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How NOT To Cook Christmas Dinner

Updated on November 8, 2018

My mother was no Julia Child. Not even close. If there had been a "Worst Cook in Town" contest, Mother would've won it. Every year. Considering her mother, sisters, and sisters-in-law were great cooks, I suspect she secretly enjoyed being known as a bad one. Never mind my dad and my brother and I were the captive recipients of most of these culinary disasters.

Some simply were beyond edible.

Cauliflower steamed for 3 hours looked nothing like the crisp version nestled among equally crisp fingers of carrots and celery on an appetizer tray with veggie dip. It smelled even worse. From 9 a.m. to noon, the house would reek of that smell. To this day, I can't eat cauliflower, raw or steamed.

Meat? Mother never brought home a cut of beef or pork she couldn't turn into tough, gray shoe leather. Until I left home, I had no idea a steak was supposed to be moist and the center faintly pink.

Nor did I know real spaghetti didn't come out of a can from Chef Boy-R-Dee, or that spaghetti sauce was supposed to be the consistency of ketchup, not soup broth.

Sunday dinner was always baked chicken. Always. Not a fat roasting hen, mind you. Old scrawny hens better suited to stewing or broth-making were much cheaper. Never occurred to Mother that baking a stringy, anorexic bird would shrink what little meat was left on it.

She also had a habit of leaving out key ingredients, like the sugar in cookies or the baking powder in biscuits. The food might look okay, but taste like library paste. My dad, bless his heart, would somehow choke down full servings of everything, no matter how bad it tasted. I and my brother, on the other hand, got into the habit of never putting more than a bite or two of any dish on our plates, and if it was inedible, sneaking into the kitchen later to raid the fridge.

Holidays were the worst. That's when Mother would decide to try "something different". One year it was oyster "stuffing", but instead of using canned oysters, she substituted oyster soup and because it was soup, added a can of water. The result was soggy bread cubes and pieces of oyster floating in an unidentifiable broth.

I should mention Mother's rigid schedule for meals. Breakfast was served at 7:00, not 7:04 or 7:06. Dinner...she never called it "lunch"...was at 12 noon sharp and supper at 5:00. Late arrivals would find the kitchen closed. No exceptions. For this reason, she rarely attended holiday dinners at the home of relatives who usually didn't serve the big meal until 2:30, or maybe 4:00. The concept that "holiday" meant a break from one's normal routine was totally foreign to her.

It didn't matter if a dish wasn't ready, it went on the table anyway at 7:00, noon, or 5:00. No exceptions. It's a mystery why none of us became deathly ill (or died) from food poisoning, but we never did.

This inflexibility and adherence to her own schedule was responsible for the culinary disaster I remember above all else: Christmas Tree (sometimes called "Broken Glass") Jell-o, similar to the photo above.

Very simple to make, actually. One pkg of red Jell-o and one of green, prepared separately in flat containers so that they'll be an inch or so thick. When set, cut into cubes, combine in a pretty bowl with whipped cream and voila! Making it in a mold as in the photo is a bit more complicated, but the effect is essentially the same.

The key words, however, are "when set".

One year, she forgot to make the jellos early enough to set completely. At 11:55, she scooped both into a bowl anyway and stirred in the whipped cream. The result was similar to the photo above, but worse.

Much worse.

In fact, the concoction above looks quite appetizing compared to the inedible mess Mother set before us that day.

That was the year I was old enough to drive, so around two-ish, drive I did...straight to an aunt and uncle's home in time to feast with them, their children, grandchildren and an assortment of other "strays". Every year after, if I hadn't arrived by the time they sat down, Auntie would set a plate of my favorites on the back of the stove for when I did. Then I'd pop over to an aunt's from the other side of the family for dessert. Mother never caught on as to how I could eat like a bird at her table, but come back stuffed and ready for a nap at sundown.

To her credit, not everything she cooked was bad. She made the absolute best ever Banana Nut Bread, the taste and texture no one has ever been able to duplicate. Grandma and The Aunts tried, I tried, but whatever Mother did (or didn't do) to make it come out the way it did remains a mystery.

Happy Holidays!


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