Peace, comfort, joy, etc., etc., etc. Those are all perfectly reasonable holiday sentiments.
But this time of year, my sentiments turn to mixed nuts. Not to mention hard candy and something cooked in an old coffee can with the specific gravity of uranium-238.
Like Marcel Proust and his madeleines, I find my Christmas memories triggered by tastes and smells. Or in the case of mixed nuts, triggered by the sharp stabbing pain of the nut-pick.
At my house, my mother always bought nuts, in the shell, and put them out in a big wooden bowl. At the time, I thought my mother did this as a special treat for us kids, but now I realize she did this the way other mothers would buy their kids jigsaw puzzles. She did it to keep us working obsessively on an interminable project while she quietly covered the tree with the last 20 pounds of tinsel.
We soon learned that almonds are simple. Hazelnuts are straightforward. Pecans and walnuts require considerable finesse with the nutcracker and then some close detail work with the pick. But the nastiest ones of all are the Brazil nuts. A person practically needs the jaws-of-life to get leverage on these angular shards of obsidian. Once cracked, the nut-meat refuses to leave gracefully. A determined Brazil-nut cracker must hold the nut in the palm of his hand and chisel away with the nut-pick until finally the pick loosens the meat and continues on in to the fleshy part of the thumb.
Which is why, today, whenever I’m out in the garage and I accidentally jab myself with a screwdriver, I suddenly smell eggnog and hear Bing Crosby as if from a distance. The mind is an amazing instrument.
The other Christmas staple at our house, and especially at my grandmother’s house, were those weird hard candies shaped like ribbons scrunched together. I never truly understood those candies. They didn’t taste like any particular fruit in existence, nor did they taste like any particular spice in existence, nor did they taste like any particular flavor in existence. I can best describe the taste as sugary-perfumey, like licking a bottle of rose water. Also, these candies were hard on the mouth, because of their structural design. Any metal worker can tell you that the classic “ribbon” shape is capable of withstanding extreme loads.
However, the holiday smell that triggers the heaviest flood of memories is the bizarre aroma of something that in our family is called “carrot pudding.” I understand the “carrot” part, since it contains a few slivers of carrots, but I have never understood the pudding part. To me, a pudding is something that comes from a Jello Brand box and tastes like either chocolate or butterscotch.
This pudding contains dates and prunes. That’s not a pudding - that’s a purgative.
Carrot pudding also has an alarming combination of other, seemingly random, ingredients: potatoes, butter, nuts, eggs, currants, brandy, cinnamon and assorted vegetable matter. The original recipe also called for suet, but we quit using that when we discovered that suet is like lard, except from an even more disgusting part of the animal.
Obviously, this goes beyond any pudding ever devised by Jello Brand. This is more like one of those medieval English Christmas puddings which consisted of whatever tripe, sweetmeats, and blackbirds happened to be lying around the castle larder, combined with plenty of rendered tallow and honey.
However, those medieval people didn’t steam their puddings in old coffee tins, which is how we cook our carrot pudding. You mash all of these ingredients into the bottom of a coffee tin, set it in a pan of water, and steam it until it coheres into a dense, dark mass the approximate size, shape and weight of an artillery projectile.
It’s an odd version of a food, but something about the taste of it, especially when covered with a little blackberry brandy sauce, puts me in the holiday spirit.
I would say that the aroma puts me in the holiday spirit, too, but that would not be accurate. No aroma can actually escape the gravity field of carrot pudding. It’s the black hole of Christmas food.
, DataTimes The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Jim Kershner The Spokesman-Review