The holidays are made of rich memories—and matched with rich food. Three writers share stories on both
This December 25th, let loose. Indulge in the trinity of decadence: beef, chocolate, potatoes. Add cream, butter, cheese. Exercise? Later. Guilt? Never.
An embarrassment of richness
by Diana Abu-Jaber
My cousin Odile was a stringent dieter. She ate so little that to her, everything tasted magnificent. This dieting may have come about because my family clung to a tradition of heaping food on visitors’ plates, forcing them to beg for mercy.
Christmas night, she arrived in Eugene, Oregon, with a young man named Jervy, whom, she announced, she was going to marry.
Jervy was 6 feet and maybe 140 pounds. Asked what he did for a living, he replied, “Oh, this and that.”
Odile assured us that he had “many talents.”
My mother made a sumptuous roast and velvety gravy enriched with pan drippings, and Dad constructed a gratin that bubbled under a golden crust. While we brought food to the table, Odile sat in a half-swoon from the scent of roast beef and discoursed on food like one enchanted: memorable dinners past, favorite restaurants, and so forth. I knew better than to try the family tradition on Odile.
When the food was set out, Jervy finally displayed a talent: eating. He ate with gusto and abandon. While my cousin fiddled with a slice of beef and a disk of gratin, he proceeded to tuck away food like a starving man.
Very quickly, Odile proclaimed she was “stuffed to the gills.” But Jervy kept going, draping slice after slice of beef in gravy. Dad tired of heaping the young man’s plate: Jervy inhaled everything, robbing them of the pleasure of too-much hospitality.
He remained at the table while everyone stood, dishes were washed, and the thought of cold roast-beef sandwiches faded.
Odile called a week later, announcing the engagement was off. It was his appetite, she said. “A wild beast.”
She resided too far at the other extreme, but it was a good lesson of indulgence in my family: a reminder of how enjoyment resides best within boundaries, and how all great pleasures depend on getting just the right balance. —Diana Abu-Jaber is the author of, most recently, Origin; her new novel, Birds of Paradise, is due out next fall. She teaches writing at Portland State University.
Recipe: Spice-crusted Prime Rib
It’s a meaty feast, but Cousin Ann’s a vegan …
We like vegans. Really, we do. But this meal wasn’t created with them in mind. So what do you do if you’ve got special eaters coming? Here are a few suggestions to round out the table fast.
- Mixed greens with bottled vinaigrette
- Microwaved cubed squash, served with nuts
- Sautéed spinach with chopped lemon and currants
- Cannellini beans tossed with olive oil and chopped rosemary
- Fresh lemon sorbet with citrus segments and thyme leaves
Or choose a recipe from our collection of 30 hearty vegetarian dishes.
A Chrisman feast
by Joel Stein
I thought, as all people must, that indulgence was something only my people did. We Jews cooked too much food, all of it heart unhealthy, and our grandmothers made us take home whatever they couldn’t force-feed us. We fasted on Yom Kippur merely so we could eat ourselves sick afterward.
But I learned on one of my first trips to L.A. that WASPs can over-indulge too. Since I was a wandering Jew visiting for my week off work, my college friend Kimberly Chrisman invited me to her family’s house for Christmas dinner, and who says no to Christmas with the Chrismans? We said grace, and then I figured I’d eat a reasonable meal with these reasonable people and their reasonable God-fearing customs.
No. A giant roast of beef—a food display unfamiliar to my people—was placed in front of us like a dare. It was crusty and rare and tender and—to my shock—I was offered serving after serving, even after I tried to refuse. These people were not so different from mine.
There were scalloped potatoes that were more cream than potato. I ate several soft, warm rolls with butter, swigged hot apple cider, and made myself too full for dessert. Until I saw it.
They called it a Mint Dazzler. And not only was it ridiculously delicious, but it tasted like America, like a potluck church gathering on top of the Statue of Liberty. The recipe came from Kimberly’s grandmother in Oklahoma, and I imagined she had brought it over by covered wagon.
