Last January 6th, The Feast of the Magi, which is also known as Epiphany or Little Christmas, my wife and I are guests of some people in Coventry, Rhode Island who get together each year to celebrate the Feast Day, and the end of the Christmas season.
Little Christmas is the name we gave it when I was a kid growing up in Kingsbridge, a part of The Bronx, the only place I know aside from The British Isles which is distinguished by the definite article in its name. I used to think Kingsbridge was a place filled with Catholics, Irish, Italians, a German or two and, even, maybe, someone not from one of those places. I loved it for a lot of things, and remember them all. But, my favorite memories were the smells from all the different kitchens, big ones, little ones, all kinds, ; which, I long believed, were all Catholic kitchens. Because, even though St. John’s, which was the church and school I went to, was right next door to a Protestant Church, I never ever saw anyone enter or leave that place. You are looking for a church to go to on a clear Sunday morning in Kingsbridge Fifty, sixty or so years ago, and you ask me or any of the guys I grew up with, and your will hear us all say, “St. John’s.” No one I knew knew of any others. Until I am about 14 I think the only kind of people there are are Catholics, and the only kind of food, no matter from where, is “Catholic” food.
Anyway, at the little thing in Coventry, a lovely name for a place, there were all kinds of folks. We got there early because we came down from Nashua, and grabbed a hotel room nearby, so we could stay a bit longer than a half hour before having to drive home in a snowstorm.
Our host and hostess are really nice people. She has her picture next to the word “homemaker” in the dictionary, even though she has a bunch of letters after her name, so the place was filled with lovely decorations in every room, more lights than Rockefeller Center and the smell of good old fashioned homemade, tried and true stuff wafting through the house from the kitchen and making me hungrier than a whale after a two thousand mile migration swim.
Thus it was that after the greetings and smiles and stuff, I grab a plate of good old food, pausing to let my nose enjoy itself, and wander into the room where the guys are sitting. An old Jimmy Cagney movie, one with George Raft looking like he had his hair painted on, was playing background noise…more or less…for the conversation going on; a conversation about baseball.
We were at this place last year, so I probably sit in the same spot where I sit now and listen to the baseball conversation; which conversation is probably the same one as last year’s was I began to think.
I am not at all complaining, because I find such conversations fascinating; conversations which I have listened to and sometimes taken part in in places from The Kingsbridge Tavern and Toolan’s in Marble Hill, to a place in Singapore called Raffle’s where I spent a few nights talking baseball with some cops from Australia a thousand years ago. They are probably all the same, generally, guys talking about players and teams, averages and plays, managers and pitchers, and balls and strikes. There’s a lot more of course, but that would fill a book. And has.
I sat and listened for about a half hour, talking a bit with one of the wives who wandered in and probably felt like she was on Mars. With her I do not talk about baseball, because, frankly, I am a little afraid I might not measure up. There are guys sitting beside me and standing around who can probably tell you the hand span of every manor league pitcher from 1898 until yesterday. My only claim to baseball history is I grew up in The City when Micky, Duke and Willy played there, and I saw Ted at bat. What he did and when he did it, though is lost in King Solomon’s mind.
I forget what I talk to the nice lady about, but she tells me she remembers me from the year before, and I am scared, because I draw a blank, like one of those old maps filled with empty spaces and bad guesses. I practice smiling, and punctuating her conversation with eyebrow raises and smiles and “Uh, huhs” and big nods while she talks about stuff. I get comfortable when she talks about the stuff on her plate, and what she likes about the spread.
Then she leaves and I go to the kitchen to fill my plate again. The kitchen is a place I like. It’s full of food. I cook, and can ask food questions; things I know about, like herbs, and spices and sauces and stuff. There’s one or two guys there mining this or that dish and I go over to them to talk the”game”. But, they know about what’s in front of them about as much as I know about pitching, or stealing a base. They can use a serving spoon though.
The hostess is there too, making sure no one lacks for anything, and she gives me a short tour of the “field”. I am happy for this, and try to ask a few questions about the things I see and how they got to be what they are. She is happy to answer, and for a few minutes we go on about ingredients, and what was handed down from who, and timing and staging. I feel like myself again, warming to the topic. But, then, the front door opens and another family tumbles in. the Woman of the House goes off to welcome them. I am alone among the pots and bowls and dishes; alone but for those two guys from the other room, now talking batting averages. They don’t even know I am there.
I look deep into the big bowl of mulled cider and see a darker mulled me looking back. Then I nod and wander out. You know, I think to myself as I wander into the parlor, which is nearly empty, and survey the Christmas Village spread across the top of the piano, I would love to have been a chef in a big deal place. I look down at the little town and remember those times I fed a crowd; when I made it to The Show.
There were a couple of times like when we had about a hundred over for burgers, dogs and games at the Upper Biscayne Clubhouse. They were great fun. But I remember, back in the ’80s, when I cooked a meal for a couple of hundred people a couple of times. It was a Seder celebration back when bunches of Catholics were getting in touch with their Jewish roots. I am on the Parish Council then, and since I have such fun doing a couple of big deals at the house, I think it would be even more fun to throw open the doors at the parish.
I make a connection with the banquet manager at the Park Plaza in Boston, and he introduces me to the Executive Chef. It is a highlight of my life when I meet him, and I regret I did not get his John Henry on a hambone or something. What I do get is twelve boned legs of lamb that look like beach balls, and the fixins’. All of this is gratis when I tell my friend upstairs in his banquet office it is for a church dinner.
It is from a top shelf hotel, so it is all top shelf stuff! I do not think to ask him for the china, silver and glassware but I wonder what would have happened. I mean they probably have freight cars full of that stuff. On the way home, back to the parish with a trunk full of the goods I feel sorry for it because it’s going on plastic.
The first thing I find out is that we never cook all of that stuff in the one chicken oven at the Parish. We need something on the order of a Bessemer furnace. God rest her soul, my friend Barbara Keegan, who should have been, could have been, a D.I. at Quantico, orders up the kitchen at Bishop Guertin High school, and we are good to go.
The day, when it comes, goes off without a hitch; well without too many of them. Barbra, now straightening out heaven’s kitchens, is on the lamb. I am up at the parish polishing the plastic, setting the tables, preparing. When the time comes I drive down there and remove six legs, place them in the back of the car and deliver them, like six pizzas, to the gathering wandering Israelites.
It is not too shabby, if memory serves. Some folks even eat the bitter herbs.
But, I find out one thing. Ham is a big deal in New England for Easter dinner. There are quite a lot of folks who never eat Lamb. This I cannot figure in a religion whose Savior is referred to as The Lamb of God.
My apple pie disappears, though. And the Charoset which I make at home the night before. I keep two of the beach balls and give four away. Easter dinner is big deal at our house that year.
I try the same thing once more, but, fewer people show up. The next year someone suggests ham, or even turkey.
And, I ask to be traded.
The photo above is of my grandson, Joe, getting ready to steal second. He’s twenty-one, soon, and a damned good cook.