Today, this second, more than any other moment of my life, I am convinced that Christmas is about love. It’s something I’ve always been convinced of (even before I saw Love, Actually), and the events of today have seared this knowledge in my heart for eternity.
To explain further, I would need to rewind back to the summer of 2006. I was a newlywed, having moved with my husband the year before to a small town in Montana, across the country from my Boston home. I had just discovered the total delight of cooking. This place had a pretty well-stocked grocery store for a town of just two thousand people, and I delighted in delving into the recipes of my favorite magazine subscriptions, Gourmet and Bon Appetit.
It made me feel like such an adult, to receive these magazines, addressed to me, in the mail. I avidly collected each issue, cooking through the publications practically cover-to-cover in our tiny galley kitchen in our first home. I served dishes like cioppino, seared tuna with white beans, poached eggs over asparagus wrapped in prosciutto, and dark chocolate peppermint tart swathed with clouds of freshly whipped cream. I discovered rhubarb, thanks to our giant backyard patch. My voracious hobby earned me a side gig writing a food column, Local Flavor, for the newspaper.
It was my first foray into gourmet cooking. I have always loved food and credit my grandmothers for instilling that love in me. My mother, a phenomenal cook, is no less skilled but finds a little less joy in the process than I do, which I can understand. Many find cooking to be stressful. I would be lying if I said I didn’t have a meltdown in the kitchen once in a while, whether over too many pots on at once or something like over-seasoning. But the joy that it brings me—the moment of total release of anxiety while making something cohesive and delicious out of seemingly disparate ingredients —is unequivocally worth it.
In November of 2009, unexpectedly, Gourmet magazine folded. It may seem like an exaggeration, but it felt like the death of a friend. My heart ached for the people who had lost their livelihoods. I selfishly mourned the loss of this exceedingly talented publication that brought me so much joy (and we all know how important that is).
The three years of issues I collected have moved with me from Montana to four residences, finally coming to rest in a display in our butler’s pantry. A few weeks ago, Epicurious published an article, “The Lost Christmas Recipes of Gourmet Magazine–and How We Found Them.” It turns out that an editor was in possession of the Chrismas menu that would never be, and wisely, they decided to test and retest and actually publish it. It’s a doozy of a 12-dish menu. Naturally, it had to be mine, with the help of my sister and mother. I texted them the menu, we scrapped our plans for our usual tenderloin, and it was on.
When I called my sister to talk last-minute arrangements before our flight to Boston, she told me our mother had fully embraced this challenge. I was floored. Like I said before, my mother (who I must add is always game for sourcing the best food during our travels) is a self-professed hater of cooking. She is a fantastic hostess and can cook beautiful and delicious food (no small feat) for an army, but she claims she doesn’t particularly enjoy it.
Still at home, I started receiving photos of the myriad dishes she was preparing (miraculously, this complicated menu contains many do-ahead components). She pickled carrots in ginger-scented vinegar and twisted yeast dough into gnarled, Crazy Sesame Breadsticks.
She and my sister went to three different stores to find the right persimmons for the watercress salad. At first, she purchased a pint of cherry-cabernet sorbet for the pièce de résistance, Cranberry-Pistachio Baked Alaska, but then she decided she would make it from scratch with cranberries, like the recipe dictated. I am thankful she did. My sister made the Pomegranate Prosecco Punch;
I made the Persimmon and Watercress Salad with Champagne Vinaigrette, the meringue for topping the Cranberry-Pistachio Baked Alaska, and the Seared Scallops with Celery Puree, but my mother did the lion’s share.
The Cranberry-Pistachio Baked Alaska was stunning and more than I could ever wish for a showstopper dessert. It’s cheery layers of pound cake, cranberry sorbet, and pistachio ice cream, all dressed up in billows of meringue and lightly toasted in a screaming-hot oven (when I say lightly, I mean like three minutes tops).
It was all delicious, ornate, incredibly time-consuming, and labor intensive, and she did it all for me. Because she knew it was important to me. She saw me for who I am—for everything that makes me, well, me—no matter how ridiculous.
If that isn’t love, then I don’t know what is.
It was love for a man that took me to Montana, where I discovered a love of cooking anything and everything.
It was love for food that led me to subscribe to Gourmet and Bon Appetit, through the pages of which I discovered the joys of writing about the nuances of flavor.
It was love for my dear Gourmet magazine that led me to change our Christmas dinner menu to this sumptuous spread.
And it was love for me that made my mother not only complete it but embrace it all with a smile that never faltered. And I hope I never forget how lucky I am.
Merry Christmas, all.