Here we are. Again. The holidays. We are at the countdown part. My tree is up and decorated, my shopping is pretty much done (in record time this year!), and my annual holiday party is this Friday night. The other thing that happens around now time is the tornado of memories, nostalgia and emotions that get all stirred up in our hearts and minds. Well, at least in mine.
Prior to moving to Los Angeles I returned to Virginia every year for Christmas. And, with the exception of my social life varying greatly from age 3 to age 30, every year was the same thing. On Christmas Eve my dad and I drove to Roanoke to have Christmas Eve dinner with the family, which was served at 6pm sharp at Aunt Babe’s house. With the catching up chatter prior to the meal, grace (where I stared at the carpet), the meal itself, heavily spiked eggnog and dessert, and the goodbyes, Dad & I would still be back at Aunt Connie and Uncle Joe’s house by 8:30pm, which is where we stayed. And it was there on Christmas morning where we exchanged gifts and had the big Christmas brunch with such earthly delights as cheese grits and mimosas. Directly after brunch Dad and I would drive back to Richmond – with a brief stop at Moore’s Country Store for a couple of chili dogs, aka “lip burners”. Once home I spent the remainder of the day and Christmas night with my mom. After dinner I would race out to my favorite bar, Hole in the Wall, to meet all my friends and reminisce and drink until the wee hours.
But Aunt Babe’s Christmas Eve dinner is what I miss the most. I can recall the meal - each and every dish - vividly. Remember the tomato aspic? I also remember almost every year, watching the subtle changes within my family. This is my dad’s side of the family. Almost all of them live in Roanoke and most are pretty conservative, both politically and socially, yet – as with all families – there are all sorts of secrets and intrigue within. But I still always thought of my dad and myself as the black sheep. The rest of the family were also seemingly normal - family types. I was the only child of divorced parents with a dad that often had a different woman in tow for the holiday celebration. And of course there were the various hair colors and piercing phases I went through. Oy.
One tradition in our family is that the kids no longer receive gifts from the extended family after graduating from high school. But as a child I remember the year I got the game Mousetrap (so cool!). I remember my cousin Noel giving me 1 beautiful Christmas ornament each year (which all currently adorn my tree). I remember a matching turquoise sweat suit with embroidered deer on it from Aunt Babe, which I believe she made. I even think I wore it. Oy.
Aunt Babe is currently the matriarch of the family and has been as such for as long as I’ve been alive. She is the sister of my dad’s mom, Janie, who passed right before I was born. She is called Babe because she was the youngest of the siblings. She is truly special. She is so gentle, kind, diplomatic, and loves her family. I stayed with her a couple of times for a few days here and there during summer breaks as a kid. One day she taught me all about our family tree. I learned that we have a Civil War hero, Francis Marion (“The Swamp Fox”), in our history. Aunt Babe has the softest, most delicate skin. I love her hands. She always smells so fresh and baby powdery. Man, I just adore her. I flew home for her 90th birthday a few years ago and was so happy to see her again. It’s funny, she looks exactly the same to me now as she did from my earliest memories of her.
That's Babe on the left. What a babe! And that's Janie in the center. Such beauty.
Sadly, a couple of years after moving to LA and starting my business, I found it impossible to return home for the holidays. While it certainly does dishearten me, I have learned to find family and community in my friends and my own, new traditions. But I miss Aunt Babe and all of my Roanoke family more than words can express.
Well, I just got off the phone with Aunt Babe to find out exactly what is involved in her Christmas Eve mashed potato dish. I was going to email her for the recipe, but she doesn’t own a computer. And I’m so glad. Because it warmed my heart to hear her voice and to have her beautiful southern accent share the wonderful recipe with me. It also made me long for her soothing presence, the familiar smell of her home, and her infinite patience and wisdom. Needless to say, directly after speaking with her, I immediately called my dad and PROMISED I’d come home next year, even if for just 36 hours.
Aunt Babe and yours truly at her 90th Birthday.
I know mashed potatoes are the simplest dish in the world to make, but hear me out folks. You have likely never tasted any potato dish even remotely as decadent, rich, supple and delectable as this. I have tried to make it in the past on taste memory and have come pretty close. I knew enough to not fear the butter. Rather, one must entirely embrace the butter. Even that version of it made Dixon squirm and adapt his own Aunt Babe potato strategy. But now I finally have it, the real deal, and you can bet your mistletoe kisses that I’ll be preparing it, with my family in my heart, this Christmas Eve.
Merry Christmas, y'all!
Aunt Babe’s Mashed Potatoes
6 Russet potatoes
1 3/4 sticks butter
½ cup canned, evaporated milk – diluted
salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 400
Bake potatoes for an hour to an hour and a half, or until easily pierced with a fork. Scoop out all of the insides and toss skins (or do something else creative with them).
Lower oven temperature to 350
In a mixing bowl add potato insides, 1 and ½ sticks of butter, salt & pepper. With a hand mixer, slowly add diluted milk while keeping an eye on maintaining the moisture. Aunt Babe said that the secret is the moisture.
Put mixture into a casserole dish and add “dabs” of remaining butter along the top. Bake until you see “little peaks of brown on top”, about 15-20 minutes, and serve.