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Friday, December 21, 2012

Eggnog pancakes and Reindeer poop

Now that Santa has seen his shadow in a manger by the light of the menorah (or something like that), we know that Christmas is here.  Based on the deluge from movies, television shows, books, songs, and even (especially?) advertisements, Holiday tradition means trees and snow and families and caroling and logs made from recycled yule.

But not all Christmas family traditions are created equal.  In my family, Christmas meant reindeer poop and eggnog pancakes.

I was raised in what most would call a traditional Euro-American lower-middle class family.  I had two married (to each other) parents – one each from the two predominant genders – and one sister. 

We were raised in a properly Anglicized protestant religion (Lutheran, or as I call it, “Roman Catholic Lite”) and were presented with all the Christian Christmas traditions.

But beyond that, our family traditions were a bit, shall we say, “nontraditional.”

My Parents didn’t fall from a Norman Rockwell painting or a Clement Moore poem.  My Father had been raised in a bizarre combination of orphanages, foster care, and extended family homes.  My mother came from a large Arizona farm family who had at one point lived in a tent.  There wasn’t in the way much wassail, sugarplums, or geese getting fat.

However, my parents were creative and loved Christmas.  Actually, “loved” is probably not strong enough. Dad reveled in the season and in building the family Christmas traditions he never had.  Traditions like receiving underwear from Santa each year.  One year he decided that everything purchased in the month of December would be wrapped and placed under the tree.  Needless to say, on December 17, we were frantically unwrapping the toilet paper purchased scant days previous.

Nothing brought my Father more joy that reading Clement Moore’s classic “A Visit from Saint Nicholas,” to a cluster of small children, only to giggle maniacally when he read the line, “…and threw up the sash,” followed by mock retching noises.

Every year, despite my Mother’s insistence that we wait until AFTER CHURCH! on Christmas day to open gifts, every year starting about December 19, my Father would begin to lobby to open “just one” gift on Christmas Eve, followed by the “just one more” tradition that inevitably morphed into “well, let’s open them all tonight since Santa’s presents will be here in the morning.”

With Dad, Christmas wasn’t just a day.  It was an entire production, an affirmation that we were a family, with our own uniquely personal and meaningful family traditions, carefully constructed, one year and one creative idea at a time.

But with all the fond memories of Christmas traditions with Dad, one tradition stands out as truly and distinctly his – and our – own.

Reindeer poop.

Over the years, Santa brought me dump trucks and electric football games and Matchbox™ cars and backpacks and basketball hoops and a BB gun.  In the stocking every year was an orange and nuts and a Lifesavers Sweet Story Book.

But nothing could compare to the reindeer poop.

Let me back up a bit.  When I was growing up, Dad and I went camping, fishing, and hunting as often as possible.  He was a military man during the 60’s and 70’s when I was growing up so he spent a lot of time in Southeast Asia, as did many fathers of that era.

Whenever we embarked on one of our adventures, Dad would pack pepperoni sticks in the camping gear and at some point, we’d break it out, usually when we’d pause to rest in the majestic northern California mountains or alongside a pristine deep blue mountain lake.  It wasn’t just food:  it was a marker of our time together.

Dad knew I loved this pepperoni so at some point, he decided to make sure Santa would treat me with it in my Christmas stocking.

And it wasn’t just a little pepperoni sampler.  It was the same real-deal, super deluxe package of Hormel twin pepperoni sticks, just like we ate when we went hunting or fishing!

And while the reindeer poop started as an inside story between my Dad and me, an annual winter reminder of the Father and Son time of which we never seemed to get enough, it didn’t stop with me.

Over the years, each of my and my sister’s kids received reindeer poop in their stockings while Dad was alive.  Now, that generation sees to it that Santa leaves reindeer poop in their children’s stockings.  Tadderik, Charlise, Austin, James, Janeane, Isaac, Abbey, Nathaniel, Emilia, and Lydia may have never gotten to know “Poppi” but they are the beneficiaries of the legacy of family Christmas traditions that he gave us.  Dad’s greatest give to all of us: family, creativity, and most of all, mirth.

