Christmas Memories

December 25, 1991|By Linda Lowe Morris

Memories of Christmas are often of food. Long after we've forgotten the childhood letters we wrote to Santa, the decorations we placed on the tree, the presents we gave to each other, we can still remember the warmth of the kitchen with its Christmas smells and Christmas tastes.

So strong is the emotional pull of stollen and lebkuchen, of struffoli and panettone, of honey cakes and peppernuts and springerle, that they live on through generations, through wars and migrations, to be passed on to the next small child waiting by the oven door.

For people who have grown up to make food and cooking their profession, these memories and traditions are especially strong. Here we've collected the memories of some of them who live and work locally:

Aging gingerbread in a barrel

Adi Rehm, owner of Rehm's Catering in Clarksville in Howard County, grew up in a small town outside Munich in Bavaria close to the Alps where even at the age of 3 and 4, he loved to watch his mother and grandmother cook.

"When I was little it was my grandmother who did the baking, and then my mother. And some of the recipes that were passed on were a couple of hundred years old. Every daughter wrote the recipe down from the mother, and the mother had it from the grandmother.

"Christmas was very nice then because they did a lot of baking. They had a standing repertoire. Ten or 12 different cookies. They made apple strudels, poppy seed strudels, and stollen. Some of the recipes they say date back to the medieval centuries.

"My grandmother had a big coal and wood stove. And she was very particular. She always used to put her elbow in and find out how hot the oven is before she put the stuff in it.

"The gingerbread they made was put down three or four months before Christmas. They stored the dough in a wooden barrel with a cheesecloth over top of it. And then before Christmastime they took it out and they split the dough and in one they put like sweetmeat, candied orange peel and lemon peel, and in one they put almonds and rum. And then they made different cookies from it.

"The reason they did it three or four months in advance was because the sugar and molasses would slowly ferment and change into a leavening agent almost like a yeast.

Finns baked early

Chef Paul Crowninshield is well-known around town as the former executive chef at the Maryland Club, a position he held for 11 years. He is now manager and chef of the Chartwell Golf and Country Club, Severna Park. But his love of food was nurtured in his native Finland and his holiday memories are tied to St. Lucia Day, a Scandinavian holiday celebrated on Dec. 12, as well as to Christmas itself.

"My grandmother, my aunt and my mother would start in baking around the first part of December so that they would be finished by St. Lucia Day. Cooking was strictly a woman's job back then. And even today in Finland a lot of the chefs in the commercial kitchens are women.

"But they would do all the heavy preparation, all the baking and put things down in the root cellar -- every kitchen had this root cellar where you open up the floor and go down, you know. So that way, they wouldn't have to do any work over the religious part of the season, except for the daily chores, making coffee and whatnot.

"Gingerbread was a big thing for the children like lebkuchen is in Germany. There were different shapes, some in the shape of trees and of Father Christmas. And there were all kinds of sweet breads, like coffee cakes and things that would serve as the breakfast meal. It was really a very close family-oriented time."

An all-day feast

Margaret Rose Mastellone, co-owner with her husband Andrea of Mastellone's Sorrento Deli and Wine Shop in Hamilton, celebrated her childhood Christmases at home in Clarksburg, W.Va. But her family's holiday traditions came from Calabria in Italy where her parents and grandparents were born.

"For Christmas eve there was always seafood, but the dried cod, the baccala, was a tradition throughout Ialy. Then for Christmas day my mother would make a nice veal roast and put pockets in it for the spices, a little garlic and parsley and rosemary.

"My mother would make a chicken soup with all kinds of vegetables and little, tiny meatballs. That was the first course. Then she would make a tomato sauce with three kinds of meat -- beef, veal and pork. There were homemade pastas, gnocchi and raviolis. My grandmother was quite adept at rolling the dough.

"I can remember my mother made struffoli, little balls of dough that were fried and then covered with honey, toasted almonds, colored sprinkles, maybe some scrapings of citron.

"Christmas dinner was an all-day affair. They just cooked and cooked and baked and baked and you just ate. You ate all day long. People came in to visit and they sat down and they had whatever you were having. It was a ritual."

Cookies with sugar sprinkles

Maria Price, owner of Willow Oak Flower and Herb Farm in Severn, has Christmas memories that were more than food:

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