Saturday, December 27, 2014

Christmas Dinner

Another Christmas has come and gone and it seems like I have gone full circle.  Four decades ago, my new wife and I traveled over half of Texas during the holidays, visiting relatives.  It was Thanksgiving in San Antonio followed with Christmas in Wichita Falls, one year, and the reverse the next year.  Holidays became synonymous with long-distance driving.

On one of those trips, I tried to outrun a southbound blizzard and got trapped in a little Mom and Pop motel on the outskirts of Stephenville after the Texas state troopers shut down Highway 281 for three days.  I had a tiny little room with frozen water pipes and woefully inadequate heat.  For three days I wore all of the clothes I had with me while lying covered-up in bed.  I could touch all four walls, adjust which of the two channels the television received, and lock the door, without leaving the tiny bed.   Eventually, the roads opened and I made it back to The Doc, my wife, who forty years later has still not forgiven me for having consumed (during my forced confinement) all of the Christmas cookies her grandmother had sent with me.

Evidently, The Doc believes that my starving to death in that frozen crypt would have been a better ending to the story.

Then, there were a few decades where we had small kids and didn't travel during the Holidays.  It was important for the kids to establish their own Christmas traditions--ones that did not involve spending all day in the backseats of cars and eating at truck stops.  It was a lot of fun to spend the holidays at home.  Sadly, those years passed unbelievably quickly. 

Now the boys--What's-His-Name and the The-Other-One--are married and have their own kids, who should stay at home on holidays, so, the now grandparents (once again) must take to the road.  I've come full circle and I'm back to eating lunch at truck stops.  I saw snow today and fully expected to be stuck in another tiny little motel, but this time, I was prepared:  I travel with my Kindle.

There is another Christmas tradition that I can't seem to escape:  Cranberry Jelly.  Why does this stuff exist?  And if--as some people claim--it tastes good, why do we only eat it at Christmas and Thanksgiving?  And why don't we jelly other fruits?  After all, you can't buy jellied grapefruit sauce--some pinkish block of quivering gelatinous mess that just lies on a plate, still shaped like the can it oozed out of.

At one point in my life, I think I actually enjoyed eating the stuff.  But that was before The Doc went to medical school.  That experience definitely changed my mind.  I can explain.

Medical school is expensive.  Damn, we were poor!  I had a job, but I think it paid only a hair more than her tuition.  We had an apartment and no children--and would have been all right financially if we hadn't had  the unfortunate habit of eating.  Eating was definitely a problem. 

My brother worked for Carnation and luckily he could give us a lot of samples.  We made a lot of soup out of Carnation Contadina canned tomatoes.  And, thankfully, Carnation had introduced something called Spreadables.  This was a version of tuna salad in a can.  Evidently, no one bought any, as my brother had lots of samples.  The Doc and I damn near lived on the stuff.

My brother also gave us a couple of cases of something called "Weiner Wraps".  This was dough in a can that you were supposed to wrap around a hot dog and bake.  I think my wife and I were the only people in the country who ever ate them.  Since we couldn't afford the hot dogs, we opened a lot of them and made pizzas topped with tomatoes and tuna salad.  Remember, hunger is the best sauce.

Thank goodness you can go hunting in Texas.  In season, we had some meat on the table.  (And a few times when it wasn't exactly in season: the deer can't read a calendar either.)  One hunting trip, all I brought back was a javelina.  Other than the back strap, javelina are not "good eating".  Just in case one of you ever happens to shoot one of the varmints, let me explain how to cook it:  Chop the meat into coarse cubes and place it in an earthenware pot with an equal amount of chopped onions.  Cover everything with cheap red wine and refrigerate for two days.  Then carefully pour off the wine, drink it, and throw the meat away.

The local grocery store had a cart in the back of the store where cans with no labels could be purchased for a dime each.  The other half of our diet came from that cart.  I usually would just wheel the whole cart to the checkout line and buy the whole shebang.  (What happened to that cart?  I haven't seen one in the store lately.  Do the labels not fall off anymore?  Did some heartless bastard invent better glue?)

Every evening, The Doc and I would select a likely can and--whatever was in there--we'd plan a meal around it.  You would be amazed at the things you can do with creamed corn!  (And I suspect that more than once I made meatloaf from a meat byproduct originally intended for the family pet.)   The Doc and I got pretty good at holding a can up to an ear and shaking it.

"I think it's Chef Boyardee.  Could be spaghetti sauce, but I think it's ravioli."

Then disaster struck.  We got to the Jellied Cranberry Sauce days.  There must have been a mistake at the factory and several cases of the stuff lost their labels.  We must have bought 50 of those consarned cans.  Damn near a never-ending supply of the goop!

We tried.  We really tried.  We cooked the stuff into rice.  We boiled it into pinto beans.  We tried cooking that purplish ooze every way we could think of.  And eventually, we just ended up shaking the can until the slop slid out onto a plate and we sliced it and ate it.

I thought about jellied cranberry sauce a lot this weekend.  There it was on my daughter-in-law's table for Christmas dinner.  And I was offered some.

"No thanks," I said.  "Pass the javelina."

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