Friday, December 23, 2011
I mean, she had all those kids of her own, plus their spouses and their children, plus various cousins, nieces, nephews, and neighbors.
The crust was more like a very flaky filo and the custard was as light as air with just a hint of a lemony aftertaste.
I remember her making them in small tin cans - she used cat food cans which she collected, washed and boiled to a fare thee well before using them for baking these angelic treats.
No, it was not a fruit cake. It wasn't a dense, dry cake with dried fruit and nuts. This was much more a bread - a very sweet, yellowy, yummy bread - with the dried fruit on top like crowns.
It also doubled as a cake for Tres Reis - Three Kings - on the Feast of the Epiphany, except the Christmas version had a fava bean baked into it.
The kid who found the fava bean was first to open their Christmas present on Christmas Eve. After midnight mass. Never before. Ever.
Very often, my grandmother would sprinkle on the cinnamon and nutmeg into a holiday message or decoration. Always written in Portuguese, which she would make certain one of us could read and translate before she allowed us to spoon some into our dish.
Children were encouraged to eat the Arroz Doce. In fact, even fussy eaters were allowed to pass up on the main course as long as they had a dish of Arroz Doce - which was made with eggs and cream and served in a bowl, swimming in heavy cream.
"Good, good," my grandmother would say in her broken English. "Is good for babies," she'd say, as my uncles eyed it from afar and she gave them "the look" to let the children eat it first.
My uncles and male cousins thought it was great stuff with which to line their stomachs before knocking back a few "boiler makers" (beer with a shot of whiskey in it) or a few rounds of "cachaca", a liquor made from fermented sugarcane juice.
While my grandfather and uncles would lug up boxes of bottles of booze, my grandmother, mother and aunts would bring up great strings of the linguicia or cherico - spicy Portuguese sausages. My grandmother would then open up a few jars of stewed tomato and onion and fry them together with the fava beans she had grown in her own garden.
She would serve it on a great hunk of Portuguese bread - crusty on the outside, soft and chewy on the inside - slather the bread with butter, place the bread in the bottom of a bowl and then pour a huge ladle of the lunguicia and fava bean stew over the top.
You didn't need a spoon. We would eat the stuff with our fingers, then drink down the hot, spicy liquid at the end. If your throat and stomach were on fire with the spices, you would have to "neutralize" it with another tart or some of the sweet rice.
If my uncles got too close to the sweet rice, she would appear as if from out of nowhere, ladle in one hand, the other hand on her hip and say, "I breaka you face!" If they were already swaying from the cachaca, she would say, "I kicka you ass, you sombeech!"
I think those were really the only words she knew how to speak in English.
Oh, and she knew how to say, "Merry Chreeshmash". She greeted most people at the door - if she could. Most people just walked right in - the door was always open - and head directly to the kitchen to give her a kiss and your holiday greeting.
If you were smiling, she'd said, "Merry Chreeshmash. You hungry?".
If you were not smiling, she'd say, "Merry Chreeshmash! Wottsamatta? You hungry?"
Food, for my grandmother, was the universal language - sure to brighten your spirits (even if they were fine) and cure for whatever ailed you.
Especially the Bacalhau which I didn't mind so much if it was fresco but at Christmas, she made it with the salted, dried cod that my grandfather and uncles had caught during the summer months of fishing off of East Cuttyhunk, a small island about 12 miles south of New Bedford and about 8 miles west of Gay Head, Martha's Vineyard.
It was Very Salty - enough to make your mouth pucker - and, of course, very spicy. Lots of hot peppers mixed with cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg and other spices that are commonly used in Portuguese Cooking.
She would drag the small fish through corn meal, salt and pepper, fry them up in butter and olive oil, and bring out the big iron cast skillet and plop it right in the middle of the table.
We would then rip off hunks of the Portuguese bread, slather some butter on them, and pick one up right out of the pan and eat the thing whole - bones and all - which just absolutely melted in your mouth.
I think, when I die and go to heaven, my grandmother will be waiting for me with a whole pan of fried smelts all to myself which I can follow up with an entire platter of those little custard tarts.
When I think back on it all, it was an amazing amount of work which I don't think I really appreciated as a kid.
I don't remember getting a "Christmas present" from my grandmother. No toy, no piece of jewelry, no book, no money in a card. My Christmas present was her cooking - and, the memories I have of all that amazing food.
I don't know how she did it all, but I sure am glad she did.
My efforts pale in comparison, but I do try to put in as much thought and love into my meal planning and cooking as she did.
It's the memories, however, that I'll always cherish.
Check out this video to get an even better sense of what my childhood Christmases were like.
Merry (almost) Chreeshmash, everybody!