Food, Family and Fun Times around the Christmas Table

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.

One of the photos I found while assembling my photo gift book was this one of my Dad slicing green tomatoes for his pie.

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.

One of my Dad’s favorite recipes was this one for the piccalilli relish.

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.

The dining room wasn’t large at my parents’ home at the motel where I grew up but the Christmas dinners always took place.

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 family gathers for a Christmas dinner.

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.

Taken years later from the first gathering, the family comes together for another Christmas dinner in my aunt and uncle’s basement.

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.

Everything’s Coming Up Roses

I switched on the television this morning and there it was, the 129th Annual Tournament of Roses Parade, already well underway.  This parade with its profusion of elaborately expensive flower-decked floats that glide down Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena, Ca. while millions of spectators watch from both curbside and in the comfort of their homes via electronic broadcast, has become as much a New Year’s tradition in many American households as has pop[ing a bottle of champagne the night before.

A gigantic orca made entirely of flower seeds leaps by spectators during the 100th Rose Parade. A palm tree, so exotic to me in my youth, frames the scene from our grandstand seats.

Watching the Rose Parade on television was a New Year’s Day tradition in my parents’ home when I was growing up in middle of the country.  Seeing tall palm trees on TV on January first was an exotic sight compared to the gray, bare-branched oaks, elms and maples shivering in the cold outside my hometown window.  Pasadena’s bright blue and sunny skies (it’s only rained 10 times on the parade and only twice in my lifetime), were a Chamber of Commerce advertising postcard that teased those of us stuck in frigid temperatures with winter’s white snow and ice often coating the ground.

That’s exactly why the Tournament of Roses was originated in 1890 by the city’s Valley Hunt Club. The men of this civic organization envisioned the tournament and established a parade of flower decorated horse-drawn carriages as a way to promote their little Southern California city.  Today, the event has developed into one of the biggest New Year’s Day celebrations in the country.  Millions of flowers, buds, seeds and grasses are used to create the floats and make the Rose Parade one of the most beautiful holiday events in the world.

My aunt and uncle with their special bumper sticker that they attached to their motor home for access to the Rose Parade.

When I moved to Los Angeles I wanted to experience the Rose Parade in person.  I never dreamed, as a kid back in Kansas, that one day I would actually huddle alongside all those other people to watch the big floats pass by within yards of where I stood.  I went three times to the parade while living in Southern California.  Veteran Rose Parade-goers will tell you tricks to preparing and staking out the best viewing positions.  For some that means setting up tents the day before and spending the night on the sidewalk along with thousands of other dedicated and determined folks.  The night takes on a festive atmosphere as people bring in the New Year together at their city campsites.

We never camped out choosing instead to arise well before dawn, load up the car with coats, camp stools, ladder, cameras, kids and provisions for the day then drive the 25 miles from our house in the San Fernando Valley to our friends’ home in South Pasadena.  We parked our car in their driveway (a primo place) and hiked towards our desired parade spot.  Experienced parade watchers have their favorite places from which to watch the two-hour moving spectacle.  The first year, we staked out a spot near the start of the parade on California Boulevard and set up a ladder so that we could see over the heads of those lining the street in front of us. Even from our higher elevation, the floats towered above us as they passed by.

My family sat together in the stands for the 100th Rose Parade in 1989.

For the 1989 Rose Parade Centennial,  we were treated to grandstand seats by my uncles and aunts from Phoenix and California who reserved overnight spots for their motor homes in a parking lot right off the parade route.  My parents, who I’m sure never imagined that they would see the Rose Parade firsthand, my brother, Richard, and his young family flew out for the special celebration.  We assembled early at the motor homes for a quick breakfast before the parade began then strolled together to our seats in the grandstand.  We bundled up as it was colder than usual that year and kept ourselves warm by drinking steaming hot cocoa poured from a thermos.  Everyone enjoyed the show except for my two-year-old son who cuddled in my husband’s arms and slept through the entire thing. Afterwards, we retreated to the motor home where we feasted on sandwiches while everyone else streamed out of the stands towards their cars and homes.

My mother, right, and aunt stand alongside a float following the Rose Parade in the post-parade area.

Following lunch, we headed over to where the floats were parked for post-parade viewing open to the public for  a close-up look at the intricate floral work.  Every inch on the floats must be concealed by the flowers or seeds. The colors are even more brilliant and breathtaking when you see each bloom that was painstakingly glued or stuck into place for the day’s parade by the countless volunteers who work through the night before to complete the decorating.  The floats remain in the post-parade viewing area for a few days before being pulled out and towed unceremoniously by tractor to the many warehouses where they are dissembled.

I went for one final Rose Parade with my three sons, then ages five, seven and nine-years-old, in 1995.  My husband chose to stay home. The rest of us arose pre-dawn, packed up the car, drove to Pasadena, parked and walked together up the street to our grandstand seats.  The parade rolled by as we watched live one final time.

In the post-parade viewing area, you get a close look at the flowers that decorate the floats.

Float after float went by interspersed by the marching bands that had come from all over the country to take part.  A little more than midway through the parade, one band in particular caught my eye.  It was the Golden Eagle Marching Band from Ferndale, WA.  Excitedly I pointed out to my sons that this band was from the little town we had visited near Bellingham, where we had vacationed the previous summer.   It had to be serendipitous that the band made its one and only appearance in that Rose Parade. Only two years later, we would be watching  the parade on television from our new home in Bellingham and recalling the New Year’s Days that we had gone to Pasadena to see the Rose Parade.