I’ve convinced my wife to make a Mint Dazzler for Christmas, and I figured it couldn’t be as good as my memory, taken out of the context of that perfect, welcoming Christmas. But it was just as good. You cannot mess up a Mint Dazzler any more than one bad president can ruin this country. Sure, it looks like a graham-cracker crust with a layer of chocolate topped by Cool Whip and crushed candy canes, but it tastes like honest decadence. You show me another country that would dare serve this thing. WASPs might be overcontrolled back East, but once they cross the Mississippi, the big expanse of real America sets in. So that night at the Chrismans’, feasting upon the foods of their people, I felt completely at home. Because I was totally sick. —Joel Stein is a columnist for Time magazine who lives in Los Angeles. He would like you to send him a Mint Dazzler.
Recipe: Root Vegetable Gratin
Start with the best
Beef: Ideally, use beef that is graded USDA Prime; pre-order it from a butcher shop. Choice grade, more widely available, is also fine if it has lots of marbling. Have the butcher cut it to size and slightly trim outside fat. Don’t even think of removing the fat cap or cutting the meat off the bones before roasting (they add flavor and juiciness).
Chocolate: One of the most satisfying foods in the world, and also one of the most complex. High-quality dark chocolate has a cacao percentage of at least 35 percent. Using a high-quality bittersweet chocolate (with a cacao percentage closer to 70) guarantees that the simplest of recipes will produce spectacular desserts.
Cream and cheese: Potatoes are great, but really, in a gratin they’re just a vehicle for cream and cheese. Ultra-pasteurized cream is virtually indestructible by heat, making it the perfect base for long-baked dishes. Don’t “lighten” these recipes with milk, or you’ll end up with a watery mess. For cheese, you want something flavorful that melts well. Good choices include fontina, gruyère, havarti, and Monterey jack.
Christmas, Chilean American–style
by Isabel Allende
I am Chilean. I’m not fond of turkey, that insipid bird that doesn’t look appealing even when it’s alive. Twenty-three years ago, when I fell in lust with my current husband, Willie, and moved to California, I endured my first American Christmas with tasteless turkey and … oh, Lord, brussels sprouts! I decided then and there to celebrate the following Christmas in high Chilean style, even if some ingredients would not be available, because December in the Southern Hemisphere is summer.
Willie thinks that he can cook and is fiercely protective of his kitchen, but for once he stepped aside and reluctantly allowed me to try my mother’s recipes. Christmas should be a spiritual gathering, but on this occasion I intended to shock him with an aphrodisiac culinary orgy.
I decorated the house and the table with fresh flowers and played Latin music instead of sugary carols. Our dysfunctional family and less dysfunctional friends arrived around 6 p.m., because no dinner should start before sunset, and I am not one to tolerate football on TV when a banquet is being offered. The party started with Chilean wines and our infamous pisco sour, strong enough to knock out a Cossack; small cheese empanadas; and prawns wrapped in crispy bacon.
When all except the toddlers were tipsy, I opened the buffet: a splendid Chilean seabass resting on a comfortable bed of garlicky spinach; roasted pork loin generously massaged with Dijon mustard and braised in milk; duck breasts patiently marinated in cherry liqueur with dried apricot relish; corn soufflé; potato casserole; and a couple of Chilean salads—tomatoes and finely sliced onions; and avocados with celery, green apples, and walnuts. The desserts were appropriately decadent and fattening. The crowning glory was a chocolate mousse à l’orange befitting the court of Marie Antoinette and likely one of the curses of the French Revolution. —Isabel Allende is the author of The House of the Spirits and other novels, as well as plays and stories for children. She lives in Marin County, California.
Recipe: Decadent Chocolate Mousse
Nutritional info? Don’t bother.
We want you to enjoy every last morsel of the extravagant foods we’ve created for you. Why ruin it with numbers, especially when they’d make a dietician’s head explode? As long as you don’t have medical issues, it’s okay to give in to temptation now and then, especially when the best Christmas dinner ever is on your table. Looking for the calories or sodium levels for these recipes? Click on any of the recipe links above to find them—but don’t say we didn’t warn you.