Christmas in Compton
“Many household food memories are a mixture of conviviality and tension.” ~ Janet Flammang, A Taste for Civilization
I was a miserable child, made more miserable by my embarrassment at being fat and used to listen in astonishment when adults around me blandly observed that “childhood is the happiest time in your life.” I desperately hoped this was not the case! I was growing up with parents who were hardly there, with a brother who lived in a boy world and never talked, and in a town best known in the 1950s as the place to go for pre-owned cars. I took refuge from my discontents in eating, which at our house was easy to do because my mother’s most consistent form of nurturing was to bake. Leftover pies lurked in our kitchen along with stray tins of fudge and a cookie jar, shaped like a rooster, that was always full, and it was the norm in our family to sample several desserts at once. My parents taught dance every evening, so they stayed trim, while my brother’s boyish metabolism kept him this side of emaciation. Only I was overweight, and thus my one reliable form of mothering sent me further into awkwardness and shame. Still, I turned to food for comfort and especially on holidays when my mother served a smorgasbord that felt like love and that, with the power of pleasure and of ancient ritual, drew our disjointed family together.
Most smorgasbords, according to Scandinavian Recipes (one of my mother’s unused cookbooks), consist of savory things: meats, smoked or pickled fish (and in Norway smoked reindeer tongue), pickled pig’s feet (which we occasionally did consume), potatoes, pickled beets, salads, and cheeses. For dessert there might be a modest fruit salad, fruitcake, or “assorted cookies.” Mother’s version of this Norwegian classic consisted of desserts. On holidays along with her pumpkin, mincemeat, and chocolate pies, she produced several kinds of cookies. Standing in her Christmas apron, she might press a dough of eggs, flour, sugar, and margarine into little fluted tins and then pop them out after baking, like tarts made of sand. Or she might pour the batter for strull (eggs, margarine, flour, and sugar with some lemon flavoring) into a round cast-iron press, cook it over the gas flame on the stove, then roll the warm round disks into cylinders that grew crisp and delicate as they cooled.
To my mother’s way of thinking, however, multiple pies and cookies were a skimpy kind of affair, so, just to be sure the smorgasbord looked full, she turned out four kinds of fudge as well: a dense, honey-colored, cleave-to-the-mouth peanut butter; a rich chocolate made with syrup and cocoa, which my mother labeled simply “fudge;” the “See’s” version made with chocolate chips, a half cup of margarine, walnuts, and an entire jar of marshmallow cream; and divinity, a killer white fudge consisting of sugar, Karo syrup, egg whites, and nuts. Sugar-addicted though I was, even I found divinity too sweet, but I was hooked on peanut brittle, which my mother also supplied and on the accompanying tin of crackerjack with peanuts, sugar, molasses, vinegar, and butter.
The four of us consumed this smorgasbord while playing cards, a holiday ritual during which we actually sat together at the same table, as we never did in daily life. During our three-hour sessions of poker, hearts, and dice, Dad’s harshness mellowed into mock exasperation—he usually won—while my brother and I felt emboldened to be elaborately cheeky in return. We usually lost. My mother would emerge from her usual distracted state, seem to realize she had children, and engage with us as if she were one of the children, too. She was extraordinarily lucky and often won when dice were involved–modest victories that she thoroughly enjoyed since they briefly raised her standing in the eyes of my far more clever father. It was in playing cards, as well, that my brother and I conversed and occasionally worked together as a team in vain attempts to keep our dad from winning. Playing cards together and devouring Mother’s sugary snacks made me feel I had a family.
We’d sit at the kitchen table, our elbows parked on a green plastic cloth printed with red poinsettias. It would be Dad’s turn to choose the game, and he would often choose hearts at ten cents a pop. We’d toss our dimes into the little silver footed-cup to the left side of the table, while Dad took possession of the cards, arching their backs, and sending them flying into each other with a whirring sound. He’d repeat this feat at least three times and then he’d deal. The cards slid like bullet trains to precise destinations in front of each of us. We’d pick up our cards and study what had befallen us, stealing glances at Dad’s reaction to his hand. He was the King of Hearts—and of every other game we played together. The challenge was to elude him, to sneak a win right past his face.
Dad sorted his cards, raised one eyebrow, and cocked his head to the side, in a characteristic move.
He sighed loudly. “Oh sure,” he said. “Who dealt this lousy hand?”
“You dealt this lousy hand,” Mother said, talking trash to him as she seldom did in ordinary life.
He sighed again. “For crying out loud.”
Mother, the Queen of Sweets, got up briefly to bring us peanut butter fudge in its pale blue dish and crackerjack in its red-and-green tin. We grabbed handfuls of the caramel coated, nut-besotted popcorn and began to play.
Fifteen minutes passed, punctuated by multiple cries of exasperation on the part of my father, many of them involving our names: “Ju-dy! Mi-key! Kar-y!” Each one of us, it would seem, was forcing him to pick up trick after trick loaded with our garbage-y cast off hearts, but then my brother’s eyes met mine in recognition across the table. Our father was “shooting the moon.” He’d been planning, ever since his first encounter with his lousy hand, to take every heart and the Queen of Spades to boot, a high-risk strategy, which, if he got away with it, would penalize each one of us with twenty-six points apiece.
“Sa-cri-fice!” my brother demanded, imitating Dad when he urged us to keep someone else from completing a win. But there was nothing to be done. Our hearts flowed to his side of the table as if magnetized, and then there she was—the evil Queen herself. Dad played her in a final, deciding flourish, slapping her against the table, and taking the trick. He’d won—again. He placed the little silver cup before him, stacked our ex-dimes into his neatly growing stash, and reached for a piece of Mother’s peanut butter fudge, looking as if he were a cat that had gotten into cream.
Christmas in Compton–days of oleo and sugar, games that channeled family conflict into fun, tension and conviviality, love that made me fat, the happiest moments of my childhood.
Peanut Butter Fudge
1½ cups sugar, white and brown mixed
1 tablespoon. Karo syrup
½ cup peanut butter
2 teaspoons oleo
7 teaspoons milk
Pinch of salt
1. Combine all the ingredients, except the nuts, in a pan and bring to a boil, stirring.
2. Boil hard for 2–3 minutes until a soft ball forms in cold water.
3. Cool, then beat until thick.
4. Add nuts, if desired.
5. Spread into a buttered pan. Cool before cutting.
1 quart popped corn
½ cup peanuts
1 cup sugar
½ cup high grade molasses
¼ cup margarine
½ cup water
¼ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 tablespoon vinegar
¼ cup margarine
1. Oven crisp the corn and peanuts.
2. Add the sugar, molasses, water, and salt to a pan and boil until a soft ball forms in cold water.
3. Add the vanilla, vinegar, and margarine. Cook until a thermometer reads 266°F.
4. Pour the mixture over the corn and peanuts and toss lightly with a large buttered spoon until well mixed.
5. Store in a covered tin.