Black Santa & Exploding Puddings

Holiday memories are often depicted with snow globe perfection: loving families unwrapping the perfect gifts, food covering the tables with Norman Rockwellian abundance.

In my family, memories are made of mistakes.

The Christmas memories that stood out were the ones made comical by their awfulness.

There was the year my parents decided to celebrate The 12 Days of Christmas with a gift for each of 11 days before Christmas, ending at Christmas itself. Only, my parents didn’t have a lot of money, so we wound up giving each other 12 crappy gifts that we could afford rather than one desirable gift each. I tried to be grateful, but honestly…Kleenex?!

There was the year that we were all felled by the flu and only my mother crawling to the kitchen to heat up some Lipton’s chicken noodle soup saved us from holiday starvation.

But these holidays paled in comparison to the Christmases of the Black Santa or the Exploding Puddings.

Each year, my mother tried one new recipe to add variety to the traditions. One year, she decided to make a gelatin Santa as a side dish. She carefully poured the red suit, the green Santa bag, the black boots, into the Santa-shaped gelatin mold. When dinnertime came, we called impatiently from the dining room, wondering what was delaying my mother.

“Come on, we’re hungry,” my father called.

“Ummmmm….,” my mother replied.

And then she rounded the corner, with the gelatinous Santa on a big platter. His belly DID shake like a “bowlful of jelly.” But what we hadn’t counted on was that the black and the red and the green would run together to create a lovely dark brown Santa face. Our Santa was a black man. It wasn’t a political statement, it was just…unexpected. And memorable. And Santa was pretty delicious, although he never made another appearance on the menu.

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For my very first Christmas as a married woman, I was determined to take hold of our holiday memories and exorcise the disasters.

My mother’s steamed pudding was an annual effort to duplicate the Dickensian Christmas ideal. That first married Christmas, I invited my parents to travel from New Orleans to our tiny Milwaukee apartment.

The meal was uneventful, so perhaps I got cocky.

I poured the pudding batter went into the pudding pots — little covered buckets for those unfamiliar with steamed pudding — and then locked down the lids and placed the little buckets into a big soup pot to steam on top of the stove.

My mother kept asking if I needed help, but I was proud, and the dinner hadn’t killed anyone yet, so I declined.

I should have asked for help.

Trying to be generous – and having too few pudding pots – I overfilled each pot. As they heated in their little buckets, they swelled against their lids. And swelled.

I was sitting in the living room with my parents when I heard what sounded like gunshots coming from the kitchen.

The pudding had exploded, rocketing the lid off the soup pot and splattering on walls, on our high ceilings, on the unwashed dinner dishes.

We had ice cream for dessert.

My husband scraped off what he could, but there is probably calcified pudding on that apartment’s kitchen ceiling to this day.

It was epic; the kind of disaster from which holiday memories are made.

Here’s to this year’s calamity!

Helen Mitternight is a former AP reporter and current freelancer living in downtown Charleston. She headed up public relations for the Humane Society of the...

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