Luiza was my best friend when I lived in San Diego. She lived on one side of Balboa Park. I lived on the other side and we'd often meet in the middle, so to speak, wandering the El Prado walkway past those romantic Spanish-style buildings with their sweeping Moorish arches left over from the 1915 Panama California Exhibition.
For my first Christmas alone in San Diego, I was at a loss.
My family was light years away in Edmonton, where Christmas was enshrined in a million cozy customs. I missed the Christmas Eve open house with the kids gorging ourselves on Cheezies while aunties and uncles sopped up rye and Tom Collins like there was no tomorrow. There was the classic Christmas dinner with roast turkey and plum pudding circled in blue flames — whoosh! That was really something in Edmonton. Flambéed plum pudding, made from scratch according to my granddad's mom's recipe.
We were sitting in front of the little fountain in Alcazar Garden talking about Christmas when Luiza invited me to their house. Don't worry, we always have Christmas orphans, she said (It was meant to be reassuring, but felt more pathetic than anything).
Luiza had grown up in Mazatlan, Mexico, where Christmas lasted for weeks. But she'd been married for years to Steve, a true Californian, more comfortable on a surfboard than in a car. Christmas, she said, was a hybrid, because they wanted their kids to know and love both worlds. Bring anything, was the directive. It will add to the mix.
You know what? You can concoct some pretty crazy dishes when you're young and the sky's the limit. Seriously.
In this case, I thought it would be fun to do the hybrid thing the only way I knew how, so I called up my mom and got great-grandma Burke's plum pudding recipe.
But how to make it Mexican? Use some nice spicy salsa, of course, to add that piquant touch. (Hey, raisins and cumin are great together!) And to top it off, flaming tequila instead of brandy. Nobody in San Diego drinks brandy.
I had my own homemade salsa recipe and since Luiza's family was Mexican, it was time for some serious heat so I added extra serranos, seeds and all. As for the scalded milk, in true San Diego style I substituted the salsa for half of it.
In the end, let's just say Luiza's family was more than gracious when it came to Christmas dinner 1975, San Diego-style.
Yes, we flambéed it with tequila, which I thought fired up way more beautifully than brandy ever did, then we swigged up the sauce, which tasted like syrupy tequila shooters with a cosmic after-burn of serrano.
Then we dug out the little homemade mini-tortillas Luiza's mom had made for appies, ladled on a dollop of the plump pudding, as Luiza's seven-year-old called it, and dipped in con mucho gusto. After all, it looked a lot like a mound of refried beans and had hints — if you had an excellent imagination — of a traditional Mexican mole sauce.
We couldn't have asked for a finer Feliz Navidad ending to our Cal-Mex-Canadian Christmas, even if we did empty the bottle of Tums.
ONE LAST CHRISTMAS EVE
The year I drove back to Canada from San Diego to go to law school (don't ask how I ended up at journalism school), I stopped in to visit my grandparents, Roxie and Stan.
At the time, they were living just outside of Kelowna in a cozy little house not far from Lake Okanagan. It was homestead country for them, for they had both grown up there.
My granddad's family, English, had literally rumbled in to the Okanagan via covered wagon from Ontario in the 1880s. My grandmother's lineage, or at least part of it, came from Ireland. Her mom was one of the thousands of potato famine children sent from Ireland in the mid-1800s to avoid "the great hunger" who ended up as sources of free labour for Canadian families. I still have her old-fashioned trunk that looks like a pirate's chest.
So with a surprise "Merry Christmas," I, along with my two German shepherds, landed on my grandparents' doorstep unexpectedly on Christmas Eve.
No problem. There was always a warm bed at their house. But what I didn't realize was they were the hosts for the annual get-together for all the rellies nearby. Cousins, step-cousins, great aunts and uncles — all were descending on Stan and Roxie's in the next few hours for one last Christmas Eve together.
So how could a gypsy gal fresh off a road trip help out? Granddad was busy with the eggnog and drinks, so Nan gave me an apron, a bowl of hard-boiled eggs and asked me to whip up some curried egg salad for the cheese crackers she'd made.
No problem. Crack, crack — I pounded off the eggshells in the sink. Grate, grate, grate — I shredded all the eggs into a nice mound on the cutting board. Into the bowl they went with mayo, curry powder and some chopped green onion that I mushed up nicely into a consistent spread.
That's when granddad came over and asked if he could use the sink to chop up the bag of ice. Of course!
I grabbed up the bowl with my slippery hands and whirled around — catching my droopy, bell-bottomed blouse sleeve on the edge of the blender. Yikes! I've never seen such an airborne projectile in the kitchen.
The bowl flew across the room, clipped the top of the kitchen table and landed, face down, of course, smack on the linoleum floor. Granddad and I looked at each other pop-eyed as we heard the scrabble of dog's nails on the hall floor, headed our way.
Ever the gentleman, he swung open the broom closet, grabbed the old green metal dustpan, and scooped the whole mess back into the bowl without missing a beat. Pressing his finger to his lips — mum's the word — he smiled, and went back to fixing drinks. The dogs cleaned up.
I inspected the lot for the odd hair as I spread the crackers with curried egg salad, each topped with the dollop of obligatory chutney. No one seemed the wiser. At least nobody called in sick on Christmas Day.
I still have that dustpan.
At the end of her life, when Nan asked me what I wanted of theirs, it was the first thing I asked for.
Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who wishes you a lovely, innovative holiday season.
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