Holidays Are for Eating
April 14, 2009
There’s this thing we do in my family which is our way of letting each other know that one of us is in the way of the other. The key to understanding this action is that there are absolutely no words involved. Say, for instance, that I’m standing at the silverware drawer, putting away the knives and forks, and my mother needs a skillet from the cabinet that’s directly behind me. Instead of saying, “Excuse me, could I grab a skillet from the cabinet directly behind you,” she maneuvers me out of the way with her hip, grabs the skillet around the still open silverware drawer, and leaves me wondering what happened as I find myself four feet away from the drawer with a lonely spoon dangling from my fingers.
This is normal.
Imagine that times five hundred. This is Easter.
Holidays at my house revolve around food, which means that holidays at my house happen in the kitchen. This Easter, my four other family members plus Elisabeth, a German TA from Gettysburg College, swept through the kitchen in a psychotic, gyrating mess attempting to make a cohesive dinner appear. I was in charge of the menu–molasses and rum rubbed ham, roasted potatoes with caper butter and breadcrumbs, green beans, caramelized pearl onions and grapes, cheddar biscuits, and the coup-de-grace, fennel and lemon glazed cake (which, of course, my younger brothers wouldn’t eat, citing the cake’s “cabbage” content).
Being in charge of Easter is an interesting change of pace for a former holiday peon. One year, you’re the kitchen multi-tool, you peel potatoes, trim green beans, and of course, put together deviled eggs which are always made and never eaten. The next, you’re telling someone else to wash and cut, boil water, and watch as your mother takes charge of the deviled eggs, while you now make sauces, crumble spices to just the right proportions, and prepare the ham. Being in charge means you pretend to be much more organized than you really are, and believe firmly that you are (yes, you are) good at multitasking cooking times and micromanaging a set of underling chefs. You are under a lot of pressure. You could Ruin. Everything.
As I rush between glazing the onions and making sure the biscuits aren’t being burnt and figuring out when, exactly, I need to put the green beans on the stove, my mother offers me this helpful comment: “Chef Ramsay would say, ‘Get your kitchen under control.'”
This is a hard thing to do when usually, you cook for one person and you make one dish, and suddenly today, you’re cooking for six and making six dishes all of which have to be on the table at exactly the same time. This is stressful. Especially when you’re also trying to solve the mystery of why everyone needs to simultaneously be in the same corner of the kitchen.
There are moments, however, in this frenzy, when everything is exactly where it needs to be, and I have time to lean against the kitchen counter and breathe in the smells of sherry, sugar, and spices mingling in the crowded kitchen. I take a sip of champagne and watch my family flurry around me in time to the accordion-infused Amélie soundtrack playing in the background. It’s good to be home and good to be together.
And then a pot of water boiling on the stove is overflowing and my father is trying to fix the espresso machine and Molly the beagle is running across the kitchen floor with a stick of Very Expensive Butter.
Miraculously, through this chaos, we put everything on the dining room table in time for a two o’clock lunch, the butter and a few burnt breadcrumbs the afternoon’s only casualties. Lunch is quiet compared to the cooking. Maybe we’re all tired from running around or maybe we’re savoring the flavors on our plate, but maybe the celebration of Easter is more of what goes on in the kitchen and less of what happens at the table. Perhaps we’re most ourselves when we’re hip-ing each other around the kitchen, when we’re helping each other find the sharpest knife or the rum, when we’re loading and unloading the dishwasher or tasting things before they’re ready. I realize that what it means to be at home for me is not how perfect the end result is but that we’re able to laugh at the messes and miracles of the process.
Someone brings up our Easter egg-battling tradition, a game my parents’ Bulgarian exchange students taught us in which two people grip their selected eggs and on the count of three smash them against each other. The person with the unbroken egg is declared the winner and challenges the next player. This year, Elisabeth and her indestructible egg emerge as the undisputed winners, and when the game is over, we laugh at the bits of eggshell scattered around the room. This, too, is what it means to be home. To sit, to laugh, and to let the eggshells lie until they need to be cleaned up.