All burners are firing in Susie’s kitchen today. It’s a combination of aromas I cannot say altogether compliment one another. In the oven my cranberry bread pudding is lightly browning while on the stove top tortilla soup is working on its second hour of simmering. Try as they might, these two dishes approaching the nostrils, simply cannot find a way to get along. My other half keeps walking in the kitchen to report he’s craving tortilla chips dipped in vanilla frosting. Ewwww.
I have recalled the story below before, but the holidays prompt me to do it again. As I’ve said many times, my father died young, twenty-five to be exact, leaving my mother a widow with a one-year old daughter. Immediately on receiving the sad news my maternal grandparents extended an invitation for us to return from Ottawa to Halifax, where I was born, to occupy the second floor of their lovely home on the hill overlooking the ocean. This was to remain my home until the advent of my ninth birthday.
For the first three years following my father’s death, my mother belonged only to me. Being a beautiful woman with lush raven hair and natural grace and style, she naturally attracted some of the eligible bachelors in town. Once ready to begin to explore dating again, I was to learn I had to share her with the outside world. It was probably my first real lesson in life before I attended school.
Mother, a bit of a debutante back in the day, had a wardrobe bulging with lovely clothes. Shoe boxes were stacked to the ceiling, and a row of ball gowns hung in plastic bags towards the back on the left. Her room was a magical place for me. I would sit on her bench on evenings before she went out and watch her transform herself in the round mirror on the small draped vanity with the glass top into a fairy princess wrapped in a vaporous cloud of Narcisse d’noir perfume.
I liked most of the gentlemen who pushed the doorbell those years. One was an admiral who brought me comic books and always pinched my cheek when he arrived. Once he took us aboard his aircraft carrier and we dined on fish pies and delicious bread pudding created by the ship’s cook in the galley of the cavernous guts of the beast. Never has the size of that ship left my mind. Touring it before my head reached my mother’s knee, it was to my eyes a vast alien landscape with menacing guns jutting from huge metal turrets and armies of men dressed each like the other.
There are advantages to having your mother date more than one man. In their attempts to garner favor, often the kissing up portion of the program slopped over onto me. Dolls arrived from time to time, or I was treated to triple-decker ice creams in the park, a personal favorite, and once I received a full set of Chinese silk pajamas with dragons on them and little slippers with toes from a gentlemen who traveled the Far East. Another took me ice skating, and bought me a white rabbit muff to keep my hands warm with matching coat and hat. A warm chocolate chip cookie would have sufficed for me, actually, but I’m not sure I mentioned that to them.
Another, Avard, had horses. At his stables I learned what equestrian skills I have. He taught me good form and horse set manners as well as how to curry and tend to the animal once I’d availed myself of its back. Avard hailed from a good family with old money from Quebec. Newspaper people, I believe, with substantial holdings across the provinces. Aside from their huge estate in Halifax they kept a fully staffed country home north of Quebec which they visited on holidays or for a quick getaway during the year.
First introduced to his family in Halifax, we attended high tea at their home. It was very old and the rooms so vast voices seem to echo along the walls. Tea was to be served el fresco, as it was seasonably warm that day. A table with a lovely lace cloth was set with fine silver. In the center of the table a huge vase of freshly picked tulips served as an introduction to the vast and beautifully tended garden just beyond the boundaries of the stone steps. Lovely.
Tea was served by a tall, lanky gentlemen with gloves who reminded me at that age of Chilly Willy. I remember thinking he must be hot wearing those gloves for I was squirming in my seat wearing in only a sundress. Scones filled with currants and cranberries piled on a silver plate arrived with tea on a tea cart. Chilly poured steaming teat out of a tall silver pot with a long delicate spout into china cups. Lemon curd, clotted cream and all manner of jellies and jams and small tea cakes were passed around, of which I didn’t refuse most of what I was offered. Avard was looking better to me by the minute.
As the summer blended into fall and then ushered in the first snow, my mother and Avard were still (as they called it then, and probably sometimes still now) an item. An invitation was given and accepted to spend a week at the house in Quebec and my mother and I went on a shopping spree as one must look their best when going to such an event. For me, I would have been just as happy to wear my pants with the suspenders and a warm sweater, but as a child I was always dressed to nines whether a three would have worked for me or not.
Landing in Montreal, we were gathered up at the airport by a gentlemen with a very long black car. A heavy snow had fallen recently and the rooftops and streets were buried beneath layers of snow and ice. Before long we left the city behind and I was mesmerized with the scenes passing by me out the window. Huge drifts of snow were piled along the sides of the road where snowplows had left them. What seemed like an endless stream of pastures went by, the stark white landscape only broken by an occasional twig or a line of footprints left by a passing animal.
At last we drove through massive gates and along a tree-lined drive dropping us into a long circular driveway. A house with huge cylindrical columns stood above the long row of steps, lights from the massive windows illuminating the snow in the yard.
The door was opened by a man who I perceived to be Chilly Willy’s brother, wearing a great coat and gloves. Inside we were greeted by family members and taken upstairs to our suite of rooms. My room had a window seat which allowed me to look down on the winter wonderland below if I sat on my knees and stretched my neck.
After a good nights sleep and a breakfast served for me by my mother from silver chafing dishes on the side table, we dressed in our wool coats and hats and waited just inside the door. Bells signaled the arrival of a huge red sleigh drawn by two panting horses. Tucked in under a warm plaid blanket the driver headed out the long drive and turned along a country road. It seemed as though other than an occasional curious deer or scurrying rabbit we were alone in a wonderland of white. Only the sound of the tinkling bells on the reins or an occasional exchange of conversation broke the silence. That picture, that morning, the huffing horses and my frozen nose, along with the beauty of the undisturbed land will remain in my mind as long as I am privileged to remember, as one of my favorite Christmas experiences.
This is a quick, delicious crowd pleaser over the holidays. We’re having prime rib so it will provide the perfect holiday touch on the table. For a crowd I arrange them in wreathes on round platters and they look amazing. Happy holidays to you and yours! I’m taking the next two weeks off so will see you at the beginning of the new year.
12 1/2″ slices of artisan bread, I used foccacia
1/2 cup butter, softened
2 Tbsp. garlic powder
24 thin slices Campari or Roma tomatoes
1 Tbsp. grated Parmesan cheese
2 Tbsp. shredded Parmesan cheese
12-24 evenly sized fresh basil leaves
Cover large cookie sheet with tin foil. Spread butter evenly over tops of bread slices.
Sprinkle garlic powder over butter. Place two slices of tomato on top of each slice. Sprinkle with grated Parmesan cheese. Sprinkle with shredded Parmesan cheese.
Place under broiler, watching carefully, until cheese is bubbly and bread a lovely golden brown. Insert 1 to 2 basil leaves under tomatoess. Serves 12.