Christmas is coming, and Christians everywhere are celebrating the birth of Jesus who became the Christ, and it’s all about food. Look at those baskets in the market. What are they thinking? I’ll bet Jesus never ate like we’re eating at Christmas.
Sister Rosanna told us that Jesus was a tall, thin man who walked everywhere. Sister had been to the Holy Land, and she said it was very hot, and people would sweat a lot and were very thin.
She said Jesus fed thousands from one piece of fish and a loaf of bread, thousands, she said. Look at those pictures of Jesus, the ones hanging in your grandmother’s dining room. No disrespect meant, but I’ll bet when it came time for him to eat, he ate the fish and skipped the bread.
My Uncle Pete, who lost his foundry in the Great Depression and never felt great again, loved Christmas. Given a bowl of candy to pass around, it never moved. We learned to sit right next to him because that was where the candy was. And if you loved the candied yams, you sat next to him at the table. Pete had two things he was famous for saying: “What’s the score?” and “You gonna finish that?”
The latter was directed toward those at Christmas dinner with food left on their plates. No one refused him. He just took his fork and scraped the remains onto his plate.
This was my family. This is your family. It’s your Aunt Mamie, your Uncle Pete. Every family has someone who sits across the table and says two things at Christmas: “Merry Christmas” and “You gonna finish that?”
“Are you gonna finish that?” can be translated into many languages. I remember sitting in a cafe in Tokyo in 1953 with a young student. Two old men were sitting near us at the noodle bar. One said something and then took the other’s bowl. I asked what he said, the student said, “He wanted to know if his friend was going to finish his noodles or could he have them.” True story.
That woman across the table, insisting that you finish what’s left of the sweet potatoes because “I’ll just have to throw them out,” is your big sister. When you were little she was the thinnest, but now look at her. She throws nothing out. She makes left overs, and there always seem to be more left over than there were on the table.
As a child, I sat at a round table in the big kitchen surrounded by “low information” eaters. I never even heard the word calorie until I was living in New York and offered a delicious brownie to a dancer. She stared at me and asked, “Do you know how many calories are in that?” I didn’t.
At the time, I was a skinny, maybe 115 pound actor/dancer and didn’t care. I ate with two hands, one holding a fork, the other a roll.
Of course, I ate doughnuts two at a time. Do you remember Mallomars? I always kept a bag on hand. But I made the rounds, walking sixteen or eighteen blocks a day, took fencing and dance classes, ran up five flights of stairs to my apartment. I was young and beautiful. I could eat anything I wanted, and I wanted everything but could afford almost nothing.
On dates I took girls to cheap hamburger joints in Greenwich Village. “Isn’t this fun?” I would exclaim. “We’re slumming.” I didn’t tell them that it was my slum.
I soon learned to date girls with big families, who would invite me to dinner. Jewish girls with grandmothers were the best because the food was usually Russian or German. There were roasts and potatoes. Rachel Saloman’s grandmother made the most delicious wienerschnitzel with sauerkraut and baked unbelievable challah. I put on ten pounds one winter and learned to speak Yiddish. Oy gevalt!
When I first came to Maine more than fifty years ago, my French mother-in-law was appalled at how thin I was. She force fed me rich, creamy Maine food like Lobster Newburgh, potatoes au gratin, peas in cream sauce, pecan pies. I gained fifteen pounds and learned to speak French. C’est magnifique.
It’s almost Christmas. We’re going to have roast chicken instead of ham this year, with cornbread stuffing and green beans, apple crumb pie with chocolate ice cream. You like candied yams? Sit next to me.
J.P. Devine is Waterville writer.