At holidays, it’s worth the work to honor traditions

  • Monday, December 23, 2013 9:12pm
  • Life

Elizabeth Skinner and Leah Roberts were related by marriage. Elizabeth’s daughter, my mother, married Leah’s son, my father.

Both women bore unique personalities and were beloved by a wide circle of family and friends. But they were as similar to each other as a New York City street fair is to an Iowa Sunday supper.

Grandma Skinner — the street fair — and Grandma Roberts — the Sunday supper — always referred to each other as “Mrs. Roberts” and “Mrs. Skinner.” Not extremely unusual at a time when society was more formal. However, since Grandma Skinner lived with us until the day she died, and Grandma Roberts was only a five-minute walk away, it seemed that eventually they would have dropped the formalities.

But they never did, said my mother last week on the phone during one of our holiday planning sessions. We were discussing the seemingly hopeless concept of merging every family member’s expectation of The Perfect Christmas into one glorious event. As children grow and marry, the yearly challenge to accommodate old and new traditions is never ending.

Perhaps we should just give up, I huffed. At which point, my mother’s mind — a mind that has always worked in mysterious-yet-wise ways — reached back to the late ’50s and delivered forth the memory of Mrs. Roberts and Mrs. Skinner. And that’s when I learned something new about their relationship.

Pop, Grandpa Roberts, had just died.

“After the funeral,” my mother said, “while we were all gathered at the house, Leah stated that in her 42 year marriage to Walter, they had never spent a night apart.”

What my mother told me next produced goosebumps.

“That afternoon,” continued Mom, “your Grandma Skinner packed a few things into a suitcase and moved into Grandma Roberts’ guest room. Not a word was spoken to us or Leah about this move. She just showed up on Leah’s doorstep and entered her life.”

For how long, I asked incredulously.

“Well, she stayed one month. And then one morning over breakfast she said, ‘I think it’s time for me to go now, Mrs. Roberts,’ to which Leah responded, ‘Thank you, Mrs. Skinner.’”

I guess my mother’s point in choosing to relate this story to me in the middle of my pre-holiday tantrum was this: If a New York City street fair and an Iowa Sunday supper can find common ground for an entire month, how difficult should it be for the rest of us to honor each others’ hopes for a few days in December?

So if you’re feeling a little gloomy about how things are going to work out this year, step back, take a look at the big picture, and let the magic emerge from within.

Then open your heart to family and friends, and I guarantee, you’ll have plenty of both showing up on your doorstep this season.

For my part, here are a few appetizer recipes to sort of smooth the way.

Bon appetit and happy holidays!

Just in time for crab season, here’s a wonderful little “sidewalk crab cocktail” with a zippy character.

Spicy crab and avocado cocktail

  • 2 cups chopped Roma tomatoes
  • 1/2 cup fresh lime juice
  • 1/4 cup salsa (commercial brand of your choice)
  • 2 tablespoons catsup
  • 1 teaspoon granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon hot pepper sauce
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
  • 3 medium avocados, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch chunks
  • 1/2 pound cooked Dungeness crab meat (very fresh, please!)
  • 1/2 cup finely diced red onion
  • 8 cilantro sprigs for garnish

In a blender or food processor, combine the tomatoes, lime juice, salsa, catsup, sugar and hot pepper sauce. Blend to a coarse puree. Adjust seasoning, adding salt and pepper and perhaps more sugar to taste. Note: can be prepared up to 6 hours ahead and refrigerated until ready to use.

In a bowl, gently toss together the avocados, crab meat and red onion, then divide between 8 cocktail glasses. Spoon some of the tomato puree over the top of each and garnish each with a cilantro sprig and serve.

Skewered shrimp with bok choy and wasabi

  • 1 bunch bok choy
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 18 uncooked shrimp, peeled and deveined (tails left on, if possible)
  • 6 4-inch long toothpicks or bamboo skewers
  • 1/3 cup rice vinegar
  • 1/3 cup mirin (sweet rice wine, if unavailable, substitute dry sherry)
  • 1/4 cup oriental sesame oil
  • 3 tablespoons cracked pepper
  • 1 tablespoon cornstarch
  • 1/4 cup wasabi powder (see note below)
  • 1/4 cup rice vinegar

Cut the leaves from the bok choy and set aside for another use (such as a stir-fry or chicken broth). Cut stems into 3/4-inch long pieces. Melt the butter in a heavy skillet over medium-low heat. Add the bok choy stems and saute gently until crisp-tender, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper; set aside and cool completely.

Alternate 3 shrimp and 3 pieces of the cooled bok choy on each skewer. Mix the 1/3 cup rice vinegar, the mirin, soy sauce, sesame oil, pepper and cornstarch in shallow dish. Add skewers to marinade, turning to coat. Let stand 10 minutes, turning skewers once.

Blend wasabi and 1/4 cup vinegar in small bowl. Preheat broiler. Arrange skewers on broiler rack and cook 1 1/2 minutes on the first side. Turn skewers over. Lightly brush with wasabi mixture and cook until shrimp are just opaque, about 1 1/2 minutes more. Lightly brush other side of the shrimp with wasabi and serve.

Yields 6 servings.

Note: Wasabi, also known as horseradish powder, is available at Japanese markets and the specialty food section of some supermarkets. Wasabi provides a noticeable kick, so proceed with caution when using.

Recipe adapted from “Bon Appetit,” December 1987.

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, artist, and author of “Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit,” and four other cookbooks. Readers can contact her by email at janrd@proaxis.com, or obtain additional recipes and food tips on her blog at www.janrd.com.

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