For many years in Anchorage I was part of a solstice tea party tradition. On a weekday afternoon on or near the solstice we gathered in the living room of my friend Katy’s cozy red house. We sat around a coffee table near the wood stove and drank tea, ate cookies, fruitcake, and sometimes birthday cake. For a group of busy mothers this seemed the ultimate holiday season therapy session. We laughed and we talked and we had an excuse to just sit and relax in a candlelit room. In later years the tea party moved to my own living room, and I started making thumbprint cookies to serve with the tea.
Tea Party Invitation, Carol Crump Bryner, 2008
Tea Party Collage
Thumbprint cookies are best, I think, with a dollop of raspberry jam, but any kind of jam or jelly will do – even a chocolate “Kiss.” I like to use the recipe from the “Tasha Tudor Cookbook.” Thumbprint cookies are just the right size to fit onto the saucer of a Christmas teacup.
“Christmas Cup with Thumbprint Cookie,” Carol Crump Bryner, woodcut and collaged drawing
Today is bittersweet for me. I turn seventy, but I’ve lost my birthday mate. My dear cousin Tom, who shared this solstice birthday with me, died a few months ago. I’ll miss hearing his voice on the phone saying, “Hey Baby Carol. This is Tom. Happy Birthday!!”
Tom Teter and Carol Crump in front of the farmhouse on Whirlwind Hill, 1949
I rarely saw Tom in the winter, but one year his family – my mother’s sister Lydia, her husband Bill, son Tom, and daughter Nancy – came east for Christmas. I remember two wonderful treats from that visit. The first was the Christmas gift to Nancy and me of matching “Ginny Walker” dolls. And the second was the gingerbread house the Teters carried with them all the way from Indiana. I’m sure there was birthday cake too, but what I remember most is the taste and texture of the minty wafer candies that adorned the frosted gingerbread roof. Like Hansel and Gretel I picked at that house for days, wanting it to last forever.
My mother told us how they used to make popcorn “in the good old days.” They put the corn kernals into a mesh basket with a long handle, something like a “Jiffy-Pop” set-up. The cook then shook the basket over the fireplace fire until the corn exploded and filled up the popper.
Winter Sunday afternoons were popcorn time at the farm on Whirlwind Hill. My grandmother popped a huge pot of corn, buttered and salted it, and left it on the kitchen table. When we came in from sledding we filled our little green melmac bowls with the salty snack and brought it with us to the living room to eat while we listened to the grown-ups engage in their Sunday chat.
Sledding down the hill toward the farmhouse, 1950’s
We saved some of the popcorn for my Grandpa Hall’s popcorn balls. He was a slow eater, and one popcorn ball might last him several evenings. This was ok, because popcorn balls seem to get better over time, especially if you wrap them in green or red cellophane tied with ribbon. My mother made these for him, knowing that on cold winter nights his favorite pastime was to sit by the wood stove in the kitchen and nibble on a popcorn ball and some hickory nuts.
Janet Hall Crump and her daddy, Ellsworth Hall, sitting on the lounge in the dining room where he took his daily after-lunch nap.
Have you ever pulled taffy? A successful “Taffy Pull” might go like this:
Your mother cooks some stuff in a pot on the wood stove in the farmhouse kitchen. The pot has corn syrup and butter and vanilla in it. All the little girlfriends you’ve invited to the farm for your birthday party gather around the kitchen table and rub butter on their hands and pair off two by two. When the taffy is cool enough, but still warm, you and your partner choose a ball of goo. Your partner holds the sticky ball, while you reach for some of it and slowly pull it toward you. It should form a long string. Then your partner does the same. You do this over and over. And over. Don’t break the thread. Don’t cry when the taffy sticks to your blouse. Don’t stop to get a drink of water. Keep pulling until it becomes whitish and smooth and looks like the taffy you watched your mother make.
I had a taffy pull at one of my pre-teenage year birthday parties. It was an adventure, but the taffy never “taffyed.” Maybe our little hands were dirty. Maybe we just weren’t patient enough. Maybe we were laughing too hard. But it was great fun, and the mess of candy tasted good anyway, even though we were totally full of birthday cake.
Farm birthday party where there might have been a taffy pull, and maybe a blob of taffy on the photo.
