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        by C. Jeanette Tyson


     Everyoneís got one; some hidebound family tradition at once exasperating and commanding. They differ only by cuisine and degrees of psychic pain. Here in the early days of the season, letís ride the swells of nostalgia and hope and good will towards even the craziest members of mankind -- our families -- and just talk about the food.    
     Since Iím the one who left home, Iím the one whoís always flown back, not to imply that I didnít enjoy all those flight attendants with their own cute versions of Jingle Bells. Or the screaming babies (lately my own) and the stuffed overhead bins. You figure there must be something special that compels me, year after year, to head home for the holidays. There is.      

At six oíclock in the evening on Christmas Eve, after frantic, last-minute shopping and wrapping, my aunt and her family gather with my family at my brotherís house. These days we number fourteen, give or take the surprise guest or new boyfriend. My aunt unscrews the top on her zinfindel, the rest of us indulge in store-bought eggnog (some of us "with the nog") and after a bit of back-slapping and more nog, the children and anyone else on the first shift sit down to plates of steaming waffles and sausage.
     Obviously these arenít just any waffles. We proudly serve Aunt Jemimah and her syrup, too, in the low-fat version for those on diets or with butter flavoring for those who make sure everyone knows they intend to diet later.
     The sausage, in the old days, was not store-bought but from our own farm. Some time in the fall my father selected a pig to go to slaughter, coming back to us as a box of small packages wrapped in plain white paper. I can attest there was nothing stressful in that pigís life up until that point and the sausage was wonderful. Although the familyís been out of the hog business for a long time, my brother has his connections and still manages to get the good stuff for us.

     My brother and I are unclear on how this waffle business got started. Thereís the whole day-for-night, breakfast-for-dinner issue, of course, which might be okay if we were French or maybe even Belgian, but was unheard of in my family unless someone was ill enough to be indulged such a bizarre whim. One of our aunts was known for her frugality, but I donít wish to speak ill of the dearly departed, especially those whose reach surely still extends to Texas. I think this tradition, like most, had practical roots. During all my childhood the larger clan gathered at my great-grandmotherís house on Christmas Day. (Oh the conversations that mustíve happened every year: "you know honey, sheís not going to be around forever", but then she was, and she was and she was until there were great-great-grandchildren.) There were nearly a hundred of us by the end. The tables groaned with turkey and ham and salads and things in jello, cakes and pies and my cousin Carolís famous fudge, the recipe for which she will carry to her grave. The decision to have something simple and light the night before seems sensible enough but why waffles instead of, say, grilled cheese?
     To her credit, my mother did try to change things. One year she got it into her head that the occasion demanded more dignity and served oyster stew.
     To this day oyster stew is my familyís lingo for total screw-up and my mother still gets red in the face trying to defend her high-mindedness, which she had to do that night and has nearly every year since because we are merciless.
     I have gone from the child who ate from the first batch of waffles and waited the eternity it took for the adults to finish to the adult who hurries through coffee and conversation so the kids can open their presents. I went from the child who carried the gifts to their intended recipient to the teenager who read the names on the tags only to have that job snatched away from me by my cousin who later lost it to my niece. I moved firmly into the realm of adult tastes when I started having a fried egg on top of my waffle.
     For a time there was a step-grandmother and her grown children, which required six waffle irons and inexplicably brought fruitcake into the mix. These days we get by with two waffle irons but I bet we could keep three busy. There was the first Christmas after my father died, when I thought I was holding together pretty well, until that first bit of batter sizzled on the iron and suddenly I wasnít holding at all.
     Other people do their thing at Thanksgiving. For me Thanksgiving is the time for friends and circumstance; every one is different. Thereíve been turkeys cooked up from San Francisco to London, and eaten with some people Iíve loved and others whose names I canít even remember. The stuffing is always different; we donít make potatoes if no one wants to eat them and good wine flows. These times are fun and they mark time, too, but in a different way.
     Yes, itís time we start our own Christmas tradition, just for us. But thatís it, it would be just for us and I think it requires a full tribe of blood-bound, slightly deranged people to establish a tradition. Otherwise itíd be easy to look at each other and say, you know, probably that duck líorange wasnít such a great idea and letís do something different next year. But see, then youíd be right back at Thanksgiving.
     Right now it just seems easy to jump into the stream thatís already flowing. But Iíll keep trying to think of something wacky enough to keep the kids coming back for more.
    The bar, after all, has been set.
     Happy holidays.
C. Jeanette Tyson is AustinMama's beloved foodie-in-the-field. Got a tip, suggestion, idea or feedback for A Little More on Your Plate? Send it to Jeanette at: foodie@austinmama.com


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