Words and Photos by M. Lokelani Howe
I'm standing on my tiptoes—nearly eye-level with the kitchen counter—watching a heavy-handed spoonful of homemade whipped cream land with a satisfying splat on a large slice of pumpkin pie. In a few more weeks, there will be another serving of my Aunt Betty's pumpkin pie, alongside a generous helping of her Christmas jello, sugared walnuts, and sandies—and all of them will become my favorites for life.
Forty-some years later, my little brother still swears that my slice of pumpkin pie is bigger than his—and don't get him started on the whipped cream! But it's only because my aunt knows I enjoy every last bite more than most folks—even him.
Everyone cooks in our family, but in my childhood and until recently, Aunt Betty took the lead during the holidays. She loaded the formal dining table with platters of culinary delights made from classic recipes—green bean casserole, candied yams, scalloped potatoes, cheesy carrots, orange yeast dinner rolls, cranberry sauce, glazed ham, and a perfectly stuffed turkey.
She still cooks from the dog-eared red-and-white checkered cookbooks that line her pantry shelves, but years ago, when she moved out of state, she gifted me with a handwritten cookbook with all her favorite recipes—including her secret ingredients. I've done my best to replicate Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner, but it's not the same.
Can anything live up to the warm and fuzzy feels that form our happiest childhood memories? Plus, two years post-Covid, my tastebuds are horribly spoiled. Not even cheesy carrots are the same. And y'all, the world is broken beyond measure when even pumpkin pie is hit or miss.
Here's another hard truth—my kids don't love food as I do. Year after year, I told myself they’d come to their senses. How could they not? There's a half pound of Velveeta cheese and a cube of butter in cheesy carrots alone. And over a cup and a half of sugar in pumpkin pie! But no.
Would my aunt have enjoyed cooking for me had I not enjoyed the mess out of every last bite? Based on my experience, I'm guessing not—and thankfully, I've found a better way.
I finally listened to my mother-in-law, Mary. She's encouraged me to cut back, save my energy, and spare her waistline. This seemed impossible in the age of Pinterest, which is the worst vice for folks like me. Still, something had to give—good-bye, Christmas dinner.
Now I put away the fancy china after Thanksgiving dinner and set out cute paper plates for Christmas brunch. My kids might not love all my favorites, but they enjoy every last bite of French toast and million-dollar bacon. That's all I make! Actually, that's not all, thanks to my mother-in-law. My kids also love her cheesy breakfast sausage balls and hash brown casserole. And so do I. This simple change has created peace on earth—at least in our home, if only for a day.
And what's for dessert? I still make my favorites, but the list is growing. Snickerdoodles for my daughter- and father-in-law. Red velvet cookies for my son. I used to bake all of the cookies by myself. But now, the best cookies are made with our friends at our annual Christmas cookie baking party. There's only one rule—be creative. And perhaps, get messy.
I prep the dough the night before, so each kid has one ball to roll out into whatever shape desired. I also load up our 10-foot kitchen table with fresh buttercream frosting, colorful sprinkles, and paintbrushes, plus hot chocolate and popcorn for snacks—then I step back and let the kids have fun! If I time it just right, the cookies are still fresh for Christmas morning, to the delight of their grandparents.
Our newest tradition has become the most beloved of all, a true gift from my mom, Rose. She transforms the kitchen table into a gingerbread wonderland. In the weeks leading up to Christmas, she scours Walmart for small cardboard boxes to wrap in tin foil to make our workstations. Then she bakes gingerbread, hand-cuts each piece for the walls and roof, and finally, makes the icing. She's been known to stay up till the wee hours to make ten sets of gingerbread houses for us to build.
On Christmas morning—after opening presents, of course—I load up the kitchen table with decorating supplies, and my brother sets out a gobsmacking amount of candy. Last year, my mother-in-law built an eclectic shack, my mom created a monochrome villa, and my husband's two-story log cabin rivaled my brother's longhouse with a rooftop patio. Could there be a better way to celebrate the holidays?
Lord knows I'm hard pressed to find fault with my aunt for much of anything—after all, she's the family chef! But between us? I was often bored while waiting for her to cook all the food, and her formal dining table was a bit too traditional. Our new holiday style is sweet, simple, and perfectly unstuffy. Kids, parents, and grandparents cook together, eat together, and make a mess together—and yep, that makes for a rowdy time at the kitchen table! But what else are the holidays for?