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All I Want for Christmas Is My Old Roast Beef


Three faces are in my face. The kids. It's Christmas morning. The clock says 5 a.m., but it feels like a jingle-bell 4 a.m.

Sweet morning breath says, "Mom, get up. We have to open the presents."

"OK, OK," I say. "In a minute."

But I get up, find my robe, snap a bobby pin in my Phyllis Diller 5 a.m. hair and try to pry open my eyelids.

I want to tell them, "Merry Christmas, sweet darlings. Let's open the presents together, my dears."

"Ugh . . . " is what comes out.

Christmas paper and boxes are everywhere. Ribbons fly in the air; kids' voices reach high regions of "screech." And my head aches. This is a real 5 a.m. double-dose Excedrin migraine. Probably because the Midnight church service the night before brought us home at 2 a.m. But it's good to see the kids having fun and I pad over to the stove and start the percolator. Maxwell House. Yuban. Chockful o' Nuts some years. Jamaican Blue Mountain after a trip to Japan. A silly blended coffee one year. Maxwell House Masterblend now; sometimes Slow Roast.

As my husband drops into the easy chair, a sheet as big as the newspaper is pushed in his face. They are instructions to assemble a man-size ROTOTILLERBIGMACTRUCK. "Later," he says, snapping up his third cup of morning coffee and laying his head back carefully on the head rest. He also has a church-bell headache.

We ooh and aah over the children's gifts, cackle over the ones Aunt Terry sent.

That's the fun part. Now comes the rest of the day. The cooking and cleaning; breakfast and snacks; getting the kids bathed and dressed; running to the store for forgotten items, answering the phone; making present-delivery runs, driving little Ben to Mike's house, little Marya to Kelly's. There's the table to set, the last-minute silver polishing I always seem to forget, my bath, my hair, my makeup and the what-in-the-world-do-I-wear-this-year dilemma that ticks away precious minutes best reserved for last-minute cooking. And the menu.

The menu always varies. During my Japanese period I turned my house into a rice-paper temple and my cooking into a Zen abstraction. My Christmas menu that year began with sushi. The kids wanted roast beef. And, frankly, so did I.

It was my infatuation with France, which began in the '50s and ended in the '60s, that sparked the first of many 120-degree turns in home decor and cooking. We went from I-won-it-on-The-Price-Is-Right Colonial maple to Auntie Mame Directoire, complete with gilded moldings, trompe l'oeil murals, valances that cascaded dramatically onto the floor and Empress Josephine furniture (do two chairs qualify?). Our food went from tuna casserole to supremes de volaille a la parisienne and filets de sole a la bonne femme. Christmases those years were installations rather than cooking. With vegetables and edible flowers, I created miniature Tuileries for the plate. The turkey in those years looked as if it had walked out of the Fauchon window, decked in tiny floral cutouts of carrot, turnips and strands of chives. Chaud-froid de saumon became a white-Christmas centerpiece, decorated with green and red pepper geometric cutouts. The kids loved collecting the cutouts and using them like stick-ons for their plates--and foreheads.

My Italian period, which ran a three- or four-year course, almost always included a complete menu from some palace in Venice. One year, a first course of seared duck's liver was served on a bed of chopped radicchio in balsamic vinaigrette; penne came in a dome of pie crust; quail rested in a nest of matchstick potatoes. There was chestnut-carrot puree, timbales of rice with porcini mushrooms, and a dessert of cannoli made with homemade filbert wafers stuffed with mascarpone and candied fruit. It was lovely, but the kids "yucked" the duck liver . . . and the radicchio . . . and the porcini rice. They'd have preferred roast beef.

When I finally discovered American cooking there was roast beef--and goose. Sometimes chicken and game too. And for each roast beef/goose year, I consulted turn-of-the-century American Christmas menus and recipes from my newly acquired Boston Cooking School Magazines of 1890 to 1910 circulation, which I inherited from our neighbor.

The holiday menus were elaborate, 20 to 25 dishes in all, counting the condiments and customary three or four desserts. Diners at the turn of the century were anything but diet-minded. And so, we dined guiltlessly on those roast beef Christmases.

There was consomme with okra slices, roast goose with prune stuffing, cranberry granite. One year I added a fillet of venison with Bernaise sauce to the goose menu. The desserts were steamed plum pudding with both hard and liquid sauces, green apple pie and mince pie served with burnt-almond ice cream.

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