I am entrenched in my Italian childhood - I grew up surrounded by Gresios and my father was the honorary Italian. Who had a Scottish mother and a Ukranian father (who is cousin to Otto Schmidt, the Russian explorer which was always a cool fact for me).
I love the Legend of the three Magi. It has special meaning for me. Memories are part family lore and part shadows in your brain. I have heard the oft-told tale of me sitting on Santa's knee and asking him to bring home my sister from the hospital for Christmas. I am told Santa teared up. And looked helplessly at my mother who was astonished. I was 4-1/2. And I have no memory of that.
I do have the memory of my six month old sister coming home for Christmas and our Christmas together. And then in a flash - she was back in the hospital. Very sick. My young brain was well aware of that. I was funnelled to the Italian aunts. The week was a blur. Children my age couldn't visit family members in the hospital in those days. Parents couldn't stay over night. And so went Christmas week.
New Year's Eve came. My parents were both home. Open presents lay neatly under the tree. My sister's baby toys awaited her return. My parents were considering take-out pizza for the greeting of the New Year. We lived in a small one-bedroom apartment in Queens. My parents slept in a hide-a-bed in the living room and I had the large one-bedroom which I was to share with my sister.
When the doorbell rang. On the other side of the door were my two great-aunts - Aunt Elsie and Aunt Helen. They lived in the Bronx and it was quite a trek to get to Queens from the Bronx. Two subways and two busses. So you can understand that Aunt Elsie and Aunt Helen never just "showed up" on our doorstep. But there they were outside the door, on a snowy New Year's Eve bearing gifts - just as the three Magi had done. Only they arrived six days after Christmas instead of 12 days later.
They each carried two sturdy shopping bags and Aunt Elsie was balancing a small bag. They knew my parents did not have the heart to ring in the New Year with their baby in the hospital. Aunt Elsie and Aunt Helen had devised a plan with my great-grandmother. A plan to lift their spirits and welcome the New Year with optimism. They walked into the dinner-less kitchen and took over. Aromas of spice filled the air. My parents stood immobile. Stunned.
"Come on, get the oven going. This will need to be reheated a bit. Set the table. It's New Year's Eve. Don't just stand there!"
And from the bags emerged a large sauerbraten roast. A roast that had marinated for days under the careful tutelage of my great grandmother. It was cooked to perfection. A bowl filled with red cabbage came next. And then the dumplings - that got my four-year old attention. I knew what I liked to eat and I loved dumplings. And then the gingersnap-spiced beef gravy emerged. Savory and sweet. This was Christmas all over again.
As the preparation for rewarming the dinner began in earnest, my Aunt Elsie let me see what was in her small bag. I took a sniff. And pulled back. It was definitely not to my liking. Which was a good thing. It was a chilled pitcher of Manhattans - concocted in the Bronx and hand carried to Queens. Age four was definitely not the time to start having a cocktail hour.
"This pitcher got attention on the subway, I can tell you that," agreed my aunts. "There was a gentleman who kept trying to peek inside. But I shooed him away."
And the aunts poured a cocktail for themselves, for my parents and a glass of milk for me. We toasted my sister, her health, the New Year and my great grandmother who devised the meal but could not make the long journey from the Bronx to Queens. My aunts were an oasis. A balm for frazzled nerves. A small refuge from the sadness that engulfed my family. My great-grandmother was blind but her loving hands left imprints on the meal. It was she who guided the sauerbraten meal. She who tasted and formed the dumplings and it was she who directed the cooking according to taste and aroma and feel. Her presence was real. She was with us during that meal.
Hours passed and we were sated and warmed. My aunts had to leave. They would not think of staying over night although my parents would have happily let them sleep in the hide-away bed. They would not leave my great-grandmother alone. And the snow was now falling in earnest. My father insisted on driving them and after protestations, it was agreed that he could drive them to the subway station. My aunts were formidable. They could take care of themselves on the subway on New Year's Eve. My father first brought them to the hospital where they visited my sister (after visiting hours! oh the nuns who were nurses must have fluttered!) and then went home as planned - via the subway.
Before they left, there had been many hugs. When my mother and I were alone, my mother found a crumpled ten dollar bill in her apron pcket. Sneaked in during a hug. And under the tree were two Christmas presents - one for me and one for my sister. My three aunts, my Magi who brought gifts on New Year's Eve. Gifts of food, gifts of drink, gifts of strength and gifts of love. My sisters gift remained under the tree. The tree would soon be a memory. But the gift was waiting for her when she finally did come home.
A few years later - a happier Christmas even if we look very serioso.
`In 2011, remember all the kindnesses.
And the recipe: This was my father's birthday dinner every year. I have photobooks filled of us toasting him and no photo of the actual roast. We did not make the dinner last year, but I will this year. And I will use Great-Grandma's recipe.
Sauerbraten: serves 6-8
*Great Grandma's Tip: Use a good roast - don't go for chuck here - it will shrink away to nothing. It's a celebratory dinner!
- 3-4 pound beef roast
- 1 pint vinegar (white is fine or a red wine)
- 4 bay leaves
- 15 peppercorns
- 6 whole cloves
- 1 sprig chopped parsley
- 2 tablespoons flour seasoned with 1 tablespoon kosher salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper
- 1/4 butter
- 1 cup sliced onions
- 1-1/2 cups thinly cut carrots
- 12 gingersnaps - smashed into fine crumbs
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- Pat meat dry.
- Place in a non-reactive bowl.
- Add vinegar and then if necessary, add some water to completely cover roast.
- Add bay leaves, peppercorns, cloves and parlsey.
- Cover and put in fridge for 3-4 days turning the meat once each day.
- Drain off liquid and reserve for sauce.
- Rub meat all over with seasoned flour.
- Brown it in butter.
- Add onions, carrots and 2 cups of the spiced marinade.
- Cover and gently simmer for 2 hours - until the meat is tender.
- Remove meat to platter and cover to keep warm.
- Make gravy in the same pot or pour into a saucepan.
- Add gingersnap crumbs and sugar to the liquid.
- Simmer for ten minutes. Taste and add salt and pepper if desired.
- Pour sauce over meat and serve. Serve with potato dumplings and red cabbage.
`In 2011, remember all the kindnesses.