And, of course, reindeer poop.

I tell you that story to provide the context for the point of this missive: to share with you my traditionally-themed nontraditional Christmas tradition of eggnog pancakes.  Those who know me can attest that I’m oft wont to wander past my posterior in order to arrive at my elbow, so first let me share with you how this recipe came to be.

Christmas 1978 was the first time I was to spend Christmas apart from my parents (other than the three or so times Dad was in Southeast Asia).  I was a senior in high school and my folks wanted to visit my sister and new niece.  I had other plans.

An adult family friend of ours had planned a ski trip with a friend of hers.  They were to spend a week in Austria, followed by a week in southern Germany.  Visiting family or two solid weeks of skiing, with no parents, combined with all the booze and ski bunnies I could handle?  There was no contest.  Family could wait, thought immortal 17-year old me.  I was going skiing.

Convincing my parents was a bit of a challenge but I managed to present a cogent, logical argument in support of my case (read: whined incessantly until they acquiesced).

I was going on a dream two-week ski/drinking/bunny chasing trip.  We packed Mom and Dad off to the airport and we headed south for the season.

Things started wonderfully.  On the first day, all three of us hit the slopes.  That night was exactly the sort of social scene I’d expected and more. Not only were there European ski bunnies but there were another dozen or so Australian ladies of the slopes on hand.  Life was, indeed, good.

On day two, I met Gloria for breakfast and she informed me Anita wasn’t feeling well so she was staying in the room.  Again, Gloria went her way and I went mine, off to find our Alpine bliss.

By day three, Anita had gotten really sick.  Gloria decided to stay back at the lodge and get Anita to a doctor.  By the time I returned from the slopes, the diagnosis was in.

Anita had Chicken Pox.

After some discussion, it was decided (mostly by Anita) that we’d stay to finish out the Austrian leg of our ski adventure, then skip Garmisch and head back to Gloria’s place.  After our first (and only) week, we boarded the train back to Gloria’s place in Wurzburg on Sunday, December 24, 1978.

Now, it’s important here to note two key points.  First, we had planned to be on the road for two weeks so Gloria had done no shopping.  In fact, she’d done all she could do to use up her food to prevent spoilage.

Second, we arrived in Wurzburg at about eight o’clock Sunday evening, Christmas Eve.  There were no 24-hour grocery chains or convenience stores in Germany in 1978.

Since we’d had no plans to eat, let alone make, Christmas dinner at Gloria’s place and she had virtually no food with no way to get any for two days, this was the point at which I began to have twinges of missing my Mommy and Daddy.

Holidays at my sister’s house were always (and remain) events.  An incredible cook and amazing hostess, she goes all out for these celebrations of faith and family.  It’s just in her DNA.

So I went to sleep that Christmas Eve night, not with visions of sugarplums dancing in my head; rather, with visions of the turkey, ham and all the traditional fixings (including reindeer poop) on which my family back in Hanford, California would be feasting the next day.

Gloria and I woke Christmas morning to a light dusting of snow on the central German town.  Our last meal had been a sandwich on the train at about five o’clock the previous afternoon so upon awaking, reconnoitering the food situation became a priority.

Fortunately, Gloria had coffee so were at least able to wake up properly.  Next, we found some pancake mix, three eggs, a half pack of bacon, maple syrup, and a half a quart of eggnog that was set to expire on December 25.

They say that necessity is the mother of invention and at that moment, a thunderbolt of inspiration struck me.  The answer was so obvious, so clear.  I leapt, then danced, then nearly wept.  (OK…none of that part is true but if they ever make this into a movie, Zac Efron will likely leap, dance, and weep at this point of the story, for dramatic effect.)

The answer:  eggnog pancakes.

We scrounged some cinnamon from the spice rack and heated Gloria’s cast-iron griddle.  I mixed the pancake mix, an egg, cinnamon, and eggnog and started the bacon.  As I flipped the bacon the final time, I poured the batter onto the griddle and the aroma that began to fill her tiny kitchen told us immediately that we had a hit on our hands.

