sweet rolls, potatoes
stuffing, pumpkin, pecan pie
Christmas Eve cooking
I was making my list and checking it twice of the cooking I need to do today in preparation of the Christmas Day feast tomorrow and the words lined up nicely for a holiday haiku.
I enjoy cooking.
Maybe because I never HAD to do it much but was allowed to dabble in the kitchen from time to time.
Most holiday dinners being part of that time.
Back back years ago, I boarded at a frat house for a term when I started college.
To help with the board bill I took on a kitchen job.
Being last in line to choose kitchen jobs, it fell to me to be Sunday Dinner Cook.
This meant I had to prepare the Sunday After Church Noon Dinner for around 50 college age men.
I didn’t have to know much about cooking or recipes for this job.
And I didn’t learn much about cooking or recipes while on the job.
But I did learn something very important about cooking for a large group.
I learned timing.
The frat had a real weekday cook and she would get the Sunday roast out of the freezer and start it thawing before she left on Friday.
I had to make sure the roast was in the oven by 6AM.
The rest of the meal was opening giant cans of applesauce and vegetables and making a couple gallons of powdered mashed potatoes and remembering to get the rolls out of the freezer.
Pretty much everything was just warmed up on the stove or in the oven.
I had a vintage 1920’s era basement kitchen to work in.
It had a gas range with 8 burners, a 6 foot long flat frying surface, warming table, prep table all made out of cast iron and industrial freezers and fridges.
There was a butcher block stand in the center of the kitchen that, to this day, makes me look at any other butcher block stand in any store or catalog and say, “welllllllllll … not what I am used to.”
It was equipped with all the latest and greatest in kitchen gadgets and tools that were then available in 1920.
The can opener was lethal.
It was like operating a drop forge with razor sharp edges.
Another kitchen tool was a meat cleaver the size of a tennis racket that weighed about 30 lbs.
After I discovered this cleaver hanging on the wall in a back room, and after I learned how to use it, I would ask anyone in the kitchen if they might want an apple.
If they said ‘yes, sure’, I would get an apple (we had a huge bin of apples down there, too) polish it up for a second and place it on that butcher block.
Then I would pick up that cleaver with both hands and get the heft of it going in my shoulders and lift it up and in a flash, chop that apple in half.
Usually the guy would scream, and jump back, then laugh and then run up into the house to find someone and say, “Hey! Go ask Mike to get you an apple!”
We all agreed that apples prepared this way tasted better than any other apples.
The Sunday Dinner crew would show up around noon and set the tables and get pitchers of powdered milk and water ready.
Then my show started.
As I remember there were 4 long tables in the dining room that would seat about 12 guys a table.
The meals were served family style so I needed two big serving bowls of whatever per table.
Whatever dish I was warming up, I need to have enough to fill 8 big serving bowls.
Dinner was served promptly at 12:30pm so that it could be eaten and everyone back upstairs in the TV room for Sunday football by 1:00pm.
(TV Room … GOSH … How old am I?)
When the kitchen crew started setting the tables, I set out all of my serving bowls and made sure I had a pile of serving spoons.
I got the roast out of the oven.
This piece of meat was huge and early on I learned to cut the thing into quarters before trying to slice it.
The roasting pan was filled with marvelous grease and I had enough training from my Mom to know how to make real gravy.
About 12:15pm the kitchen crew would troop in and ask for directions and I had them spoon out the veggie of the day, applesauce and potatoes into the serving bowls.
Baskets of rolls went out.
I started slicing the beef.
By the time the time the other food had been set out, the platters of meat were ready and set and I would yell, ‘Go get Em!’
Someone on the crew would run upstairs to the common room and press the house buzzer for three long buzzes.
This was the call to dinner.
It was a three story house with a wooden stair case.
Those guys didn’t so much walk down stairs as much as the tumbled down in one loud cloud of noise.
As the roar of their stair stomping and loud conversation increased, I filled gravy boats (that I had dug out of the back of kitchen cupboards) and had them placed on the tables.
As the guys came in, the comments started.
“It’s ALL READY AT THE SAME TIME”, they would say.
“It’s ALL HOT”, they would say.
