Dec 14, 2010
When I was a kid, I always wanted to bake cookies at Christmas. I wanted to make gingerbread men. I wanted to make sugar cookies in the shapes of angels. I wanted to make Toll House chocolate chip cookies. I wanted to make peanut butter cookies and press the tines of a fork down against the dough.
But I grew up in a first-generation immigrant Chinese American household, and in order to make those kinds of cookies, we’d need, among other things: molasses, cookie cutters, chocolate chips, and loads of butter. Things we didn’t have in our Chinese pantry. One year I somehow convinced my parents to buy a bottle of molasses, but without cookie cutters, I ended up cutting out shapes using cardboard stencils. The cookies turned out to taste like rocks, I remember. It’s not really a surprise. I’d never eaten freshly made gingerbread cookies; nor had my mother, so it’s not like we knew what to aim for.
For Christmas dinner, my mother made Chinese-style roast duck that she salted and hung out overnight in the garage (it was cold out there). We also had shrimp and peas, red-cooked pork, meatballs rolled in glutinous rice, stir-fried vegetables, and maybe winter melon soup. The food was delicious, but I would check out cookbooks from the library and pore over recipes for roast beef and yorkshire pudding, fantasizing about what other people might eat for Christmas dinner.
Years later, I’ve had roast beef and yorkshire pudding. My mom’s roast duck was way better. But for a long time, during the holidays especially, the differences between my family and what seemed like the entire rest of America rose up crystal clear. We didn’t do what everybody else — on TV, in books, and in my school (I grew up in Colorado) — seemed to do.
It didn’t make much of a difference when I was a little kid, but as I grew older and went through adolescence — a period when just about the most important thing ever is fitting in with everyone else — these differences frustrated me. Beneath the frustration, of course, was a yearning to be like everyone else. Maybe if I ate the right food, I’d fit in.
During the holidays, everybody struggles with expectations and demands. Emotions that have been banished for the rest of the year can rise up unexpectedly when you’re forced to spend time with family members whom you don’t normally see.
For queer people, it’s not unusual to be forced to sit through long meals with relatives who openly reject you because of your sexual orientation. For immigrants who are not Christian, Christmas is a time that can make you feel like the most foreign foreigner ever to exist. I’ve been in both situations, and every year at the holidays, I can’t help but remember them.
Maybe that’s why I have a love/hate relationship with the holidays. I think that lately I’ve been veering toward the love side, but that’s because I’ve finally started to figure out how to celebrate this time of year on my own terms. But let me tell you, it’s a battle I still fight, at least internally, every year. Those feelings of difference-as-a-bad-thing haven’t entirely been erased. The media and entertainment industry still make giant fusses about trees and turkeys and gifts — oh, the gifts! — and the pure utter joy of family time (sarcasm intended).
But. One of the best things about being an adult in this country is that you get to choose how to celebrate (or not celebrate) the holidays.
Amy and I have a giant (fake) tree. In many ways, her enthusiasm for Christmas has erased so much of the anxiety about the holiday that I’ve struggled with. And over the years I’ve acquired plenty of cookie cutters, as well as taught myself what good gingerbread tastes like.
This week, I made both red-cooked pork and sugar cookies. Both are delicious. Both are perfect for Christmas.
A note on recipes: The oatmeal cookies are basically regular oatmeal cookies, but with crumbled dark chocolate and dried cherries. The sugar cookie recipe is the basic vanilla cookie dough recipe from Martha Stewart Living’s December 2010 issue. The icing is the quick lemon cookie icing from the Joy of Cooking.