On the half shell: An epiphany



Wednesday was Epiphany, the end of six weeks of family get-togethers that began with Thanksgiving. In my family, three all-day feasts, four birthdays and a boozy brunch featuring unlimited shrimp cocktail marked this juggernaut of forced togetherness and winter sports, conducted in the caffeine-soaked frenzy of high-calorie foods.

This year, the holiday celebrations went particularly well.

We are Jewish and Christian and atheist and some of us have a spiritual life that we prefer not to label. We all like to eat, but not the same things. We have some locavores, some vegetarians, a pescatarian, a vegan and someone who only eats sweets (is she a sugartarian or a desserter?) And everyone, with the exception of the family dogs, is a critic.

This year several things did not happen. During a gathering at my mother’s home in Reno, Nevada, her ancient beagle did not climb onto the kitchen table — marvelous, at his age! — and eat an entire pan of stuffing while the family was gathering for Christmas dinner in the dining room. Not this year.

We did not prepare and consume foods that no one likes, such as plum pudding, a dish that sounds like it should be delicious, but never achieved greatness in our home, accompanied by something called hard sauce, which sounds like it should be inedible, but is delicious.

For many years my father read aloud the story of Jesus’ birth from the New Testament, but he didn’t read it straight. He added asides that were not part of the King James Version to see if the kids were paying attention. In particular his pronunciation of the word “myrrh” in Matthew 2.11 was baroque. He said it in a kind of multisyllabic vibrato that ended with a guttural noise that today we call vocal fry. He fried the heck out of myrrh.

My father has passed away, but we have kept alive his tradition of reading aloud to the children on Christmas Eve, with a new selection of sacred texts. One is “Christmas With Morris and Boris,” an excruciating tale about a simple-minded moose and a bear who schools him in holiday basics. The primary narrative tension is the increasing anger of the bear who, incredulous at the stupidity of the moose, finally loses it when Morris mistakes Santa’s beard for white feathers.

The story leans heavily on a series of terrible puns such as “Merry Kiss-Moose.” The sweet spot for this story is someone with the sense of humor of an 8-year-old, the approximate age of our oldest son when my husband began to stage an annual reading.

What no one can explain is why at the ages of 21 and 24, these “children” still insist on hearing “Christmas With Morris and Boris” read aloud every Christmas Eve.

My family observes some distinctive gift-giving traditions, one that is based on an event from the mid-20th century when my parents gave a pair of pocket knives in a glass presentation case to the 8- and 9-year-old sons of our neighbors, the Whitesells.

We learned later that moments after receiving the knives, the children were bloody. By the time of our next get-together, the gifts had been confiscated and the scars on the boys’ hands were healing nicely. To this day, such gifting is referred to in our family as being “Whiteselled.”

For example, my parents’ gift to my oldest son on his second Christmas was a plastic train large enough to ride around the house, with wheels that emitted a chugging sound and a button on the smokestack that unleashed a piercing whistle. Our boy called it “The Wake-Up Train.” There was no peace in our home until we took it away.

A related tradition on my husband’s side of the family is the “Forman’s Folly,” a gift that seems at first like the solution to a problem, but proves to be so useless or inconvenient that it ends up in the basement. For example, the coffee bean roaster of 1988, which achieved temperatures hot enough to vaporize hair, but took hours to roast a handful of raw coffee beans. And try finding someone to sell you unroasted coffee beans.

This year’s Forman’s Folly was the digital grill thermometer that is flameproof to 450 degrees and communicates with the chef via Smartphone. This gift resulted in the griller being summoned from in front of the television in the middle of a critical third-down play when the London broil reached 145 degrees and his phone made a noise like a tornado warning.

Towards the end of many weeks of festivities, I took my older son to the ferry so he could go back to his job in New York. He is one of the family’s more vocal critics, especially on the subjects of sustainability; “What a ridiculous waste of boxes and paper,” and lightly-spiced food, “Pass the Sriracha!” As we waited I asked, “Do you have any final, parting criticisms?”

“No, it was great to be with you,” he said. “But next year, more Morris and Boris.”