This year for Christmas, I made a photo book for each of my brothers titled: “Food, Family and Fun Times.” I was prompted to do so when my younger brother, Brad, asked if I had any of the recipes from my mom and my aunts. He was looking for one in particular, the red-hot salad that was on our table at nearly every Christmas dinner. Maybe you know the one I mean: cherry or strawberry jello combined with applesauce and those pill-sized red-hot candies that are melted before you stir them into the mixture. You chill it to congeal. It’s tasty but full of sugar. That’s probably one reason I too liked it so much as a kid.
Everyone has their own traditions when it comes to Christmas dinners, if your family is fortunate enough to be together for the holiday and can afford this one big feast. As I assembled the photo book, I searched through my parents’ old photo albums, many of which I have, as well as my own to find photos that I could include in the book. Originally, I was looking for snapshots taken of my parents and my aunts in their kitchens, preparing some of the foods for which I had the recipe cards. But I discovered that I had very few of these photos and the ones I had were mostly of my Dad taken just a few years before he died making his favorite picalilli relish or green tomato pie.
Instead, what I had were several snapshots taken at the family dinner tables before the meal commenced. Many were taken on holidays or special occasions, such as birthdays. As I sorted through the years of photos, I studied the dishes placed on the table. Some I could easily recognize, like the fluffy lime green jello salad with pineapple and whipped cream (usually the artificial Cool Whip product) folded in. Sometimes there was turkey, often ham as the main course. Mashed potatoes, especially for the Thanksgiving dinner, but at Christmas it often was scalloped potatoes that I recall my Aunt Marie prepared.
There were dinners at the table in the make-shift dining room at my parents’ house at the motel my parents co-owned with my aunt and uncle and where grew up.
It was a pretty tight squeeze to get everyone seated around my mother’s Duncan Phyfe table, even with the leaves put in. My mother’s nice china was set out with the centerpiece a little handcrafted tiered Christmas tree made from red netting material. Some years my Aunt Oleta and Uncle Joe who had moved from my hometown to another small town 45 minutes away joined us; sometimes it was just my Aunt Marie and Uncle Dale.
Two of my favorite Christmas dinner photos were taken years apart of the family together in the basement of my Aunt Marie and Uncle Dale’s home where we gathered for big celebrations. The first was made when I was eight-years-old (I can tell by the dress I’m wearing). This photo special because one of my aunt and uncles from California, along with my cousin, is there as well as my aunt and cousin who lived in Hutchinson, Kansas,three hours away in Kansas. My cousins, Kevin, Leland and Debbie–just a baby–are there too with their parents, my Uncle Jiggs and Aunt Bernice. It’s quite a photo because so seldom was this many of the Crooks clan together at Christmas. Even though we’re not sitting at the table, I know that the table is set just on the other side of the camera with dinner no doubt waiting for us all.
The other recalls the another big Christmas gathering the first year I was in college. (Know that from my hairstyle.) We’re all there again, minus the California and Hutchinson families and plus my youngest brother who is standing beside my uncle and just peeking over the back of one of the heavy, tall, carved oak chairs at the table’s end. And again, the cousins who lived in town, are there, with my aunt and uncle. This time, however, the photo is in color, the color film technology having long since become readily available.
I carry on the Christmas dinner tradition with my own family. My parents, aunts and uncles with whom we ate have passed on but there’s a new generation who gather round the table that includes my sons and when possible the grown children and now grandchildren of those aunts and uncles. I still insist on taking a photo of everyone once we’ve all sat down for the holiday dinner so we can relive these priceless moments in the future through the photographic memory. The foods, the fun and the family time together are the real recipes for what makes the season bright.