Friday, December 14, 2007

O, Christmas Bread ...

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Over at the Intrigue Authors blog (Did I mention we're giving away free books? ), Ann Voss Peterson wrote yesterday about traditional Christmas foods. Which started me thinking about my grandmother's Christmas Bread.

While I'm sure I've mentioned before that my mom is from Honduras, most people don't know that my dad's side of the family is Czech--my grandma and grandpa were the children of new immigrants from "the old country," and still speak fluent Czech. In fact, my dad took Grandpa to the Czech Republic a few years ago, and apparently the citizens there were fascinated with how he spoke, because, when you think about it, his Czech is more than a century old and sounded as old-fashioned to them as a time traveler speaking 19th-century English would sound to us.

As much as I adore them, I have to confess that the Czech side of my family leaves me somewhat bewildered sometimes. My dad and his brothers never pick up the phone and call each other. And when they do come into contact, they can be oddly formal. Dad adopts what we've come to call his Formal Work Voice, which is about an octave deeper than his normal speaking voice and stiff as all get-out. "HI!," Dad will boom when he sees one of his brothers--doesn't matter if it's been a few moments or several months since they've last seen each other. "Yup," my uncle (any of them) will grunt in reply. They'll stand there with their hands in their pockets for a moment, and then inevitably drift away from each other to go watch football in companionable silence.

My brothers and I, on the other hand, are loud and demonstrative and obnoxious whenever we see each other--we sort of regress back to our teenage years and start jabbering on about how cool it is that Voltron is now on DVD or when we should park Troy (the youngest) in front of Tommy's mega-wide flatscreen and make him watch all three of the original Star Wars films again and again until he properly appreciates them. If one of us grunted "Yup" at the others in greeting, I am confident that the other two would grab the offending sibling in a group hug, smack him upside the head for being such a dolt, and loudly demand that he hug back and greet us with appropriate warmth and the verbal onslaught of news we were expecting. Actually, Troy is a little more sensitive and might just glare at us until we went back to normal. But you get my drift....

Anyway, family gatherings at my grandparents tend to see the men all clustered in the living room collectively grunting at some sporting event on TV, while the women liven up the rooms away from the television set with loud laughter and boisterous conversation--that's generally courtesy of my mom (the loudest), my dad's sister Rita (a close second to my mom, especially after she hauls out the Limon), and Grandma (who taught Rita to be loud). My other aunts aren't quite as loud (although Uncle Michael's wife, my aunt Gail, has the most amazing laugh), but they definitely interact on a more polysyllabic level than my sweet but quiet uncles. Oh, and cards. Grandma and Grandpa love games, so we play lots and lots of cards--occasionally interrupted by Grandma talking smack at me until I agree to yet another rematch to see which one of us, finally, will be the the Scrabble Champion of the World. (So far, it's still her. And yes, I have a graduate degree and she didn't continue on past the eighth grade. I KNOW.)

Every Christmas, my Grandma hauls out this one traditional family recipe (actually, I think it may be archived in her head), passed down from generations of Simons and Rysavys from "the Old Country," and makes Christmas Bread.

I have no idea why, but Christmas just isn't Christmas without Christmas Bread. Grandma's Christmas Bread is basically a boulder of dense, rock-hard raisin bread with a bulletproof crust and the consistency of ground cardboard. I have no doubt that you could seriously injure someone if you chucked a loaf at them, even fresh from the oven. I have no idea how Grandma cuts it into slices, but I suspect it involves a bandsaw and a blowtorch, or maybe some kind of elaborate pulley system.

But I love it. And, it seems, so do many other members of the family--or we'd probably have a makeshift mountain of stacked up Christmas Bread sitting behind my grandparents' house, refusing to decompose like a Catholic miracle and waiting for 2007's loaf to come join them. Every Christmas at Grandma's, to be polite, I'll reluctantly take a slice under her watchful eye, slather it with butter, and choke it down--eyes watering, throat feeling like someone took a Dremel tool to it. And then I'll invariably grab another. And another.

Ah, Christmas Bread. I'll never understand your allure, but how I long for you to scour my esophagus with your sandpapery goodness....

We haven't spent Christmas at Grandma's in a few years. We spent two Christmases in Korea, had Marin close to Christmas the year we came home and so didn't want to take our newborn on a germy plane, and last year my parents came down for New Year's, so we figured we'd just stay home. This year, being our last year in Florida, I figured it was only right that we spend the holidays with my husband's family in Florida before we leave the state for the frozen tundra of Minnesota. And while I'm sure Christmas there will be fun (Flan! Did I mention how amazing Jose's Tia Selma's flan is? I'm totally going for the flan. I'm totally revving up my exercise regimen after the flan.), I will definitely miss Grandpa, Grandma, that whole big family gathering, and, though I don't completely understand why, Grandma's Christmas Bread.

5 comments:

Cathy in AK said...

Your family sounds wonderfully lively, Tracy.

I can't think of any particular Christmas foods from my childhood, but I do miss the raucus times. With five kids in my family, I have to admit it was raucus all year 'round : )

We've spent the last couple of Christmases at home, but this year we'll go to my husband's dad's. Lots of kids, lots of game playing. It'll be great. And raucus (my new favorite word, btw)!

Merry Christmas to you and yours!

Tracy Montoya said...

Have fun at your husband's raucus dad's! (Raucus is an excellent word.)

Angryromancegrrl said...

No Christmas food in our family but there were ALWAYS ginormous navel oranges in our stockings. It's not like we were refused oranges during the rest of the year and only allowed them at Christmas, but those big-as-your-head oranges always seemed extra special.

This year, I'm going to LA to send Christmas with my sister. No special food but there will be rummed-up eggnog!

Tracy Montoya said...

I don't know why oranges are always better at Christmas, but they are! I have a box of clementines on the kitchen counter right now, and they are so yummy. Enjoy L.A!

Cathy in AK said...

My husband is a big fan of fruit in the stockings. Pears, clementines....whatever. It's not like my kids don't eat fruit all year round, but that's what he remembers from his childhood. Having grown up in Nome AK, however, I'm sure fresh fruit WAS a treat. Now my kids are like, "Did these come from the fruit bowl?"

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Tracy Montoya writes romantic suspense for Harlequin Intrigue.

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