One of our family’s holiday traditions is a Christmas Eve reading of the Dylan Thomas classic “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.”
The celebrated poet’s stories of the Christmases of his youth are particularly meaningful to us since some of our own family Yuletide traditions (mainly food) have roots in the country known as the Land of Song, thanks to my Welsh mother.
Despite having trained to be a ballerina — and being advised by a teacher in a domestic science class (British for home economics) to marry a rich man because she was so hopeless in the kitchen — Mom became a celebrated cook in her new hometown of Athens after moving to Georgia as a war bride after World War II.
She adapted her own food traditions to those of her Georgia-born husband, so my brothers and I grew up with a melding of Southern and Welsh customs.
Almost as enjoyable as the delicious treats that came out of Mollie Parry King’s kitchen at Christmastime were the stories of her childhood, and her vivid memories of her own mother making Christmas puddings, fruitcakes and mince pies.
Her family was large and hospitable, so a dozen puddings, six large fruitcakes and hundreds of mince pies were annually prepared.
In a Christmas reminiscence for a local weekly paper, Mom recalled that the pudding mixture contained raisins, currants, suet, several dozen fresh brown eggs, pounds of candied peel, chopped apples, lemon juice and rind, nutmeg (grated), cinnamon, bread crumbs, flour and sugar — liberally laced with “spirits.”
“Each family member had one big turn of the massive spoon and made a wish, then the pudding basins were greased and filled two-thirds of their capacity, covered with buttered muslin, which was tied securely, and then steamed for hours in a large black kettle.”
After the puddings were cooked, they were put in the “cold” pantry on a marble-topped table to await reheating on Christmas Day. Decorated with a sprig of holly, each section of pudding contained a silver charm or coin for luck, which my grandmother had sterilized. Everyone was warned about the silver surprises so that no one swallowed his good luck or broke a tooth.
Next came the making of the fruitcakes of various sizes, all round except for the large square one that was to be specially decorated for tea time on Christmas Day. The cake was rich and dark — made with butter, sugar, fresh eggs, candied peel, glace cherries, sultanas, chopped almonds, spices and good brandy.
The square cake was iced twice — first, an almond paste icing, then a white icing that hardened, ready for decorating by my grandmother, who turned it into a house. As Mom recalled: “Father Christmas was always on the point of climbing down the chimney, and his sleigh and reindeer balanced precariously near the roof’s edge. Father Christmas occasionally had to be touched up with food coloring to keep his nose bright red to match his coat, but he, like the china robins perched on the Yule log, which was another Christmas tea-time tradition, was saved from year to year and carefully stored.”
The Yule log was a luscious chocolate cake-roll, filled with whipped cream and iced with chocolate icing. The log had a rim of “snow” on it.
The filling in the mince pies really did contain minced meat — either beef tongue or very lean beef, along with beef kidney suet. The meat was cooked and then ground together with the suet. To this mixture was added chopped apples, seeded raisins, seeded pie cherries, citron, spices, sugar and tart jelly. Since it was to be stored (in a covered crock), a quart of good brandy and a bottle of good sherry were added.
Several days before Christmas, the pies, with a rich, flaky homemade pastry, were assembled in tiny fluted tins and baked.
“Hundreds of mince pies had to be made,” Mom recalled, “and our kitchen became an assembly line, one cutting out the pastry bottoms and putting them in the tins, another adding the mincemeat, and a third putting on the ‘lids.’”
Once Mom had a family of her own, she customized her holiday cooking traditions. She usually made beef Wellington and chicken Kiev for our annual Christmas party, along with her famous whole wheat bread (a much-clamored-for gift among folks around town), and a big table of homemade sweet and savory treats such as sausage rolls with puffed pastry; date-nut, chocolate and oatmeal cookies; the traditional mince pies; cheese straws; fudge squares; little lemon tarts; brownies; fruitcake (the American style favored in the South, rather than the hard, iced variety her mother had made); German chocolate cake; white layer cake with lemon curd filling and coconut frosting; and sausage-cheese balls.
On Christmas Day, we’d have more of the same, plus ham, turkey Wellington (made with a turkey roast in a loaf pan), congealed cranberry salad (one of those American dishes she’d picked up living in the South), yeast rolls made from scratch. Some years, she made our favorite British meal, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding.
It was all topped off with her pound cake, cookies and two varieties of scrumptious Yule log, a dark chocolate one favored by the kids and a milk chocolate version preferred by Dad.
Even after we’d all grown up, Mom continued to play host on Christmas Day in Athens and still prepared an amazing array of dishes. As my daughter Olivia recalls, “She went all-out.”
Mom died in 2008, and yet she’s been a part of every Christmas since thanks to her look-alike granddaughter, who each year turns out some of her beloved Grandma’s treats.
As a girl of about 10, Olivia watched her grandmother cook for the holidays, and wrote down the recipes and directions for posterity. (Mom usually made them from memory.)
The first of those holiday treats Olivia undertook on her own, just a few weeks after Mom died, was the chocolate trifle that was a particular favorite of my son, Bill. She felt the need to carry on the tradition because, “we always had it at Christmas, and it wasn’t going to be Christmas without it.”
Featuring hand-crumbled brownies (the most time-consuming part), crushed Heath bars, chocolate pudding and mousse and whipped topping, it’s a 10-layer treat made in a 3-quart heirloom trifle dish and chilled at least eight hours before serving.
It took a few years for Olivia to muster the courage to tackle Mom’s famed bread, a crusty, dense tea bread made with whole wheat flour, wheat germ, yeast, milk, honey, water and salt.
This is bread made the old-fashioned way, with all the mixing, kneading, rising and more rising done without a bread-making machine.
Altogether it takes more than three hours to make one batch of a half-dozen loaves. Olivia does it just like her Grandma did, even thumping on the bread when it looks like it’s done to see if it sounds hollow.
The smell of the baking bread is heavenly, and hot out of the oven it just begs to be slathered with butter and jelly or jam. Usually, at least half a loaf is gone within minutes.
It’s a lot of trouble, but Olivia finally undertook it after some gentle nudging from one of my brothers. “Uncle Tim had been asking me for years to make it, and I finally decided to make it as a Christmas present for him,” she said.
But, really, it’s a gift for the whole family, reminding us in a tangible and delicious way of those Christmases in Athens presided over by my mother.
The brave young Welshwoman who sailed across the Atlantic Ocean to start a brand-new life with the man she loved lives on in the hearts of her children and grandchildren.
Her presence is never more palpable than when we’re tucking into warm whole-wheat bread fresh out of the oven or dipping into her delicious chocolate trifle.
As Olivia put it: “It’s like she’s here.”
Merry Christmas, Mom!
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