A MENU OF HOLIDAY MEMORIES
A CAN OF TUNA, PORK STRIPS, A TINY TREE, AND VEAL CUTLETS
As a person who loves food and who loves memories, I found myself thinking back over the years about some memorable holiday experiences. Of course, most of them have to do with food, but they also have something to do with hope, humor, and the pleasure of celebrating the holidays in a sometimes, not so traditional manner.
My first Christmas living in Cambridge was celebrated on December 25, 1967. Everyone at the Cambridge YWCA where I had moved two weeks earlier had gone home for the holidays. Mrs. Ilene Beyor, the Residence Director, had gone home to her mother’s house for Christmas taking any girl who didn’t have a place to go on Christmas with her. I didn’t know that, so I found myself celebrating an unusual solitary Christmas.
The meal took place in the Resident’s Kitchen on Temple Street. I didn’t wait to be seated. There were no chairs. The larder, the top drawer of my dresser, consisted of a can of tuna and some saltines. There was no table setting, but I had my own fork and a can opener. I ate standing up, forking the tuna and munching on saltines.
You might have thought it was a sad or lonely Christmas, but I was living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and it was the 1960s. My Christmas meal was sauced with the excitement of living in a place where the folk music of the time told it the way it was, and the way it should be.
Everywhere I went, I couldn’t help but see how things were, and how I hoped I could make them. Change was my condiment. Rules would be broken. Demonstrations would be held. The Orson Wells Theatre would open with a candlelight parade, and many of us would illustrate our support for Cesar Chaves either by being part of a demonstration or by not eating the lettuce that accompanied our meals in the Y’s dining room. Sometimes both.
My friend, Barbara, whom I had met at the Cambridge YWCA. had moved into an apartment in Cambridge with two other girls. They quickly became part of their neighborhood which was 1970s Cambridge.
Often when the girls were in their front yard they saw a quiet Chinese gentleman of a certain age pass their house. They noticed him, and he noticed them. It started with a nod and it proceeded to a brief, “Hello.” The solitary gentleman became a part of their neighborhood experience. They never knew just where he lived, but the house they lived in was on his route.
The day after a temperate Christmas, it hadn’t been a white Beth Christmas, they saw their friend approaching their house. They had found out that his name was Henry. That morning Henry was carrying two shopping bags, one in each hand. He saw the girls and asked if they would like some of what he was carrying in his shopping bags. He told them that he worked in a Chinese restaurant, and not as many patrons as had been expected had shown up on Christmas Day.
His shopping bags were full of pork strips. He had a lot of pork strips. The girls said they’d love to have some pork strips, but being nice Jewish girls, they had never prepared pork strips before. Henry asked if he could enter their apartment. They agreed, and he went into the kitchen, took off his coat, found the implements he needed and proceeded to cook the pork strips. A good time was had by all.
As long as the girls lived in the apartment, they made sure to greet Henry when he walked by. The Pork Strip adventure was one of a kind, but it illustrated how easy it was to connect with people who walked through your neighborhood in a culturally diverse City such as Cambridge.
In 1975 Sheila and I had left our jobs to spend time with our father who had developed cancer. It was a tough two years economically, but a good two years spent starting a communications business and an antiques business. Daddy gave us some good advice because he had worked as a boy in his father, Zayda Brass’s, Junk shop in Chelsea.
I had bought a Hanukkah Menorah when I had been living at the YWCA, so we had that with which to celebrate Hanukkah, and to us it was a perfect symbol of the Festival of Lights, but something was missing. My mother had loved Christmas, and in 1950 when I was in Miss Auger’s third-grade class, in Winthrop, Massachusetts, Mama had decorated a white frosted cake for our Christmas Party. She had decorated half of the top of the cake with holly and green leaves and “Merry Christma” in red frosting, The other half she decorated with a Star of David and “Happy Hanukkah” in blue frosting. It was the first culturally diverse cake served at the Shirley Street School.
Ever after, we have had a warm place in our hearts for Christmas. That year, I decided we were going to have a “tree.” Now, being nice Jewish girls, we weren’t going to have a 10-foot tree. We were living on very little, and we couldn’t afford a tree anyway. While walking through a large garden and produce shop, I came up with an idea. Outside on the ground were some branches of fir that had broken off the trees that were for sale. One of the helpers was picking them up and throwing them in a barrel. I asked him if I could have a few broken branches, and he said I could. I took the branches home and trimmed them. I arranged them in an orange mug. I had a little tree. Sheila and I attached some ball-shaped buttons she had left over from her career as a Fashion Designer. I Placed a small glass prism on the top of the “tree.”
Our father died in 1977 eating chocolate ice cream and watching the Red Sox win. We missed him terribly. We didn’t feel like celebrating New Year’s Eve that year, but we found ourselves in Boston’s North End. We browsed the shops, admired the decorations, and tried not to be too sad. We have never made a big thing of going out for New Year’s Eve, but this New Year’s Eve was a hard one.
We found ourselves in a small butcher shop. The owner was there even though it was New Year’s Eve. I remember he was wearing a very clean white apron. He started to talk to us in Italian which is not my first or second language by any means. I learned what the word, “invective” meant by listening to him talk and the way he waved his arms. I’m sure if I could have understood Italian, I would have learned some very choice new swear words that of course I would never repeat.
The host turned to accented English, and we found out that someone had ordered several pounds of veal cutlets. The buyer had never shown up, and it was New Year’s Eve. What was he to do? “You girls want to buy some veal cutlets? I’ll give you a good price,” he said. He gave us a good price. We didn’t buy pounds and pounds of veal cutlets, but we bought enough for a nice dish of Veal Marsala. Later in the kitchen, Sheila and I worked together frying up the cutlets and chatting. And that is how two girls found serendipity in a butcher shop on New Year’s Eve, in Boston’s North End. We spent our New Year’s Eve cooking together, and that’s the way Daddy would have wanted it.
Through the more than 50 years that I have lived in Cambridge, I have kept the memory of that large brightly-lit Christmas tree that I first saw on Brattle Street in the middle of Harvard Square in 1967. Living in Cambridge was everything I ever wanted it to be. I grew up living in the city that nurtured me. It made me aware of how change could be brought about; how important it is to respect and learn from our differences; and how the memory of the lights on that tree still comforts me in times of darkness.
PEACE, LIGHT, LOVE, AND JOY
THE PHOTOGRAPH OF SHEILA AND ME WAS TAKEN BY MARK FLEMING FOR THE HOLIDAY ISSUE OF YANKEE MAGAZINE IN 2017. TWO OF THE FEATURED RECIPES WERE GRANDMA GOLDBERG’S HONEY CAKE AND CHOCOLATE BUCHE DE NOEL.