Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Pasatiempo Praises

The Director of the Santa Fe Public Library, Patricia Conor Hodapp, wrote a winning essay in Pasatiempo's Holiday Writing Contest, a story from her childhood. You can read the tale, Tuna Fish Christmas, and others in the Dec. 25-31 issue.

Tuna Fish Christmas

Chicken on a rotisserie appeals to me. There is the chicken, headless, footless, gutted, featherless and browned to perfection. Makes me hungry to see one.

Living on a poor farm, I did not use to think that kindly on having chicken for dinner. How could I when I would have to catch the chosen chicken, hold it down so that my mother could take its head off in one fell swoop of her sharpened ax and then I had to carry it to our back porch. There boiling water would be in a tub to start washing the chicken and plucking off the feathers. Then we would hold the chicken over the fire in the wood stove to singe off the rest of the feathers. Nothing but skunk smells worse than wet chicken feathers. My sister was so sensitive to the smell; it was the one thing she would bribe me to do for her. I loved it; she would even dip into her sacred jars of silver dollars to pay me off to escape plucking wet hens.

Two roasted chickens were the main dish for Christmas. We had chicken several Sundays a year as we could not afford turkey or ham. But on Christmas we would roast two chickens and have all the chicken we could eat and have leftovers.

Mother always went into town to barter her eggs with Mr. Mollett for our staples and even, hopefully, a treat for Christmas dinner. Even though she had bartered with him for years, he always called her Mrs. Conor. He always gave her the best price because he said her eggs were the cleanest and best eggs in the County.

One day near Christmas when Mom and I were shopping, we ran into Mrs. Singles and her daughter June. After simple pleasantries while they carefully selected items for their grocery baskets, June began to cry. She could not stop and sobbed into a handkerchief her mother gave her.

“What’s wrong?” my mother asked, “Will June be okay?”

“It’s just that it’s Christmas,” Mrs. Singles whispered. “And we just don’t have the money for a chicken, turkey or ham. I can only afford to make soup. I used to make pies and rolls—oh how people raved about my pumpkin pie.”

My mother sighed and said, “I know how hard it is on the children, we at least have our chickens.”

“I don’t begrudge you that, I am happy your girls will have a good meal at Christmas,” Mrs. Singles said. “It’s something they will remember.”

Later that night, after the chores were done on the farm, my mother asked Cam and me to come sit at the dining room table with her. “You know”, she said, “We have chicken almost every month. What if we do something different for Christmas Day dinner?”

“Like what, turkey, ham?” Camilla asked.

“I don’t know, maybe a special baked dish. You love scalloped potatoes. And I have a new casserole recipe your sister Jean brought from college. She said it is so popular.”

“What’s in it?” Camilla asked, more than a little suspicious.

“Well let’s look at the recipe. It has mushroom soup, peas, macaroni and tuna fish. Doesn’t that sound good? And it is topped with crushed potato chips. You two could make it to help with dinner.”

“For Christmas? I want a drumstick like always,” Camilla whined.

“No whining, now. Let me share with you the story of a little girl who won’t have anything but soup for Christmas. Her father does not help bring in money for food. Do you want that little girl to only have soup when we could spare a chicken if we had a casserole instead? You think about it. We’ll decide in the morning. I know the Christmas spirit is in all of us and we can make sacrifices.”

That night in bed Camilla whined, “I don’t want casserole. It’s not fair.”

“No it isn’t,” I said, “But, it isn’t fair that little girl only gets soup when we have chicken on lots of Sundays all year, “I replied.
At breakfast, mother asked what we were going to do for that little girl for Christmas.

“We’ll share, if you are sure there will be potato chips on the baked casserole!” I said. And Camilla nodded her head. We had never had potato chips; we knew our friends loved them.

The day before Christmas, mother and dad drove in to town from the farm. The car was laden with fresh eggs, squash, potatoes, a pumpkin pie and a chicken, all plucked ready to be put in the oven. Camilla and I helped take the baskets of food into the Singles’ house. “How can I ever thank you?” Mrs. Singles cried, “All I had was soup and tuna for our dinner tomorrow.” Mother just smiled and shook her head saying, “It was our pleasure. Christmas should be a good memory.”

For Christmas dinner, we helped mother go all out. There was one chicken, stuffing, scalloped potatoes, green beans and the famous tuna casserole WITH crushed potato chips on top. It was a feast and no one missed having a huge platter heaped with chicken. And pies were of every type and kind—pumpkin, mincemeat, and apple.

It was no sacrifice for us, it was a wonderful meal. One we would always remember. And here it is, fifty years later and I still remember that Christmas. It was our Tuna Fish Christmas.

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