I was dumb enough to give birth to twins in the middle of November. That first winter, now 12 years in the rearview, we decided it was too much trouble to travel in the snow with six-week-old babies, and invited everyone to our house for Christmas for the first time: some relatives on both sides, a few friends who weren’t traveling all the way home that year.
We’ve hosted every Christmas since. Honestly, it’s one of my least favorite days of the entire year.
I’m no Grinch: I love the entire Christmas season, excepting Christmas Day from 4 to 10 p.m. I have a ton of Chicago holiday traditions I love to do with the kids: catching the Santa train, visiting the trees from around the world at the Museum Of Science And Industry, going to see It’s A Wonderful Life at the Music Box Theater with my daughter. I even like Christmas morning, after I’ve stayed up late wrapping gifts with “Santa” paper and getting awoken by children still excited to see what’s under the tree. Then, usually right around 2 p.m., the guests start arriving. We live in a small urban bungalow, and our guest list has grown to a few dozen. I am lucky to have so many wonderful people to spend Christmas with—I just wish I had enough room to entertain them properly.
And to feed them. In the early days of my hosted Christmas, I specialized in giant, make-ahead creations. Like a turkey, and a few years later a humungous roast, alongside my mother’s stuffed shells recipe. Sides like stuffing and mashed potatoes could also be made in advance. Someone else would bring a salad. It was tricky, but not undoable. Then, my husband started getting more involved in our holiday dinner, going beyond his annual errand of picking up the rib roast from the grocer.
There were signs. The first was when Brian insisted on using his china (from his first marriage—a now-long-last pattern from Marshall Field’s) for Christmas dinner. One year when the then-toddler kids were particularly taxing, I begged for a non-sit-down meal, maybe just an open-house buffet instead, which he protested due to the lack of place settings for the china. Somehow, we haven’t broken any (yet).
Then, Brian decided to make special use of the salad plate: a spinach salad with a labor-intensive hot bacon dressing. It was delicious, but not that easy to plate out to 20-odd people. But when the raves came rolling in, and I saw his face light up, it was over. Christmas dinner had now switched into high gourmet gear. Brian realized that he had a definite, untapped talent for feeding people, plus a general extrovert tendency for hosting. Making his friends and family gourmet food soon became his new passion/obsession, on Christmas and all the other non-celebratory days of the year.
Around this same time, coincidentally, I went back to work full-time at The Onion, eventually landing at this particular food website. The fact that my husband took over my kitchen while I was working as a food writer is an irony not lost on anyone in my family. Basically, he’s much more adventurous than I am, so that even our weeknight dinners typically feature something like spicy chicken vindaloo, as he selects from his humungous spice collection. I consider it a good day if I get Sloppy Joes in the Crock-Pot before I leave for work.
Honestly, there are much worse hobbies for a husband to have. He could be spending the kids’ college fund at the track, or running through the ATM at a gentlemen’s club. Brian’s gourmet hobby winds up feeding us most nights, and we all benefit. So what if he’s that guy at the neighborhood grocery store, collecting the loose bits and scraps that the meat department throws away to make stock? So what if we have five tomato cans full of various types of detritus-filled oil on our cramped counter? So what if the kids have no snack for school, but we have five cartons of beef broth at the ready?
Speaking of cramped: That’s another issue with my husband’s favorite hobby. Our kitchen is teeny. Palatial by Manhattan standards, probably, but for the Midwest, not so much. We have inherited a crap fridge and a stove with only two working burners and an oven with a single rack. As a neighbor once told my husband, in a story he often likes to quote: “Lots of people have six-burner stoves now, but you’re the only person I know who really needs one.” That small space means that the mess my husband leaves behind is mighty, especially since he is what you would consider a creative, emotional cook. He claims to clean as he goes; I shudder to think what the place would look like if he didn’t. I’ve spied sauce on the ceiling, or found that every spoon we own is dirty. When I’m not cooking, I’m often on cleanup detail, and it is considerable, never more so than on Christmas.
To my husband’s credit, he refuses to be confined by space. He is also never happier than when we have a house full of people, like a neighborhood potluck, preferably in the summer, so guests can spill outside. There might be a campfire by the garage in the alley, no matter the temperature, and we wave to Chicago L conductors as the Brown Line train rides behind our building. Due to weather constraints, Christmas is a bit trickier, but Brian refuses to let that—or our meager budget—stop him.
So a few years ago he decided to ditch the beast for an herb-crusted salmon. A salmon he’d never made before, mind you. I was apprehensive, but it turned out really great. Inspired, last year Brian decided to double down on the seafood theme and add a lobster bisque course. It turned out to be much more labor-intensive than any of us ever imagined, especially since he decided to forego readily available frozen lobster tail and go straight for the live lobsters. A half-dozen crustacean lives to be lost by our own hand. On Christmas Eve. Happy holidays, everybody.
The kids were already traumatized because I had dragged them to church for their annual visit (to a nice Lutheran parish in our neighborhood that throws a Christmas Eve kids mass), then had to deal with a bunch of lobsters crawling around the dining room. To make matters worse, they gave them names, like Lobby and Bob. R.I.P. Bluey. You made a delicious lobster bisque the next day, topped with crème fraîche and chives.
Also on Brian’s menu that day: Potato latkes and the salmon again. But the latkes turned out to be way too labor-intensive for our small kitchen/large person dinner. After the bisque was gone, we waited for the next course. And waited. Offers to help were rebuffed by Brian and his sous chef, his Australian former-chef-friend Ant; there wasn’t enough space in the kitchen, anyway. After an hour, some relatives left, hopefully satiated enough by the lobster bisque. When the latkes did finally turn up, though, they were delicious. But I get considerable stress from having hungry guests and not having much control over that hunger. (By commandeering the kitchen, Brian also has a good excuse to stay back there for the majority of the day and avoid various nonlinear relatives. I have nowhere to hide, so I usually navigate the myriad guests with some well-timed chardonnay pours.)
For this year, trying to avoid another mishap, I tried to get Brian to consider something make-ahead. He started talking about goose, like we were Bob Cratchett’s family on a lucky day. I pointed out that goose is not only expensive, but maybe not that much of an automatic crowd-pleaser? After getting chided for stomping on his culinary dreams, we moved on. Beef Wellington was (fortunately) also rejected due to high degree of expense for such a large crowd.
Our final selection this year is definitely make-ahead, although it’s already failing a bit in the budget department. Over the summer, Brian hosted a neighborhood dinner featuring cassoulet, inspired by a French neighbor of ours. It took three different cooks to make this dish: Brian made the duck confit, another guy did the beans, the other the sausage, etc., until it was all put together in yes, our tiny kitchen, to the great delight of our neighbors and friends, who went through four pans’ worth of this stuff. I agreed that it would make for a fine Christmas dinner, sturdy enough that we wouldn’t need too many side dishes, only taking up that one rack in the oven.
However. Inspired by his French friend, Brian was convinced that the only beans suitable for this dish would have to come from France itself. So, Merry Christmas, buddy, you just purchased 10 pounds of magic beans at $16 a pound. Hope you enjoy them. The duck breast is fairly pricey too, as are the ham hocks. Brian will likely make his own beef stock to cook the beans in, and although this dish is make-ahead, he’s factoring in three days’ prep time to bring it all together. Again, there are worse things that he could be spending his time doing, and it will probably be delicious, so godspeed to him. If no relatives have to leave this year due to lack of dinner, I’ll consider it a win.