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Dreaming of a Delicious Christmas : Tradition Dictates Cod, Cactus, Shrimp--and Turkey

December 17, 1995|JUANA VASQUEZ-GOMEZ

I've never dreamed of a white Christmas. In my youth, all my Christmas Eves were warm, tropical, crowded events, with lots of tasty, delicious food.

My family's Christmas Eve ritual began about 9 p.m. on Dec. 24 with the arrival of our extended family and a few close friends.

So that they wouldn't see the presents guests were bringing, all the children gathered in one room to wait until 11 p.m., when Santa would arrive. Meanwhile, the adults sat in the living room, drank cocktails and punch and listened to Christmas music.

The teenagers were in charge of watching over the children. They put on plays like "Little Red Riding Hood" and "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" to entertain the kids.

A few minutes before 11, someone would holler that they heard a noise outside, and the children would be summoned to look out the window for Santa's sleigh. The children's reactions varied from skepticism to total assurance that they had just seen the bright lights on his sleigh.

At 11 on the dot, one adult would announce that Santa Claus had arrived and left gifts under the Christmas tree. The children would run out of the room like wild horses and sit around the tree, ready to open their gifts. The man of the house would hand out the gifts amid cheers of excitement.

When the gifts were opened, we moved to the dinner table, or tables, depending on the number of guests, and the grand party would begin. Normally, the singing and dancing and celebrating wouldn't end until the morning hours.

Over the years, the site of the dinner party has moved from Cuernavaca to Mexico City to California. But for as long as I can remember, we have always served the same menu: a light broth, bacalao (salt cod) a la Vizcaina, revoltijo, turkey and, for dessert, turrones, mazapanes and dried fruit.

No matter how far we are from Mexico, we always find the right ingredients to make our traditional Christmas meal.

When I was very young, the preparations began months in advance. The first step required the most time and for my siblings and me was undoubtedly the saddest part of the whole celebration.

Every year my mother would go out to search for a small and healthy turkey. The turkey would then be brought to our home, would grow up in our garden and of course was considered a part of our family. We had a large animal family, so the new turkey always fit in with our boxer dogs, poodle, cat, macaw (guacamaya) and my sister's little chicks.

When the baby turkey arrived, we would name it, play with it and every morning listen to it gobble. We loved watching the bird fluff up and expand its wings like a fan. It was also funny to watch how he would spring his red nose.

Many years of our childhood were spent watching one turkey or another grow up in our house, but we also noticed that our family turkey always disappeared one day before Christmas.

I later learned that my mother had a way of fattening up the turkey with a special diet to make its meat more tender. For several weeks, as my mother tells me, the turkey was fed corn, nuts and hazelnuts. The day before Christmas dinner, she gave it a few glasses of brandy so that the meat would be even more tender and would have a more delicate taste.

When we discovered the sad reality of the turkey's fate, my mother, amid our pleas and anger, had to abandon her practice. She never again tried to fatten a turkey for Christmas; instead, she started buying a frozen turkey at the supermarket--one, at least, that we did not know on a first-name basis.

Another Christmas preparation involved a trip to Mexico City in search of dried cod, which was usually imported from Norway or Spain. It was really fun visiting the stores in downtown Mexico City because they still had a flavor of the small-town ones in Spain, not to mention the delicious food that would arrive from all parts of the world.

In Mexico, it was difficult to find imported products, and that made them expensive. My mother would take advantage of the trip by buying nougat-like Spanish turrones, the turron of Gijon and Alicante--my favorite one--mazapanes, dried fruit, olive oil that my mother used for the cod, olives stuffed with pimientos and mild chilacas or chiles gueros, as well as candies and nuts of Castille.

The next step was buying a Christmas tree, usually one imported from Canada or the United States. When the trees arrived in our neighborhood, we had to buy one immediately because they sold out quickly. Every year, my father come home with a big, fluffy one. Although our home had high ceilings, sometimes he had to cut the top so that the star of Bethlehem would fit.

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