ILLUSTRATED BY TERRI WENTZKA
Festive Recipes is a six-part series of home kitchen methods designed to take the edge off of a brutal year. It was conceived by Amy Rea, and illustrated by Terri Wentzka. You can find the first two recipes at heavytable.com (the second will publish on Dec. 16); the remaining four will be published in the Dec. 18 edition of the Heavy Table’s newsletter, available via Patreon.
The volunteer fire department in the town where I grew up always looked forward to Christmas Eve at my house.
If you didn’t know any better, you might take that to mean that I grew up in a fire-fighting family or that my mother admired the town’s firemen and wanted them to share our Christmas. Unfortunately, that would be over-stating the case. My mother, a wonderful woman in many ways, was a terrible snob; she inherently distrusted people who worked with their hands (I actually heard her refer them as “being in the trades” on several different occasions; this is an appellation I heard her use in reference to a plumber and to the Chief of Police with equal liberty.) She certainly never intended to invite firemen to her Christmas Eve parties. The problem was, she kept setting the house on fire.
My mother was famous for her elaborate Christmas Eve parties. Friends and neighbors would cadge invitations months in advance. It was really rather splendid. It was vital to my mother that every detail was perfect and that’s where the problems started. It was inconceivable that a party like that would not have a roaring fire in the fireplace. Unfortunately, that was a detail that my father had always seen to and after my parents split up, my mother was working blind.
The first year that the firemen came to Christmas, Mom made several mistakes. The first was to fill the fireplace with green pine boughs. Explosively flammable pine boughs – though she didn’t realize that of course; she just thought that they’d “look Christmassy.” The second problem was that nobody had ever explained the existence or purpose of a fireplace flue to my mother. Ours had remained closed since the time of my father’s departure.
As the first guests started to arrive my mother – trying to be casual, yet dramatic at the same time – lit a long fireplace match and applied it to the mass of newspaper and pine boughs. The guests collected their drinks from the dining room and walked into the living room just in time to see a sheet of flame erupt from the pine boughs, try to rush up the chimney and stymied by the closed flue, wash over the mantelpiece, igniting the pine-cone wreath, the wood paneling, and our Christmas stockings.
The firemen were very understanding and managed to keep a straight face as they explained to my mother what a flue was and how it should be used. And, of course, they stayed for food and drink. We lived in a small town and they were as aware as anybody of my mother’s attitudes towards her social inferiors (as she saw them). They relished the opportunity to have a drink and a laugh at her expense. To everybody’s credit, the firemen and my mother all behaved with grace and aplomb, but we all knew this was killing my mother and the firemen became my new heroes.
The next year my mother took great pains to make sure she opened the flue on the fireplace. Unfortunately, the flue had remained open since the previous Christmas Eve and what she actually did was close it. (This went a long way toward explaining our high fuel costs the previous winter.) Nothing actually caught on fire, but the house filled with smoke and the fire department was called in to use their blowers to shift it out. And, of course, the fire-fighters stayed for food and drink. The sound of their clinking glasses and hearty laughter was almost drowned out by the grinding of my mother’s teeth.
On the third year, the Fire Department outdid itself. In a stroke of genius, at about four o’clock in the afternoon, they called ahead to find out if my mother would be needing them. I happened to be there as she covered the mouthpiece of the telephone and silently counted to ten, then primly informed them that no, she would not be needing their services. Considering the throbbing vein in her forehead, it was a masterful performance.
Unfortunately, about an hour after that, all the pipes in the living room burst and we celebrated Christmas Eve under a foot of water that the fire department had to come pump out for us.
Fire House Punch
Adapted from: 1935 Old Mr. Boston DeLuxe Official Bartender’s Guide
Juice of six lemons
8 oz. (226 gr.) powdered sugar
1 cup apricot brandy
½ cup dark rum – preferably Pusser’s or Myers’s
½ cup peach brandy
5 cups (40 oz.) plain seltzer
Mix all ingredients in a large punch bowl, adding the seltzer last and stirring gently.
Chill with a single block of ice, preferably a round one made from freezing a mid-sized water balloon, then stripping away the rubber.
A note on juicing six lemons:A recent article on thekitchn.com suggests that the least labor intensive method of juicing a large number of lemons is to cut them in half, beat them senseless with the paddle attachment in stand mixer, and pour the juice through a fine mesh strainer. I find idea this very appealing.