Holiday Comfort: From The Past To Your Plate

December 22, 2007|By JACQUES KELLY

One of the comforting aspects of a Baltimore Christmas is its constancy.

Just yesterday I visited the old family home on Guilford Avenue, where my father was admiring the installation of a new slipcover on the sofa where all our Christmas presents were arrayed 50 years ago. A lace cloth covered the table my great-grandparents brought here from their old North Broadway house. They moved in 1915 and the table remains as it was, with a little help from furniture refinishers over the years. Ditto the chairs, which are getting wobbly and frail, but still work.

When I entered the home, my father was on the phone - a wall-mounted rotary dial Western Electric-made model. We have the same Tuxedo exchange telephone number that dates from way before my birth.

Over the past month I've been making the holiday party rounds and gathering a few observations. I'm not the only one who savors their Christmas traditions repeated. With few exceptions, I could walk into these homes blindfolded and know exactly where certain foods and drinks will be.

I know where the homemade Italian meatballs are in one home and the Swedish variety in another. A certain hostess places her homemade gingerbread stars on a certain sideboard. Adjoining them is a dish of apricot sauce; her marvelous boxwood and holly arrangements encircle her silver candelabra. I had a vision of this in December 2006 and the same sighting in 2007. Very nice.

In another Baltimore home, the homemade fudge squares are always arrayed on a little end table alongside a long sofa. I've been going to this party for nearly 35 years, and the unchanged appearance of the fudge assortment does not fail. The hosts always buy the same variety of fresh tree. No changes accepted.

Party-givers have confessed to me they had better not change anything, lest the guests complain. If you serve a salmon one year, it had better be on the table the next. Certain parties are known for beef tenderloin and crab cakes; others for delicatessen platters with centerpieces of olives and slaw; another for rustic Tuscan vegetable soup served alongside kosher beef and rugalas for dessert.

My friends demand a variety of sauerkraut I make. They also want a certain style of cured ham (it has to be from the old Heil's firm, now known as Caribbean Products) in Hampden and the breads have to exit the New System Bakery ovens. Oddly, guests never make any requests or harbor expectations about national brands of wine and liquor. Just don't tamper with the local favorites. They want their comfort foods to deliver the comforts of the past.

One evening this week, I slipped out of the office to make a fast run to the Lexington Market. I hoofed the whole way and was out of breath when I got to Eutaw Street. The lights of the Hippodrome shown in the distance as I charged through the front doors. I was soon addressed as "Almond Paste," a reference to the kind of filling in the chocolates my sister enjoys. I asked the Rheb's candy staff clerk-owner why she called me this name. She replied accurately: "You always come at closing time and always ask for almond paste."

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