Food, family and faith mark my Christmas experience

As I was putting the turkey in the oven at 3:45 a.m. Thanksgiving morning – thanks to a wake-up call from my 13 1/2-year-old maltese Chloe – I reminisced about my love for Thanksgiving.

Instantly, I am transported as a child in the home of my grandmother Olga, with the aromas of turkey baking and oyster dressing on the stove and oyster patties in mini pastry shells straight from McKenzie’s wafting in the air.

My grandmother had this great big kitchen at her Gentilly home around the corner from St. Leo the Great Church, where I was baptized. While she hasn’t lived there for 40 years, now a warm and happy feeling comes over me whenever I cook my Thanksgiving feast.

I realize now that the bouquet of holiday food to me signifies family being together and continuing traditions that run deep in my core.

To this end, weeks prior to Thanksgiving while preparing the menu, I decided to add my Italian Grandma Messina’s oyster soup. I had never cooked it before, but her son, my Uncle Louie who lives in Austin, mentioned he had. While he had given me the handwritten recipe a year or two ago, I never really looked at it. When I did, I realized, like with many passed-down recipes, I had no idea about quantities of anything or even how to cook it. What was the main liquid? It couldn’t be all oyster liquor – that would be too salty. It couldn’t be chicken stock – it didn’t taste like that.

So, on the phone I was getting Louie to tell me what he remembered and now how he puts his own twist on it since seafood markets in Texas don’t carry oyster liquor. So, a half-gallon oysters and a gallon of oyster liquor later, I was ready.

I kind of followed Louie’s directions, but substituted oyster liquor for water and added more parmesan cheese than I thought I should. The end result – it actually tasted like the light oyster broth with a hint of tomatoes and Parmesan cheese that I remembered grandma serving for decades. Even my brother, Todd, who has grandma’s gumbo down pat, thought it tasted like hers.

I felt a “fait accompli” to have almost duplicated the soup, since I considered her Italian cooking a benchmark to achieve. My uncle joked that, of course I remembered her cooking as always being so delicious – she had a stick of butter in everything!

But, it was more than that. Being at that familial table – and finally getting to the “big” table where all the boisterous adult conversation took place – that was really the essence, not the food.

Family has always meant so much to me. Sure, we sometimes struggle within our family dynamic – what family doesn’t? Yet, the witness and feeling of love when dozens of us are together is irreplaceable.

While my grandparents and my mom may no longer be there physically, they are there in the current generation’s faces and in their traditions.

It’s much like my faith tradition and that running through the veins of many Catholic families in New Orleans. Our small-big town traces its Catholic roots from its founding by the French 300 years ago, its Catholic influences from the Spanish colonists and to New Orleans becoming part of the melting pot of America.

Many of our holidays are influenced by the Catholic faith. Even Mardi Gras and Halloween, the most pagan of celebrations, are capped off by repentance on Ash Wednesday and All Saints’ and All Souls’ days. And, the Reveillon dinners restaurants offer this time of year, harken to the time when Catholic families fasted before celebrating Christmas Midnight Mass and returning home starving to a gigantic feast they had prepared during the day.

Here we are, two weeks away from Christmas, a time when we celebrate the Holy Family and birth of Jesus. What can we learn from Mary and Joseph and their newborn baby Jesus? To me, it’s how, even in the most difficult times, they turned to God, submitted to his will and had faith it would all work out.

Jesus’ birth gave Christians a savior who became man to save us. He’s someone who forgives and constantly welcomes us back when we stumble. We just have to open our hearts and minds to him.

Families today would benefit from taking Jesus’ lead and opening our hearts to everyone.

My family has shaped the person I am today. And, even though it’s a lot of work to cook dinner for dozens who sometimes drive me crazy, being with family is where I find comfort and gratitude to God for giving me my family.

Quoting my baby sister Jennifer as she watched me chop seasoning the night before Thanksgiving: “Oh, you know you love it!”

And I do.

Christine Bordelon can be reached at cbordelon@clarionherald.org.

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