My daughter-in-law, Mollie, proposed, around this time last year, a family trip to Hawaii for this Christmas season. Mollie is Jewish, so a sense of Christmas tradition is not particularly meaningful to her, beyond what she has experienced in our family since she has been attached to John.
I hemmed and hawed for months. “Hawaii,” our friend Bruce Jacobs had informed me, “Is the farthest you could go from anywhere else.” Yikes. Barrett couldn’t go (someone had to stay back and man the endless fort), and daughter Caitlin, for reasons of her own, didn’t want to go. And our dog Georgia said she would rather go to the Gunpowder River ten minutes away. The others—my mother, my father, my uncles, aunts, greats, and great-greats— were all still dead.
Pretty sad how small my dwindling family has become, but here I am—that left me and Mollie’s mother, Mollie and son John. How could I ever get Christmas done for the others that stayed back if I went? (And by the “the others” I mean only Barrett and Caitlin—who was I trying to kid? It wasn’t that difficult to fasten the Christmas collar on Georgia). In the end, I compromised: I would go for the main part of the trip, but would return early on a Red Eye from Kauai to Phoenix to Baltimore, just in time to fill Caitlin’s stocking and stuff the bird.
I woke after my luxurious one hour catnap on the Red Eye where, I admit, I had an entire row to myself, so I could at least lie down and be incessantly pinched and prodded by the unattached seatbelt clips—I woke to a scalding sore throat which followed me the rest of the way home. I arrived in Baltimore a day later with barely enough energy to pack Caitlin’s paltry stocking with a few coconut-themed knick-knacks, and to drive to Penn Station to pick her up.
What to do about Christmas dinner? Thankfully, our local Fox Hunt had come to the rescue, providing a turkey. It was all ready to pop into the oven. But by the time I got Caitlin to our front step, all I could do was lie down and keep breathing. I was as smoked and roasted as any turkey ever could be.
I was too desperately sneezing and hacking to cook much of anything. We decided to forgo Christmas tradition: we never did cook the turkey, nor make mashed potatoes and gravy, Brussels sprouts, cranberry sauce, sweet potato biscuits or gingerbread cake—our usual repetition of the Thanksgiving feast. Redundant and uninspiring, when you think about it. Instead, Barrett whipped up a spinach soufflé from a frozen pack of Birdseye chopped spinach and Caitlin, a pear tart from pears brought over by our neighbors Ned and Cindy. I lay gasping on the couch. So much for my trip to the Aloha state. So
much for Christmas. But it really was delicious—all of it—even through my terrible cold, I could taste the uniqueness of our new tradition inspired by Mollie’s restless tourism and a holiday fever.
I’m slowly feeling better, so I may resort to ho-hum tradition for New Year’s Day—even though it will be only Barrett and me at our dinner table this year. I already have the ham in the frig—compliments of Honey Baked Ham and my distant brother—so it’s mainly a matter of adding sweet potatoes and black eyed peas to the entrée, and, of course, my mother’s pineapple upside down cake for dessert—made in this household, twice a year, on New Years’ Day and Easter.
Please don’t bristle till you’ve tried it. It really is delicious, served with either whipped cream or vanilla ice cream or fro yo—but the best part by far is in the flipping of the pan once the skillet cake is cooked. It comes out like a charm every time, and it’s so much fun to see the pineapples that you’ve almost forgotten reappear, like the memories of the old year we re-visit as each new year turns over. We remember our accomplishments and disappointments—that new job, that lost friend—and here they are again, those yellow circles reappearing whole, even if the right side up cake falls a little hung-over onto the plate.
Pineapple Upside Down Cake
All mothers at one time or another will direct their children to The Joy of Cooking. So here goes. I don’t know about you, but my Joy hasn’t had a working cover in years, and its pages are all falling out. I’ve made this recipe so many times that I can recite it from memory and remember what page it’s on. This recipe is fun to put together, as it offers the odd satisfaction of cooking a cake in a skillet, and then being able to flip the pan to produce after baking a stunning “upside down” cake, every time. Even if you don’t like to cook, you’ll like cooking this!
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Melt in a 9 or 10-inch heavy skillet:
¼ to ½ cup butter (I use closer to 1/4 for my family’s cholesterol’s sake)
Add, cook gently and stir until dissolved:
½ to 1 cup brown sugar
Remove the pan from the heat and add:
1 cup pecan meats, whole
Place over the butter and sugar mixture:
Pineapple halves from a No. 2 ½ can
Cover the fruit with the following batter. Sift together:
1 cup cake flour
1 tsp. double-acting baking powder
Beat in a separate bowl:
4 egg yolks
1 T melted butter
1 tsp vanilla
Sift in a separate bowl:
1 cup sugar
Whip until stiff but not dry:
4 egg whites
Fold in the sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time, then fold in the yolk mixture, and finally the sifted flour, ¼ cup at a time. Bake the cake about 30 minutes, or until a knife or toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. Immediately upon removal from the oven, reverse the cake onto a serving plate. Allow pan to remain over the cake briefly to let brown sugar mixture coat the cake. Remove pan and serve upside down, after sprinkling the fruit with:
Brandy or rum
The cake may be garnished with:
Whipped cream or a dessert sauce
From The Joy of Cooking, The Bobbs-Merill Company, Inc., a subsidiary of MacMillan, Inc., New York, 1986, Page 661!!
It’s Easter Day before I realize it’s Easter,
having missed my favorite part of Lent
without knowing it—
when all is black and quiet,
the sun shrouded between twelve and three.
I’d visit church every year
between those overcast hours,
long after I stopped believing,
deciding to spare my kids
the sermons and rituals.
I liked the empty pews’
Spartan comfort, secrets hidden
behind the black-scarved cross.
Sitting alone, mumbling anything I wanted,
I’d save predictability
for the kitchen,
following the same recipes
my mother made, repeating meals
for my children, innocence by association—
proof of my constancy and love.
The four of us sharing champagne,
toasting the New Year or first snow—
then, instead of praying,
reading a poem, anything from T.S. Eliot
to a Buddhist blessing
before digging into our complex suppers,
the familiar recipes compared to last year’s
versions—how good was the oyster casserole,
prime rib and Yorkshire pudding,
sweet potato biscuits or gingerbread?
On a scale of one to fifty-five,
just how successful was
the flipping of the pan
for Mother’s famous upside-down cake?
This year, John phones from faraway Valencia,
clearing his throat as if preparing
to recite one of our supper poems.
I watched the clouds roll in, he says.
I bite my tongue and don’t say, Wrong day.
But he’s with me, after all.
Say Mom, do you have that recipe
for Grandmother’s pineapple cake?