“GRAVY!!!!!”, someone would shout.
Like I said, if I had to do it everyday.
If I just plain HAD to do it, I am sure I would have different thoughts but looking back I have an almost absurd feeling of satisfaction.
And I know how to get a meal of many dishes off the stove, out of the oven and on the table at the same time.
We spent last weekend in Atlanta with the kids and grands.
It is just me and my wife and one son for Christmas Dinner this year.
Still, it is Christmas.
The cooking will start tonight.
I will get the morning sweet rolls all set and in the fridge ready for the oven tomorrow morning.
I’ll get the sweet potatoes peeled, boiled and mashed ready for a casserole of sweet potatoes, two eggs and 1/2 cup of brown sugar – sprinkle with brown sugar and a touch of cinnamon after it comes out of the oven.
I’ll reduce a loaf of bread to cubes and set out to get nice and stale for stuffing even though I am just roasting a turkey breast tomorrow.
Then the pies.
Pumpkin for my son.
He will manage to consume at least the essence of pumpkin pie under a thick coating of whipped cream.
Then the pecan pie.
My Dad loved pecan pie.
I thought it was a bit too sweet.
A bit too sweet until my Grandma Hendrickson would show up with her famous butterscotch pie.
As a kid, I honestly thought my Grandma melted butterscotch candies and poured the bright yellow glop into a pie shell.
To this day I am not sure that isn’t the recipe.
Family history has the story about one of my Mom’s brothers asking if, on his birthday, he could have an entire butterscotch pie to himself.
The story went he never ate butterscotch pie again.
But pecan pie.
As I said, I always thought it a bit too sweet.
Then I moved to the south.
People I met down here introduced me to real pecan pie.
People I met introduced me to a pecan pie that was gooey and thick and crunchy and somehow light and not so sweet that it made your teeth hurt.
There was a secret ingredient.
Instead of corn syrup, you know, the stuff they put in soda pop, the secret ingredient is Alaga syrup.
According to the website, “In 1906, the Alabama-Georgia (ALAGA) Syrup Company was established by Louis Broughton Whitfield, Sr. along with his wife, Willie Vandiver Whitfield. Mrs. Whitfield, a native of Montgomery, Alabama, named the company to represent both her home state and that of her husband who was from LaGrange, Georgia.”
The slogan for ALAGA syrup was, “ALAGA – Good Every Drop.
Alaga Syrup is ribbon cane syrup with a little corn syrup added.
Because ribbon cane is grown by small farmers and refined on site, it is less pure than common sugar cane syrup.
The process leaves ribbon cane syrup a brown color.
Ribbon cane is also very sweet to the taste.
Being less refined, it also has a richer, almost full flavor, while sugar cane syrup is just very sweet.
It is easy to find on the shelves at your local Winn-Dixie, Publix, or Piggly Wiggly.
I feel bad for you all up north as you cannot get Alaga Syrup up there.
I feel bad for me as I can’t even get this in South Carolina.
But I got a bottle from my daughter in Atlanta for Christmas.
For the pie, the recipe I always use is on the Alaga website.
The recipe used to be listed as the ALABAMA STATE FAIR GOLD MEDAL PIE of 1923 Recipe but now shows up under the link, Southern Pecan Pie.
It is a simple recipe … really, it is.
Original Alaga Syrup Pecan Pie Recipe
Preheat oven to 350
1-9″ pie plate lined with pie crust
Put Pecans into pie plate lined with pie crust.
1 cup Alaga cane syrup
3/4 cup white sugar
3 eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 stick butter
1 Tbl vanilla extract
1 cup whole pecans
Bring syrup and sugar to a boil and boil for 3 minutes.
Add hot syrup to beaten eggs, beating constantly.
Add butter, let melt.
Pour over pecans.
Bake at 350 for 35-40 minutes.
The trick is getting that roiling boil of sugar and syrup and then stirring in the eggs without the eggs separating.
I’ll be making this tonight.
I’ll be eating this tomorrow.
After dinner and pie I will say, “why did I eat all that?“
At some point tomorrow night I’ll look at my wife and say, “Want a piece of pie?“