The lovely and patient older daughter and I are in the kitchen, prepping Christmas dinner, both with Band-Aids around our fingers from that lethal mandoline device you use to slice potatoes — and fingers — cleanly and evenly.
I mean, what’s Christmas without a little bloodshed?
My daughter’s wound is worse than mine. She cut herself slicing. I cut myself washing the mandoline later. Really, we’d be safer working with nuclear-powered chain saws.
But first, let me just admit that I am in awe of my older daughter, the way I was once in awe of Posh, my mom, my sisters and all the great women in my life, including Rapunzel and the great Angie Dickinson (my former fiancée).
Because how my daughter crisps the au gratin potatoes on Christmas Day transcends all the superlatives in my arsenal: buttery, bitchin’, luscious, boffo. That’s pretty much it for my supply of superlatives. It’s not like I’m a writer or anything.
OK, how’s this: Know the goal posts at Lambeau on a late October day? Know the gold of homecoming bonfires and Nebraska wheat harvests?
Know the way the sun drizzles butterscotch across a maple tree right after a winter storm?
Or, the way Grace Kelly glimmered when meeting a man in a tuxedo for drinks?
That kind of luminescence — a very special, Cheez Whiz gold, rare as unicorn wine.
These potatoes tested me. I think I showed a lot of restraint by having only three whooping scoops, when I really wanted the whole thing. Just look at the tops of these. Like delicious poker chips.
“Doctor Steve, I’ve been having potato dreams for five days. Does that mean anything? Am I gonna die, Doc? Am I gonna die?”
The lovely and patient older daughter explained the potatoes this way:
“Basically, I put in heavy cream, white cheddar and a smoky gruyere … CAN SOMEBODY POUR ME MORE WINE?!!!”
That’s basically the recipe. Don’t forget Cleopatra’s wine. Critical.
It was her first baby’s first Christmas, and my daughter was in what sportswriters like to call “a zone.”
Like Gordie Howe chasing a Stanley Cup. Like Smartacus scarfing oysters.
Speaking of which, about 4 pm, we decide the shuck the oysters Bruce and Judy had sent.
Now, shucking oysters is our most-muscular art form. Basically, you’re taking a short thick knife and twisting open a reluctant rock.
I hadn’t done it in a while and the first one took me about 10 minutes. Soon, I got the hang of it again, though. Generally, I just take longer to figure stuff out.
While I shuck, my daughter talks of visiting a Vietnamese pearl farm, where they would insert imperfections into the oysters, so they would chafe and develop into pearls.
Later, as I slurped an oyster (tasted like mermaids), I swallowed a little speck of shell.
Just my luck, I am now developing an oyster in my tummy.
“Doc, I think I’m growing a large pearl where my appendix used to be. Here, feel.”
So, you get the gist of it — a pretty typical Christmas for us. Cheesy casseroles, cheesier holiday movies, bloodshed …
Catty Cakes (that’s the grand babe) sat up staring at everything, bewildered by all that she was seeing on her very first Christmas.
I told her, “Hey, that’s my role, to be overwhelmed and speechless and unable to process everything.”
She just shrugged.
“OK, we’ll be confused together,” I told her, and we snuggled in together.
In the background, I heard my son-in-law Finn saying “Oh, is that right?” and I knew we were approaching that contentious place, usually after the second drink, when people start questioning anything anybody says.
This is what I love most about Christmas. The irascibility of family members. To her credit, Rapunzel is never irascible. Mostly, she just coos and over-gifts.
Speaking of poultry, a special shout-out to the staff at Marconda’s Meats, at the Fairfax Farmers Market, for assembling the delicious Porchetta, a seasoned Italian pork roast. That’s God’s work, I swear.
As advised, I made a dipping sauce of white wine vinegar, shallots, garlic, salt and pepper. When the crisped pork met the tangy dipping sauce, you could feel a tiny ping in your pituitary glands.
Another special shout-out to those who tested positive for Covid and were forced to hide away during the most intensely social family event of the year.
Come on, admit it. Some of you were secretly relieved to be spared the schmoozing and obligations of a giant Christmas, preferring a little solitude. Christmas can be a very long day indeed.
Makes me sleepy, to be honest.
By about 5 pm, my arm was super sore from so much unicorn wine. For everyone’s safety, they’d kicked me out of the kitchen, so I giggled on the couch with Cakes.
“I need a purge, but there really isn’t time,” I told Catty Cakes.
Instead, I read her “The Night Before Christmas,” but the Cajun version, sent from my buddy Brier back in New Orleans.
“Twas the night before Christmas an all t’re de house…”
As my buddy Druck says, “May you never be too grown up to search the skies on Christmas Eve.”
Let me ask you something really quick: Does anyplace in the country have a better lilt, a better “sense of place,” than Cajun Louisiana?
Rich in voodoo… wood smoke and whiskey…gators and gumbo. Like me, they live a little different.
On Christmas Eve, the Cajuns light gigantic bonfires along the river, to guide Papa Noel to their homes, perhaps the most magnificent holiday tradition in America.
It brings to mind this pearl, which my friend Casey passed along; it speaks not just of gumbo, but of seeking out life’s true and authentic pleasures:
“I don’t WANT a gumbo recipe from the New York Times. I WANT a gumbo recipe from an old woman named Mawmaw Thibodeau-Landry, who can bare-knuckle box an alligator while reciting the Holy Rosary in Cajun French.”
My friend Ellen Poyer, the Pride of Malibu, just asked for my gumbo recipe. I can’t tell you that, Ellen. Took me a lifetime to master. But here’s a recipe almost as good, and it’s actually more consistent: 1) Buy some “Slap Ya Mama” gumbo mix (at World Market, or from the Fairfax Farmers Market hot sauce shop. Or online. Follow directions. Usually, I add a rotisserie deli chicken and some sausage (turkey or pork), some sliced potatoes and diced green pepper. Serve over rice, with a snappy French bread. Might change your life.
For the super cheesy potatoes, my daughter used the Bon Appetit receipt. You can find it by clicking here. Don’t forget Cleopatra’s wine. Critical.
Finally, thanks for all the interest in “Surviving Suburbia,” a collection of my early columns. I’ll reach out soon on delivery, etc. For anyone else who is interested, please email Letters@ChrisErskineLA.com to join the list. The paperbacks are $20, which includes delivery and a dirty joke. Or a nice inscription. Cheers and happy New Year.