I’ve almost recovered from Christmas.
On December 24 and 25, my sister and I are transformed into “elves” (a euphemism for “slaves”) by our mother, as she prepares a meal that could feed 30 but generally includes around 8. Christmas Eve finds me chopping something, fluting pie crusts, making cornbread, emptying the dishwasher, washing measuring cups, and whatever else I am ordered to do. Elsewhere, cheese is grated, squash is peeled, and sage is rubbed. Flour coats clothing and floor.
My 10-year-old niece, elf in training, is lured in for occasional tasks she enjoys, such as making pie filling and peeling potatoes. My heart goes out to her. It won’t be long before my mother will have her battling a turkey-induced stupor as she clears the table and cleans out the coffee pot.
The men avoid the kitchen at all costs and skulk around the edges of the house. I’ve seen Fred wandering outside with his camera, taking pictures of cows.
They do not understand. My brother-in-law’s comment after the Christmas meal on Tuesday is a good example. By then, my sister had collapsed, exhausted, in her room. Fred huddled in a corner of the kitchen, awaiting orders: “Honey, put this sweet potato casserole in the fridge downstairs.” “Honey, would you make sure all the glasses are off the table?” My stepfather had wordlessly gathered pecan pie and coffee and retreated to the empty dining room.
At that moment, my brother-in-law sidled up to me and whispered, “I have a suggestion. Let’s all go in together and have this catered for your parents next year.”
I glared at him. “That’s crazy,” I snapped, my hair falling into my eyes as I rinsed dishes and stuffed them into the overflowing dishwasher.
What don’t they understand? It’s what my mother said on Christmas Eve, as I was rifling around for the cornbread spoon—an ancient, battered implement used for generations, short-handled and burned in spots, and the only proper thing for stirring the batter. “I don’t care what we do as long as we’re together.” And we’ve been doing this together for over 20 years now. Every year, like childbirth, the pain and the exhaustion fade away, and what you remember is the beautiful thing you created together.
As for the cornbread—I can’t give you the recipe. It’s my stepfather’s, and his recipes are more carefully protected than some embassies in Afghanistan. Even though he’s only recently become aware of the Internet, he’s got an iPhone now (to text my nieces, who probably don’t even know how to use something as outmoded as a phone), word of my betrayal could get out. And I’ve still got a fried chicken recipe to collect.
But I can give you the recipe for the squash casserole. It’s a simple version of this Southern favorite, low on embellishment but high on flavor, texture, and cheesy goodness. Make it with people you love.
4 – 6 yellow squash, peeled and sliced into 2” chunks
1 small onion, finely chopped
¼ – ½ tsp. garlic powder
¼ – ½ tsp. garlic salt
¼ – ½ tsp. ground black pepper
6 saltines, crushed
½ cup evaporated milk
4 oz. (½ cup) or more sharp cheddar cheese, grated
4 tbsp. butter, melted
8 – 10 saltines, crushed
Butter 2-3 quart casserole. Steam squash and onions together until tender. Drain into colander. Press out water with a fork, mashing squash and onions together.
Spoon squash into casserole. Sprinkle with garlic powder, garlic salt, and pepper, or to taste.
Stir in and saltines and evaporated milk. Sprinkle cheese over top. At this point, casserole can be covered and refrigerated for a day.
When you are ready to cook the casserole, preheat oven to 400. Mix together butter and saltines and spread over top of casserole. Bake for about 30 minutes or until topping is lightly browned. Serves 6 as a side dish.