In this season, in the silence of night, who among us doesn’t pause, rewinding time back to childhood on Christmas Day?
Among those memories, there’s often a grandmother.
In my case, Grandma Danchuk. Alice. Born 110 years ago, on Christmas Day in 1908.
Picture Alice on her 60th birthday, hosting Christmas dinner for all six of her children and their families—some years there were up to thirty-two of us! A sturdy woman of Ukrainian descent, she’d wear her fanciest dress, usually something flowered and blue, a necklace and earrings, and she’d have curled her hair. Everyone dressed accordingly, out of respect and fear of “that look” of reprimand. (Note that I am capitalizing the word Grandma.) We were invited for 2pm but dinner, as I recall, it wasn’t serve until a few hours later.
For Grandma, Christmas—her whole life everyday, actually—was all about the food. For Christmas dinner she made roast turkey with stuffing and gravy (and many years, a goose as well), baked ham, cabbage rolls, perogies (my sister Joan says “She’d have all different kinds: potato, cottage cheese, prune, sauerkraut”) and I recall a cream sauce with wild morels she’d picked and dried), creamy mashed potatoes, buttered peas and carrots, lettuce salad with her dressing of cream, sugar and vinegar, homemade white-flour buns and cranberry sauce sometimes made from wild fruit she’d picked in autumn. You can see that it would take two hours just to set everything out. There were no appetizers, unless you count bowls of nuts and candy. Grandpa (Jim) contributed the whiskey, vodka and rum for the men. A ginger ale punch sweetened with something red sugared up the rest of us.
The adults sat in the dining room, we kids were relegated to long tables and TV trays in the living room. Grandma set her snow-white clothesline-dried tablecloths with her best china and silver. “Do you remember Grandma, in her rushed frenzy, telling us to ‘take these napkins and throw them out,’ meaning to put them on the dining room table?” asks my sister Margie. Were there red flowers on the table or is it my receding memory? I doubt the local grocery stores carried roses or poinsettias. Although no one in our Saskatchewan community of “scrub land” had any money, my grandparents seemed better off than most. Maybe Grandma bought flowers on a trip to Prince Albert?
After the main course, there was an interval. Leftovers were put away and the dishes were washed and dried by mom and her four sisters “wanted in the kitchen.” Grandma was in charge of all proceedings. “Remember she had us kids deliver a Christmas meal to Ivor Lynn, the guy who lived in a little shack across from them,” Margie reminds me.
Then the procession of desserts made their entry: pies—mock cherry (made with cranberries and raisins, a renowned Alice Danchuk creation), apple and pumpkin—all laden with whipped cream, Christmas pudding with rum sauce, Christmas fruitcake, chocolate roll, cream puffs, butter tarts, Japanese Mandarin oranges (Christmas was the only time we had them) and my favourite—Perishki, a crescent-shaped cookie filled with raspberry jam and dotted with lightly browned meringue and half a walnut. Plus, mom would bring a birthday cake for Grandma. “Usually an angel food cake,” she says.
When her daughters decided this feast was too much for their aging mother, grandma resisted for a few years before giving in—then she turned around and invited everyone for Boxing Day, cooking all the dishes she traditionally served for Christmas dinner.
Alice’s food was legendary, in Crystal Springs where she and Grandpa lived—and beyond.
“During the depression, men who were riding the rails would get off and come to our house. Mom would always take them in and feed them,” is a story my mom told us many times.
Oksana. Ukrainian for Alice, Oksana was likely what Grandma was called when she was young, a name that seems to suit her. A serendipitous gift I received this week (thanks Google) is that Oksana comes from the Greek word Xenia. And you know what Xenia means? “Hospitality.”
As the oldest grandchild, a day or two before each holiday from the time I was about eight years old, I’d help Alice, peeling potatoes and carrots, stirring cranberry sauce… Always, mid-morning and/or mid-afternoon, a neighbor (or two or three, sometimes with their wives) would drive into my grandparents’ farm at the edge of town for coffee. They came for Grandma’s baking: maybe cinnamon buns, poppy seed rolls or cake donuts and always, jam cookies. And they came for a visit with Grandpa, who was so gregarious, a constant storyteller, a man who embraced life. Grandma was too busy kneading her passion in the kitchen to stop and chat, pausing only to say “Eat, eat,” as she passed around another plate of goodies. I can still hear Grandpa saying “Alice. Alice. Come sit down.”
Sometimes town people came to buy eggs or cream and, on occasion, a chicken, duck or goose. Maybe vegetables too, as Grandma grew a huge garden. For years she stored the money from these sales on a high shelf in a sealed coffee tin, until her distrust in banks dissolved sufficiently for her to open her own account.
As a child, I remember we grandkids would get two envelopes at Christmas: one with a card and money (none of us remember how much) from Grandpa, and one with a card and two dollars from Grandma. (Worth about thirty ice-cream cones in my nine-year-old hands.) In their last years, instead of cash we got separate cheques: one signed Alice Danchuk, the other in Grandpa’s hand. Grandma also had a quarter section in her own name, although none of us know how the annual proceeds from her land were accounted for before she had her own bank account. Undoubtedly, she had the amount sharpened to the penny.
Perishki is not for the novice baker, the impatient or the perfectionist. In a panic not having made Perishki for a few years, I emailed my sister Joyce. “Grandma has no indication of sugar in the cookie dough. Is that what you have in your recipe?” She did. True to its etymology, Perishki perishes easily, the meringue turning weepy unless the cookies are kept cool. They stick together if stacked, so you have to store the cookies in single layers without the meringue from one touching another, and who has refrigerator space for that at Christmas? Grandma kept hers in their veranda. Uninsulated, its windows rimed with hoarfrost, it held the perfect temperature for Perishki during a prairie winter and offered easy access off their living room. I store them in our wine cellar under the stairwell.
Perishki has appeared infrequently at Christmas dinners at Casa Magellan and Spice. But this year I made the effort, following Grandma’s recipe, hand-written about fifty years ago on a splotched file card you see above. Our Christmas gift to you is Alice’s recipe—and to enlivening the memory of grandmothers in your life.
- 1 cup unsalted butter, softened
- 2 cups flour
- 3 eggs, room temperature and separated
- 2 Tbsp sour cream
- 2 tsp vanilla
- 2 tsp lemon juice
- ⅓ cup sugar
- 1 cup raspberry jelly or jam (thick, NOT runny)
- 1 cup walnut halves
- Blend the butter and flour until completely combined.
- Beat egg yolks lightly. Add the sour cream, vanilla and lemon juice. Beat together and add to the butter/flour mixture.
- Chill the dough for at least 30 minutes.
- Grandma writes to take a bit of the dough and "form the size of a marble." Using your rolling pin, flatten the marble on both sides. With your thumbs, flatten and stretch the dough, like Italians do when making pasta. Don't worry about the shape—it doesn't need to be perfect.
- Put some jam in the middle of the flattened marble of dough. Grandma writes "a teaspoon;" take it as your challenge—about ½ a teaspoon is all I can manage to include without it oozing out. Fold and seal the dough in a crescent-moon shape. Repeat about 64 times.
- Bake the cookies at 325°F for 10 minutes, 300°F in a convection oven.
- Meanwhile, beat the egg whites to soft peaks, then add the sugar and beat until it's a stiff meringue.
- Remove the cookies from the oven. Don't be alarmed if they've spread open a bit. Put a teaspoon of meringue on top of each cookie. Lastly, stick a walnut half into the meringue of each cookie.
- Return the cookies to the oven and bake for another 10 minutes until the meringue is lightly browned.