We sat by the window in her living room, laughing at the absurdity of our trip being cut short by a grown woman contracting Chicken Pox.  We reminisced about Christmases past and wondered, wistfully, what our families were doing at that point.  We laughed uncontrollably through the tears when she said, “Well, I doubt they’re eating eggnog pancakes.”

At this point, I really started to miss my family.

Later that day, another American in the building took pity on us and invited us over for Christmas dinner, then sent us back to Gloria’s with leftovers.

That evening, Armed Forces Radio and Television Service broadcast “The Gathering,” a movie about a dying father (Ed Asner) who attempts to pull his family back together and make all broken things right for one last Christmas.

Seventeen-year old me silently wept as I watched, regretting all the hard-headed, selfish choices I’d made that hurt my parents and my family.  (This part is not exaggerated for dramatic effect.)

I knew that eventually there would have come a year when I would have no choice but to spend Christmas apart from my family.  But that wasn’t the case in 1978.  I had a choice and simply chose fun over family.  Back then, there were lots of things more important to me than spending time with my family, at Christmas or otherwise.

Now, of course, time has given me the perspective and wisdom to see how precious all moments are.  Special family Christmas moments even more so, particularly with Dad gone now.

1978 was my first Christmas apart from my family, though certainly not the last.  Dad died in 1996 so there’ve been many, many Christmases without him.  I live across the country from my Mom and my sister and most of my children are scattered across the country, too, from Alaska to Boston to Colorado to Nebraska to Pennsylvania.

So I guess the reason I finally decided, after 34 years, to share the reindeer poop and eggnog pancake stories is as a reminder to whoever reads this.  Christmas comes but once a year.  You only get one family.

So choose wisely.

This year, Lisa and I are celebrating Christmas at our home in Orlando, Florida.  Our daughter, Lauren, is back living with us so she’ll be here.  We have our own traditions, going to see “It’s a Wonderful Life” at the Enzian theater, then going out to get our tree.  We decorated and baked cookies.  My oldest son, Jon, arrives at midnight tonight and will be here through Christmas Eve (Monday) morning, so we’ll get to celebrate with him a few days early.

So Sunday morning, Santa will put out a stocking for Jon and Lauren.  The stockings will be filled with an orange, nuts, and a Lifesaver Sweet Story Book.

And, of course, reindeer poop.

Then I’ll make eggnog pancakes.  My recipe has changed slightly over the years, to account for concerns about cholesterol and blood pressure levels and other things that didn’t matter to me back in 1978.

But I will make my family eggnog pancakes with a side of bacon.  Not out of necessity or sheer despair.  Instead, I’ll make them out of tradition, out of a sense of what family means and what it means to have them as my family.

I’ll make them out of pancake mix, egg, cinnamon, nutmeg, and eggnog (thinned with skim milk).

But most of all, I’ll make them out of love.

So when you try this recipe, remember there’s a story behind it.  Remember that you, too, have family and friends who matter and who will matter to you even more as the years advance.  Don’t be too busy or too selfish or too anything to spend time with them.  Remember that when you’re eating these delicious Holiday treats.

Finally, as you’re eating the eggnog pancakes with your family and friends, remember that anything can be your treasured Holiday tradition as long as it’s special and meaningful, shared with special people who mean a lot to you.  Anything.

Even reindeer poop.

Holiday blessings to you all, and to all a good night.


- Pancake mix (mix must call for milk, not water.  Aunt Jemima Original works great)
- Egg (according to directions)
- Oil (according to directions)
- Eggnog (Substitute for milk.  Can be diluted with half eggnog and half skim milk or any combination you chose)
- 2 tsp Cinnamon (or cinnamon sugar)
- 1 tsp Vanilla (or fresh ground vanilla bean)
- ½ tsp Nutmeg
- ½ tsp lemon juice (Optional.  Will make pancakes less puffy and doughy)

Mix all ingredients according to mix recipe.

Cook.  Eat.  Love.