“Cooking has many functions, and only one of them is about feeding people,” writes British food writer Nigella Lawson. Lawson’s wonderfully forgiving recipe for coq au vin was simmering on Christmas Eve. I wanted to fill the house with a delicious and comforting smell for all kinds of reasons–including one Lawson herself provides in her cookbook Feast: “When we go into a kitchen, indeed when we even just think about going into a kitchen, we are both creating and responding to an idea we hold about ourselves, about what kind of person we wish to be.” The kind of person I wished to be on Christmas Eve was solid, enduring. I wasn’t just wishing to create a Christmas-y atmosphere for my home-from-college daughter who passionately loves Christmas–I was trying to whip up a loving, cozy atmosphere that would protect me and everyone I cared about from the impermanence of life. The serious nature of life–the way that people and times we have loved disappear and never return becomes terribly clear to me this time of year.
Julia Child once said that dining with family and friends is one of “life’s primal and most innocent delights, one that is both soul-satisfying and eternal.” The older I get, the more I tackle the holidays like Scrooge on Christmas morning–as if cooking and candlelight and glasses raised in a toast can save me from the kind of vision that Gabriel Conroy had at the end of James Joyce’s story “The Dead:” “His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself which these dead had one time reared and lived in was dissolving and dwindling. ”
On Christmas morning, I found my daughter in the kitchen making pancakes, dressed in a skirt and jewelry and looking she thought (and I did, too) “a little like the wife in MadMen” (minus the cigarette, thankfully). Her retro outfit reminded me a little of very early memories of my mother, whom I especially miss at Christmas since she loved it so much. I wondered if she had done what I do–making merry for her children’s sake. “One by one they were all becoming shades,” reflected Gabriel Conroy. “Better to pass boldly into that other world in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age.” Surely my mother who had lost her own mother my the time I was five must have known the truth of impermanence, yet she was always like a child herself at Christmas, overflowing with excitement and generosity, reminding us that life was full of unforeseeable possibilities and magic.
In 2010, may we all open to life’s unexpected gifts and highest possbilities.