Spirit and Bone. (a long post, and a recipe at the end)

Last year I became somewhat obsessed with finding (and these are my Google search parameters) “sad Christmas music.” I often get the blues at Christmas - perhaps because I’m ready for a break from teenagers (Thanksgiving is not enough time away from them, some years), perhaps because my family has fractured again, and definitely because my memories of Christmas are so closely tied to my late paternal grandmother. To be fair, I have a different set of memories tied to my late maternal grandmother - she was special to me in a different (and maybe more foundational) way.

After my Mimi’s death (I have no idea how she decided on that name; I found a book inscribed to me from her dated soon after my birth signed “Grandma Wetzel”), I lost my Christmas spirit. I don’t think I knew I possessed it. Somehow, and through a bit of effort on my part, I have let it root in me again. I can’t combat the blues, and I still want to circuitously listen to my “sad Christmas music”: the oh so melancholy “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve” and the steady-building “Ave Maria” by Harry Connick, Jr; the somber “Blue Christmas” by She & Him (that’s the saddest version; sorry Elvis); almost any song from Sufjan Stevens’ Songs for Christmas; “Lonely this Christmas” by Los Campesinos!...

I can’t decorate my tree without remembering my grandmother. It is her tree, after all. White, with gold and glass ornaments. Very old, somewhat discoloring with age, musty, itchy...frustrating. Every year I forget how to assemble the base. Every year I put on my tree more and more ornaments that are more and more of me. It is both comforting and somber. I want it to be hers, but I also need it to be mine.

Is not that dynamic, the wanting for connectivity, the needing for individuality, somehow embedded into our identity as Americans? Is it the foundation of my identity? My thoughts on this web over each other, as I try to tie this to both my relationship with my family - close and fractured, imperfect, governed at times by selfishness, and also to my relationship with food - a struggle for perfection, a near artistic, emotional endeavor.

When I fail at my food, I feel something that’s in the neighborhood of those Christmas blues - something that settles like a rock in my chest. I have failed three times to make my grandmother’s sugar cookies - the recipe was recorded wrong, and failure at that is failure to let the Christmas spirit root in my bones. I finally fixed the recipe last year, and no tears were shed. I made the dough yesterday, and had a moment of panic last night as I realized I put into the dough baking powder and not baking soda - would they fail again? Thankfully not, otherwise that same, deep depression that is tied to grief would surface again.

I try to capture fragments of my grandmothers through my food. I suppose it is my way of remembering them. One way I do that is through integrating those fragments into my meals.

I often try to “dress up” my leftovers - my baked spaghetti that reuses my vegetable spaghetti, mini Gardein chik’n parms that do the same - and tonight’s dinner was a play on Well Plated’s Lasagna Soup using my leftover spaghetti sauce, as well. I didn’t realize when I decided to make this that I would recall my grandmother so sharply, as if she hovered at my side. Somehow, by making this soup, I dredged up the flavor of my grandmother’s lasagna that I haven’t had in over a decade. She used cottage cheese in place of ricotta, as I did below. My first bite had me falling through time, eating memories of my childhood.

  1. I set the leftover vegetable spaghetti sauce in a pot over medium heat, and added No Chicken Broth and vegetable broth to taste. It was enough to make the sauce into a palatable soup - about 4 cups. I broke up lasagna noodles into bite-sized pieces and brought to a boil with ½ cup cooking wine.
  2. Meanwhile, I pressure cooked some navy beans.
  3. (while those cooked, I made some cookies - my mistake in swapping out baking powder and baking soda did no harm…also I have no patience for baking or decorating.)
  4. I chopped some fresh deli mozzarella (night and day difference between this and the bagged, shredded mozz), and mixed it with equal parts cottage cheese, 1 tb. of chopped parsley, and a pinch of salt.
  5. Once the beans were done, I added them and their cooking water to the pot with the spaghetti sauce (I figured extra dilution of the sauce wouldn’t hurt. It didn’t.)
  6. To serve, top with a dollop of the cheese mixture and combine.

I read a quote from Alice Hoffman recently, that reads, “Books may well be the only true magic.” I tend to agree, but I think food, and my grandmother, weave an equivalent magic in my identity.

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