The holiday china donning berry and holly motifs makes its annual pilgrimage to the dining room. Crimson tapers flicker while Amy Grant serenades the house. It's 1994 in South Louisiana and the (unnecessary) crackling fire captures the same pageantry as the disappearing pepper jelly on a brazen block of cream cheese.
It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas.
Tried and true favorites, like an extra-juicy spiral ham and dinner rolls wedged with butter, are welcomed and celebrated at our holiday dinner. But for the first course, a misnomered "salad" is plated. Rumors swirl around the kids' table. Oh no. Here we go again.
It's the Southern Pear Salad.
On a bed of romaine lettuce (decorative, never to be eaten) sit two halves of a canned pear. Plopped into their centers are liberal dollops of creamy mayonnaise, preferably New Orleans-born Blue Plate. Sharp Cheddar cheese is sprinkled atop the dish, completed with an equally out-of-the-box finishing touch: a maraschino cherry.
Individually, the ingredients are kitchen hallmarks. Together, they are puzzling at best. While the dish isn't bad, it's definitely not great. It encapsulates an era of bygone recipes from the 50s and 60s when gelatin molds titled "Ring Around the Tuna" and "Tomato Aspic" graced midcentury tables and ingenuity for recipes with readily available and affordable ingredients were praised.
While the dish didn't align with my precocious palate, it was very special, in more ways than one.
It was a showstopper. The colors, the textures, the scale—it encompassed all the elements of a room designed by Dorothy Draper. It didn't taste great, but it looked flipping fantastic. It simply had style.
And it was served on special occasions, like Christmas, New Year’s Day, and Easter. My grandmother, an esteemed Cajun cook made famous by her legendary crawfish bisque, fell prey to the trendy pear salad recipe and shared it with her newlywed daughter-in-law, my mom. Both women had a flair for making any event memorable. While a Caesar salad was a practical crowd favorite, it lacked color. It lacked pizzazz. It lacked heart. And that just wouldn't do.
I recently read that the real “Christmas Magic” we remember from our childhoods was actually just a mom who loved us so much. So thank you to all the grandmothers and moms out there, especially mine. From ill-advised recipes to over-the-top decorations, y'all are the reason the holidays are extra merry and bright. And Mom—we can agree to disagree on the pear salad, but you serving it during Christmas will always be the maraschino cherry on top.
Thank you for making every meal magical.