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, Laurie Notaro has a cheesy tale to tell.
Please join us Wednesday, December 12 at 7 p.m. at Crescent Ballroom, as we present Chow Bella's first-ever public reading, featuring several entries from the "Eating Christmas" series, read by the authors.
At the mention of the word "brie," I was immediately terrified for my sister.
For the first time in our lives, Christmas Eve was not going to be at my mother's house, and my sister had stepped up to the plate.
"I've done it for forty years," my mom had announced suddenly. "Figure it out on your own."
It came as a significant shock to most of my family; how would our holiday stay intact if we changed venues? What about tradition? No one's ever decided to light a Christmas tree in front of the Empire State Building, it would be heresy! We had never had Christmas Eve anywhere else, and it was very much akin to my mother canceling the holiday altogether.
What were we supposed to do now, gather at the buffet at Outback, my parents' favorite restaurant (but only before 5 pm), or, even worse, meet up in the parking lot of the casino where she'd suggested we have Thanksgiving? If we started having milestone events at the casino, I had no idea what the future held for my family, but if this was the direction we were heading, it wasn't good and could only involve myriad single wides on a dirt lot somewhere in West Phoenix with a cardboard sign that said "Notaro Village" in Sharpie nailed to the mailbox. And possibly a communal outhouse.
But my baby sister Lisa took it in stride. She simply shrugged and said, "So? Let's just have Christmas at my house."
"Do you--do you think we're ... allowed?" I stammered.
"Why not?" Lisa said. "She was the one who said she was sick of being everyone's Christmas servant. In my book, that leaves it wide open."
I thought about it for a minute and it seemed plausible. Why couldn't we have it at Lisa's house? Our traditional Christmas Eve antipasta was easy enough to recreate, I knew where all of the good Italian delis in town where. I knew how to make roasted peppers and garlic in olive oil; I could roll up proscuitto and sopresetta. It could actually be like Christmas!
Until my sister said, "And I'm thinking about making this thing I had at a restaurant that was so good. It was brie baked in blueberries!"
Brie and blueberries, the hair standing up on my neck screamed. Not only are we changing locales but we're also introducing unknown variables? I began to panic. Didn't she know how this might tip the balance of the holiday dynamic? Everything had been the same, exactly the same, on Christmas Eve for as long as I knew. We used the same plates. We sat in the same seats. We had the same arguments, although the subject of Jill Biden's promiscuity was a new topic introduced in 2009 and we had to clear the room of everyone under 18.
And now, brie and blueberries? That might knock us out of orbit, only to end up at the casino next year! It wasn't Italian, I knew that, but what nationality are blueberries?
I looked at my sister and she was so excited. She had just taken on a lot, I knew, and if need be, I thought, I could do damage control once my mother saw the new dish on the anti-pasta spread. I would take the blame. She hates me the most, anyway, and I could just say that I borrowed the recipe from my husband's kin, who have been in the United States for so long that they are an eighth of everything, including Pilgrim, Native American, Slave Owners, Abolitionists, Share Croppers and People Who Eat Cornbread. It was the cornbread faction that made my mother cry when I got engaged. As my sister and I set everything up for dinner that Christmas Eve, she pulled the brie and blueberries out of the oven. It looked delicious. She placed it in the very center of the table, within eyeshot of everyone. I knew this had the potential of a Jill Biden-type evacuation of the young, and I just crossed my fingers that we could get past this potential disaster without wills being redrawn and paternity tests challenged (which is always Plan A with the cornbread side of the family).
I waited nervously as the rest of our family arrived and assembled around the table, ready to dig into the antipasta. It was then that I watched my mother do a double take when she saw something that wasn't a cured meat in front of her. She leaned forward, raised a brow and sniffed.
"Get the kids," I whispered to my sister, whose eyes suddenly went wide. "This thing is gonna blow."
But my mother, instead of furrowing her brow and looking for a dish towel to use as a whip, picked up a cracker and dipped it in the blueberries.
I held my breath as she chewed, trying to figure out if people wearing natural fibers could even pass the dress code of the casino. I was going to have to get some gold bracelets and ask relatives still in New Jersey for make-up tips. I might have to procure a clothing item in a leopard skin pattern.
My mother looked up, and looked me in the eye for a moment.
Oh God, I thought, feeling chilled. Am I going to have to start smoking again?
And then she picked up a second cracker and went in for another bite.
Keep Phoenix New Times Free... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Phoenix with no paywalls.