One of our eagerly awaited Christmas parcels comes from Indiana. My cousin Nancy makes the best almond brittle ever. She’s been sending it to us for years. This is something I might eat before the salad. It’s crunchy from the almonds buried in the toffee and sprinkled on the chocolate coating. It melts in your mouth and sticks to your teeth at the same time. It leaves you wanting more. Because I love it so, and because my husband eats more than I do, and because I’ve gotten greedy in my old age, I divide up the batch as soon as it arrives so I can have my fair share. That IS fair, right??
“Tin of Almond Brittle,” Carol Crump Bryner, collage, 2015
“Oh bring us a Figgy Pudding. Oh bring us a Figgy Pudding. Oh bring us a Figgy Pudding, and a cup of good cheer.”
Figgy pudding is like plum pudding. It’s very British and very child un-friendly. When I was young, my favorite parts of the dessert my Grandma Hall made each December were the flames from the burning brandy and the garnish of hard sauce made with sugar, butter, and more brandy. My feeling was that one tablespoon of pudding required at least two tablespoons of hard sauce to make it edible. But tastes change, and right now I would love a dish of that plum pudding.
My grandmother, Agnes Biggs Hall, made Christmas plum puddings to eat at the farm and to give away. She did this until the last year of her life. In December 1969, just eight months before she died, her sister Ethel Biggs wrote to her from Hartford.
“About your making plum pudding for us. You know we love it but will not be surprised if anyone else gets there first. I am sure it is too heavy for you to make. Don’t wear your arms out on other people. Problems of the raisins are due to the grape shortage, I am sure.”
I was in California that Christmas, and remember the grape boycott. I don’t know if she made the pudding that year or not, but I hope she did. A shortage of raisins wouldn’t deter my grandma – I’m pretty sure of that.
I don’t remember eating peppermint ice cream at any other time of the year. The alternative to this seasonal desert treat was spumoni, which had something unpleasant in it like raisins or candied fruit. The pinkish peppermint ice cream just seemed to invite garnishing with chocolate. My mother made her hot fudge sauce from the recipe on the back of the Baker’s Chocolate package. When you put the butter into the melted chocolate, the sauce became shiny and smooth. It was holiday magic.
“Peppermint Ice Cream,” Carol Crump Bryner, gouache, 2015
The first snow of a New England winter was always exciting, but snow at Christmas was exhilarating. Snow made me want hot chocolate and marshmallows. It helped me believe in Santa Claus. It brought time off from school, and it gave us the chance to go outside to build snowmen, snow forts, and snow weapons. One year, when I was about ten years old, I stood in our kitchen on East Center Street in Wallingford, Connecticut and taunted my younger brother (who was playing in the back yard) through the window until he threw an icy snowball so hard it broke the glass. I was that annoying.
And we all ate snow. My children carried on the tradition. Did it have a flavor? I don’t remember. Maybe it was the lovely sensation of that cold white fluff melting down the back of the throat that led to soaking wet mittens and frequent trips inside to visit the bathroom. I haven’t eaten snow for years. Maybe it’s time to try again.
“Eating Snow,” Mara Bryner, William Gilmore, and Paul Bryner, Anchorage, Alaska, 1979
A prized cookie cutter from our house on Whirlwind Hill is shaped like a heart. It comes from a set of four – heart, club, spade, and diamond. For many, many years I used these cutters to make ginger cookies at Christmas. Eventually I just used the heart. The shape was so pleasing, and when frosted with pink butter-cream icing, they reminded me of every picture I had ever seen of the iconic gingerbread man. I always used the gingerbread man recipe from the New York Times cookbook, and added a little almond extract to the frosting, just like my mother would have done.
“Heart Cookies,” Carol Crump Bryner, gouache and colored pencil, 2015
My taste runs toward the savory. If offered my dessert first I’ll probably refuse. I like my veggies and my salad and my protein. But when the second week of December comes, I remember fondly all the sweet and wintry food associated with past Christmas festivities and traditions. As I sit at my desk this month, with the darkening sky outside my window and the cozy lights inside, I feel ready to share memories of some seasonal treats. For the next twelve days, starting on Monday, I’ll post one a day until Christmas. I hope these posts rekindle some of your own memories of family celebrations and good cheer.
“Studio Window with Little Lights,” Carol Crump Bryner, gouache and colored pencil, 2010