Enjoy your sprouts and leave the carrots for Rudolph

Well, Merry Christmas, everyone. May all your Rudolphs be red-nosed and may you have as much eggnog as you desire. Though not one drop more.

I also see that European scientists have bred a sweeter brussels sprout, so if your background mandates these foul green spheroids at this festive season (who said British cooking was lousy? — other than the recipients, who so dread this aspect of Christmas that Thomas Cook Travel used a photo of a plate of them to induce Britons to flee the country in December) I hope yours, too, have that special sugary quality.

As for those Swedish-Canadians whose Christmas anchovies have been impounded by the authorities for having the weight indicated on the bottom of the can rather than the side (with such ponderous threats to our well-being are our betters preoccupied while we Cratchits celebrate even on a clerk’s salary), I can only recommend purchasing some of the conventional salty type, rinsing them, patting them dry and giving yourselves over to the exuberantly cheerful celebration for which Scandinavians are renowned.

Enough biting wit about holiday traditions or anything else. This being Christmas Eve, I have dipped my pen in acid and left it to marinade for the new year while I dispense kindly sentiments like cookies for Santa and, if you please, a few carrots for the reindeer. If you live in Bryan, Texas, you can leave the reindeer some of the new maroon jobs, but for the rest of us, orange will do just fine.

It’s too close to Christmas to disguise sardonic suggestions about public policy as a wish list for Santa, or to offer a pointed retelling of the Scrooge story. On top of which, earlier this week I actually had a dream in which I was reminded of the advice to live every day as though it were your last. Like any good thing, it should be taken in moderation: It is not an approach I recommend with respect to financial matters and, if taken too literally on the subject of risk, it could turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But shortly after I woke up that morning, I was tempted to say something crabby to my wife, then reflected that if it did turn out to be my last day, as one of them certainly will, I didn’t want to bow out with that remark on my lips. Instead, I thought, I should put aside what I want, both sincere and sarcastic, and think instead about what I’ve got.

Including, this year, the scent of spelt flour baking. You see, on the radio this fall I happened to disparage Cato the Elder’s recipe for sheep’s-milk cheese and honey pie, which I argued he planned not to eat but to sacrifice to Roman gods easy to please, not worth pleasing, or fond of Brussels sprouts (which Cato also recommended for hangovers, possibly as a deterrent). But a caller challenged me to try it and, as I come in part from that hardy folk whose national cuisine, as actor Mike Myers notes, was based on a dare and who deep-fry Mars bars with abandon, I could not resist.

We cheated a bit, using flour from the prescribed ancient grain “spelt,” but adding decadent butter and sugar a la Martha Stewart, instead of sticking to stern virtuous Roman flour and water dried into nasty hard strips. Then we got the best sheep’s milk cheese we could find (also the only one), added honey and baked it up. The verdict? Spelt flour is pretty good.

It’s not just food. It’s existence. I treasure the remark of French screenwriter Jean Anouilh that, “I like reality. It tastes of bread.” I’m grateful for crock pots and slow cooking from scratch that fills the house with wholesome smells. Hold the cheese and honey guck. But I do appreciate good company and music and the scent of pine in midwinter. And, for that matter, winter itself.

There’s a special beauty to weather too cold for clouds or precipitation and, after a brisk, short walk in it, a special charm to a warm room and a hot cup of tea. Arguably we’ve had a bit too much of a good thing recently, but I wouldn’t give up the rotation of the seasons. I especially like the way warmth and light cycle through the year slightly out of phase, so that while it’s still getting colder, it’s already getting lighter. And in August, I love the way the light starts to go, but the warmth lingers. Is this a great reality or what?

There is one thing I want, Santa: that people like the gifts I gave them. Oh, and that George Washington’s four-kinds-of-booze eggnog recipe comes out all right, and if we have too much of it, the Brussels sprouts the next morning aren’t too ghastly.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

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