Over the River and Through the Woods

The two plus hour drive to Grandma and Grandpa’s house in Kent from Yakima left plenty of time for Jen and Eric to repeatedly and very anxiously wonder if Santa would indeed find us for Christmas, away from home as we would soon be, and for me to map out possible diversions for Grandpa if he wasn’t on good behavior upon our arrival. Often as not, Grandpa’s version of funny was often lost on the little ones, usually resulting in tears. It wasn’t difficult to predict Grandpa’s antics, as they were most often preceded by silent excursions to the garage.

Having set A Very Special Christmas CD to repeat, Run DMC and Jon Bon Jovi were able to inspire a Christmas carol sing along. This proved to be a timely diversion from from typical backseat squabbles. Mentally running through several scenarios and strategies left me feeling somewhat lighter; adding to the relative calm were bare roads over Snoqualmie Pass. The remainder of the drive to Grandma and Grandpa’s was without incident save for some Christmas carol negotiations.

As was typical when they were expecting us, the door to Grandma and Grandpa’s house was unlocked. That simple gesture always seemed to say, You belong, you are home. Christmas at Grandma and Grandpa’s house was a sensory experience, at once transported to the a place that enveloped you in all things Christmas, all things magical.  Lights, candles, sparkling crystal snowflakes, gnomes.  Cardamom. Butter. The smells of Grandma’s baking greeted us before she did. Walking into the kitchen, the dewey windows were a dead give away to the day’s kitchen activity. Upon seeing us Grandma stopped wiping down the counter to collect us in a group hug.

My dad, Grandpa, & Uncle Mark were engaged in preparation for their yearly feat of engineering in the garage—to secure on first attempt, the prime rib to the rotisserie skewer. This collaboration most always drew loud debate and this year was no different. The rest of us in turn, Grandma, Aunt Connie, cousin Carleigh, Jen, and Eric, gladly retreated to the kitchen to receive Grandma’s skillful direction. My step-mom Sue and sister Jodi were happily distracted by whatever football game was on TV.

The goal of the prime rib convening was, of course, to ensure the solid mass of garlic laden beef and bone would be balanced to perfection once placed in the rotisserie. Even a perfectly balanced roast was known to work itself out of true through the cooking process, the meat coming to a standstill, the once gentle rhythmic whirring buzz of the rotisserie groaning in protest against the uneven weight.

Working in Grandma’s kitchen always felt like a privilege rather than a chore. Grandma, whose middle name Christense I share, was number thirteen of fourteen children born to Norwegian immigrants. I imagine a smooth running kitchen had been the norm for her from a young age, as it came to her naturally.

My own two children, Jennifer and Eric, ages six and three respectively this particular Christmas, along with their cousin Carleigh were entrusted with the duty of setting the table. Each was responsible for a specific piece of silverware, Eric-knife, Jen-spoon, Carleigh-fork. Around the table they two-stepped in syncopated follow-the-leader fashion, fists bulging with Grandma’s silver until their duties complete and hands empty.

The roast in turn was securely housed and perfectly balanced as indicated by the whirring of the rotisserie, the convening a success! Grandma’s rolls were baking in the oven. The smell of yeast, cardamom, and butter—although frequent companions in Grandma’s kitchen—were particularly heady on Christmas day. My current culinary assignment was to oversee the melting of the butter for the baked potato topping. Jen and Eric were perched on the coveted seat in Grandma’s kitchen, one of those tall kitchen stools, the kind that has the magical two steps that appear and disappear with one swift motion.

Once melted double the amount of sour cream was added to the butter, stirring until incorporated. Diced cooked bacon was retrieved from its hiding place in the cupboard to be stirred into the sour cream-butter mixture. This was always done right before serving so as to preserve a nice bite along with the addition of finely diced chives. Such simple ingredients. But entirely magical.  Each year the topping would run out before we finished eating our baked potatoes; defying all logic the potatoes were able to absorb unlimited amounts of this topping. Truth be told it was often used to top the prime rib as well.

Sitting on the stool proved to be the best location for Jen and Eric as Grandpa passed through the kitchen. As I glanced over my shoulder I could see the familiar, telltale grasp of forefinger and thumb that meant one thing. A round, sharply pointed toothpick hidden within Grandpa’s hand served as a silent assailant to Aunt Connie’s rear-end. “Ow! Paul!” Followed by Grandma, “Paul, knock-it off! You don’t need to do that!” “Oh, it was just a little poke,” Grandpa laughed. Having been on the receiving end of the little poke more times than I could count, I can attest that this was neither little, nor funny. I felt badly for Aunt Connie, but was also glad it wasn’t Jen or Eric on the receiving end.

In keeping with tradition, prior to placing the dinner on the dining room table cookies and milk were readied for Santa. Santa visited my grandparent’s house each year on Christmas Eve. This miraculously occurred as we ate our Christmas dinner, only separated by a closed door between the dining area and the living room. A faint tinkling of a bell in the next room meant Santa had visited. Grandpa had already performed his annual perfunctory duties of threatening to light a fire in the living room fireplace followed by the screeches and cries of each grandchild, “No, Grandpa, don’t!” “He’ll burn!” “He will never come back!” “You’re not nice!!” Always followed by Grandma’s firm admonishment, “Paul, that’s enough!”

Each grandchild selected a cookie to put on the plate, and once readied the plate was placed on the coffee table in the living room along with a glass of milk. Dinner was ready! Prime rib, baked potatoes, potato topping, cold bean & corn salad with a sweet vinegar dressing, green salad, and Grandma’s cardamom rolls. Since the end pieces of the prime rib went to the grandchildren, I went for the next closest slice to the end, no pink for me. The potato topping made it partially around the table before replenishments were needed, upon restocking it completed the round and was gone, save with two quick and quiet passes. Grandma’s raspberry jam accompanied the rolls on their journey around the table. As much as I loved Grandma’s raspberry jam, I always preferred her rolls plain or just with butter, with nothing to get in the way of the cardamom.

Unlike previous year’s, when an unfortunate slip of the tongue on politics, today’s youth, religion, the price of gas, etc. often led conversation into dangerous waters this year the dinner conversation was uneventful. Just as more Desert Roses than food were visible on the dinner plates, a faint sound of bells could be heard from the living room. As I looked around the table all chairs had occupants. Jen, Eric, and Carleigh were silent, eyes wide, and then in almost perfect unison whispered, “He is here!” It was all we could do to keep them from bolting for the door. “Let’s wait a few more minutes so we don’t scare him away,” Grandma said.

We finished what was left on our plates and proceeded to clear the table before venturing into the living room. Jen, Eric, and Carleigh waited as patiently as possible knowing Santa had just filled their stockings and left their Christmas wishes under the tree.

Lillian’s Baked Potato Topping      

1/2 c butter

1 c sour cream

1/2 c cooked, diced bacon (the bacon should be crisp)

2 T diced chives (or add more to taste)

Fresh ground pepper to taste

In a medium sized saucepan, melt butter over medium heat; stir in sour cream until thoroughly incorporated.  Just before serving add bacon and chives. Serves:  never enough. 🙂

One thought on “Over the River and Through the Woods

  1. Erin;
    You certainly captured Christmas Eve at Grandma and Grandpas ‘ house…from the roast to the potato topping, and the ritual of the Christmas cookies/gifts. Do you remember “heaven and earth”, a side dish Grandma made especially fro Grandpa? It was often served with the Christmas dinner


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