Eating Christmas

Kristin Grady Gilger's Red Jell-O Christmas

Ah, the holidays. Christmas is all about love, sharing, sweetness and light -- and keeping the antacids handy. In keeping with the spirit of the season, Chow Bella presents "Eating Christmas," in which some of our favorite writers nosh on the real lessons we learn this time of year. Today, it wouldn't be Christmas at the Gilger home without a lot of red Jell-O.

There are two types of holiday meals: the kind I'd like to make and the kind I actually make.

See also: - Nine Baked Goods in Metro Phoenix to Order for Your Holiday Table - Artist Creates Cities Made Entirely Out of Jell-O Because Cities Made Entirely Out of Jell-O Are Really Cool - "Eating Christmas" archives

It's not that I'm bad in the kitchen. I'm actually pretty good, considering that I spend so little time there. Holidays are the one day a year when my husband and I reverse our reversed roles: Gary does the traditional husband thing -- watch football, eat dip and nap -- while I hunt for the knives and try to remember the old rhythms of cutting-chopping-basting-tasting. (Well, I never actually forgot the tasting part.)

Gary cooks almost every other day of the year, so I figure this is the least I can do. And I kind of enjoy it.

I make my own cranberry sauce from real cranberries with cherries added to take away a little of the tartness. I make pie crusts from the St. Francis DeSalle's cookbook my aunt gave me for my wedding, and if there's any dough left over I carve little leaves and decorate the crusts before putting the pies in the oven. I thaw two loaves of frozen bread dough and stretch and twist them together, letting the braided loaf rise again before slathering it with butter and baking it to a golden brown. I pile oranges and cranberries in a big vase and place it at the exact center of the table. I get out my blue plates and grandma's old silver and the (slightly stained) white linen napkins.

It all looks so perfect in those few minutes when everyone gathers around the table, before the first bite. Then one of my daughters will ask: "Where's the Jell-O?"

There must -- always -- be Jell-O. And Jell-O is the one thing I cannot make. No matter how carefully I follow the directions, my Jell-O ends up a red soupy affair, with grains of sugar that refuse to dissolve and marshmallows that float off the plate. My Jell-O is sadly undeserving of the name.

This does not deter my children. Their grandmother made this Jell-O, and it has been served every Thanksgiving and every Christmas of their lives. It is tradition. It is sacred. And so I do the only thing I can: I ask my husband to make the Jell-O. For reasons I cannot explain, his Jell-O always comes out perfectly: You can cut it into nice little squares and the marshmallows actually stay put.

Still, I resist. We are, after all, talking about Jell-O, the homeliest of desserts, beloved in elementary school cafeterias and Iowa farm homes and a staple of church potlucks. But on my holiday table? Where am I supposed to put it? Certainly not next to the nice cranberry, orange and endive salad with toasted pecans. And nowhere near the steaming dish of sliced apples and squash drizzled with brown sugar and syrup.

I give up and just pass the dish. "Have some Jell-O," I say as cheerfully as I can. "It wouldn't be a holiday if we didn't have Jell-O!"

Most of our guests look at the wobbly concoction and pass - unless they're from another country. In my experience, people from other countries who happen to find themselves at your Thanksgiving table are far too polite to turn down anything, even if it resembles cat food (not that I'm comparing Jell-O to cat food. I know of no cat that would eat it.)

Last Thanksgiving, a woman from China was one of our guests, and when the Jell-O came around, she scooped up a big spoonful and ate it without comment. She ate everything else, too, so I did not take this as a sign of approval. But when dinner was over and I was packing up leftovers for people to take home, I asked her what she would like.

"Please," she said pointing to the Jell-O. "Very, very good!"

"The Jell-O?" I asked, incredulous.

I gave her all of it, although I knew my children would squeal in protest the next day when they found no Jell-O in the fridge. How often do you get to serve Jell-O to someone from the other side of the planet - someone who actually likes it and wants to take it home with them? My ideal holiday meal -- the one I would like to cook -- would not include Jell-O or ketchup (something my daughter insists on having with her turkey. I make her keep it under the table.). In fact, it would not include anything red at all except for a few cranberries and a nice Pinot Noir.

But that is not the meal I cook. It is not the meal I will ever cook -- because if I did, it would not be our family's holiday meal.

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Kristin Gilger