?
Each renowned family cook is known for a specialty dish. Mom, an excellent all-round cook whose pork chops and sour cream tarts vividly inhabit my gustatory memory bank, stood out for her Swedish rye bread baked in shallow discs each with a hole in the centre punched by a cow’s horn. As a girl in Sweden, Mom watched her mother store the cooled cakes on a broom handle run through the holes. Even today, given a choice between any dessert and a fresh wedge of Mom’s rye bread smoothed with butter, I’d reach for her bread.
One aunt was unrivaled for her turkey gravies, and lemon meringue pie, my Dad’s favourite of all desserts. As a teenager with an almost limitless appetite for between meal snacks, the difference between Aunty’s lemon meringue and Mom’s was too subtle for me to discern, though it was a chasm that haunted Mom; she never served lemon pie when Aunty visited.
Recently I was struck by how much importance some women place on their status as skilled cooks and how wounded they can be when their cooking is turned aside in favour of a younger person’s.
In a group counselling session attended by women of various ages up into the 80s, the counsellor asked what additional stresses they face before holiday get-togethers such as at Christmas. Their answers show how something as simple as relinquishing major meal preparations to the younger generation leaves some grandmothers feeling slighted.
“I find it hard to accept that my daughter is now preparing the Christmas dinner at her house and I’m expected to just show up and not contribute anything to the meal,” said one.
Another elderly woman said, “When I go to my daughter-in-law’s for family dinners, she doesn’t want my help in her kitchen. I feel useless. Sometimes I wonder if I should go out and shovel snow?”
Fighting to maintain old rituals is wearing. Accepting my place in the cooking hierarchy spares me a lot of angst. Far from trying to outdo younger cooks, I willingly let them take over, while I cautiously dish out deserved compliments. If I were to be too effusive, they might misinterpret my praise as sarcasm.
Family dinners with their additional courses and dishes inevitably result in a variety of leftovers that must be refrigerated. Many of us older folk have downsized our fridges since our kids left home and set up their own households often with bigger fridges, and freezers.
Besides the variety of leftovers that clog a fridge, older folk have far fewer resident munchers eager to nibble away meats or desserts. Younger folk ordinarily have more drop-in visitors; a range of leftovers are perfect for feeding impromptu company. No matter how delicious a meal might have been, I prefer not to serve myself the same menu every day for a week like Groundhog Day.
Adjusting from being the main cook to a pampered guest is easier to accept if you think back to past holidays when you were the main cook and hostess, on your feet for hours prepping and cooking everything.
Where once you rushed to whisk the gravy and load a platter with turkey and stuffing as guests stomped snow from their feet, now you can relax and let grandchildren show you all the fun stuff Santa brought them.
Avoiding the kitchen when it’s time to clear the table limits your temptation of noshing on that turkey tidbit, a pastry crust chip, or a dill pickle slice. If you are familiar with counting calories, you know how many you can chalk up in just a few minutes of table clearing.
By leaving both the preparations and the tidying up to a daughter or daughter-in-law, you’ll be one step ahead controlling your holiday weight gain.