The pajama potluck Christmas brunch.

My paternal grandfather and his sister Julia lived next door to one another from the mid 1930s, when they built their houses, until they died decades later.  Their yards were connected by a garden path.  Their brother, Laurence, lived not too far away, on Jefferson, in a house of similar vintage.

In the early years of the Depression, all three adult children had lived together with their parents in a white clapboard house on Elzey. My father, born in the 1920s, lived there with them. When the Depression eased, the budding families moved into their own homes, all 1930s era houses with postage stamp-sized kitchens and dining room tables that could easily sit 12. From photos and old family movies, it’s clear that the spirit of communal, nuclear family remained strong.

When my generation, great-grandchildren of the Elzey homeowners, was growing up, our grandparents, the three surviving Larkey siblings, took turns hosting family gatherings for Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.

But Julia was the undisputed doyenne of the family, and her house, the grandest of the three, was best suited to entertaining a crowd. The entry hall, living room, breakfast room and bar were all connected around the dining room, so there was plenty of space for some to sit while others milled around.

At the peak, all totaled and including spouses, there were 29 of us: six grandparents/great aunts and uncles, 13 in my parents’ generation, and 10 children.  Family gatherings, particularly on Christmas, stretched all day, from preparation to eating to cleaning.  The bar was the men’s domain: bourbon, cut crystal highballs, tartan napkins and football.  The kitchen belonged to the women: food preparation, display-worthy serving dishes, gossip.  Everyone brought something for the meal: Peggy’s rolls, Trudy’s dressing, my mother’s dessert, etc.  There were no special children’s activities, no themed entertainment.  We kept busy and, mostly, out of the way.  Dish washing after the meal ended wasn’t so much a burden as it was an opportunity for the women to talk about women’s stuff while the men, comfortable in another room, talked about men’s stuff.

The buffet was in the dining room, the small kitchen off limits to anyone except the food preparers.  Perfectly laid tables were set throughout the entry rooms, affording both small group conversation and separation in the event of family squabbles.  When we were little, we children sat at a children’s table, away from the adults.  As we grew into preteen years we integrated into the company of grown-ups and were given opportunities to participate, chilling water glasses and then filling them, placing butter and salt on the tables.  We had our first tastes of wine, always Gewürztraminer, and lessons on how flavors complemented one another to make food more enjoyable.

Over time, inevitably, those squabbles, along with health issues, college, competing family obligations and divorce (my parents’), chipped away at our storybook, multi-generational family events.  By the time I was leaving for college everyone had pretty much gone to their own corners.  In my mother’s corner, the food, presentation and schedule looked remarkably similar to that long family tradition, only set for three instead of 30.

A year after I graduated from college my father remarried, and his new wife could hardly have been more different from my mother.  The contrast was most apparent at the holidays.  Christmas at Sara’s house was an elaborate, boisterous party with Christmas crackers, gag gifts, Santa hats and a table decorated with matching Christmas-pattern tableware, napkins and glasses.  When we came home to spend Christmas evening with our mother that first year, Margaret and I chose our words carefully as we described the day, making sure to let Mama know how much we preferred her table.  “Glad you can tell the difference between Lenox and Limoges,” was all she had to say, and we knew she wasn’t talking about plates.

Sara’s Christmas burlesque grew on us, though.  What made it particularly fun was that she always invited orphans to join in – people who had no family in town or who weren’t claimed by the families they had.  After my father died, Sara insisted on flying Margaret and me to Memphis for Christmas so “her family,” including us and the random orphans, could still be together.

My mother never understood the continued affection, although she would have been comforted to know that for several years after she died Margaret and I still had family holidays and presents from Santa under a Christmas tree, thanks to Sara.

Then Sara, too, died. Her death marked the end of one family Christmas chapter and the start of another.

In the beginning, our Christmas brunch took its shape from my past. We set a formal table (one year with placecards!) and invited neighbors and friends who had no families of their own, at least not close by. Since our house was not finished or decorated, it was easy to stage an event, throwing my mother’s table linens over long, plastic tables that we borrowed.

Similar to the holiday gatherings of my childhood, everyone brought a dish, and we served food in the kitchen, buffet-style: beef tenderloin and rolls, maple crepes, shirred eggs, bacon, cheese grits, French toast casserole, berries with whipped cream, an enormous green salad.

In early December, the third or fourth year after we’d started this new Christmas tradition, my children said, “Are we having Christmas brunch AGAIN?” “Yes!” I said. And I jumped into a cheery, get-in-the-Christmas-spirit monologue. The children groaned. “One year we just want to stay in our pajamas, all day. We don’t want to have fancy stuff. We don’t want to get dressed up and have to worry about breaking something.”

So that year we invited everyone to wear pajamas to brunch, and they did, and they have done the same, every year since.

We gather around 11, in our kitchen, start eating around noon, and stay together, some years, until long past dark.

Each year I look around mid-meal, surrounded by laughter and the clink of glasses, at tennis friends, work friends, the doctor whose children my sister used to babysit, the couple who almost lost their house to a fallen tree, and the neighbors we’d never have known if we lived somewhere else.

What I see is family, knit together in a funky, old, unfinished house.


Bourbon-infused Beef Tenderloin

Serves 10-12

Ingredients

  • 1 5-6 lb. beef tenderloin, trimmed
  • ½ c. bourbon (I use Maker’s Mark, because that’s usually what we have on hand)
  • ¼ c. olive oil
  • 3-4 cloves fresh garlic, sliced
  • 1 inch piece fresh ginger, grated or thinly sliced
  • 1 tsp. table salt
  • 1 Tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
  • 3 tsp. granulated sugar
  • For the coating:
  • 1 1/4 c. confectioner’s sugar
  • 3 Tbsp. kosher salt
  • 2 Tbsp. coarse ground black pepper

Tools

  • Large glass bowl, deep rectangular Pyrex or gallon Ziplog bag
  • Parchment paper
  • 1 or 2 large baking sheets
  • Aluminum foil

Mix marinade ingredients in a large bowl, deep rectangular Pyrex or gallon Ziploc bag. Place meat in marinade, turn (and massage) to coat. If using Pyrex or bowl, cover with plastic wrap.

Let meat marinate at room temperature for 2 hours, turning every 30 minutes or so, then refrigerate overnight.

Heat oven broiler to 500 degrees, or light grill and heat to 450 degrees.

Let meat come to room temperature before cooking (about 20 minutes).

While meat is coming to temperature, mix confectioner’s sugar, Kosher salt and ground pepper together on a large baking sheet.

If using oven, line a second baking sheet with parchment paper.

Remove tenderloin from marinade but do not blot.

Roll tenderloin in confectioner’s sugar mixture to coat.

If using oven:

Put coated tenderloin on parchment-lined baking sheet and place under broiler for 12-18 minutes (12 for rare; 18 for medium with well-done ends – cooking time may vary according to oven). Turn tenderloin and repeat on other side.

Remove from oven and tent with aluminum foil for 30 minutes.

Remove foil, let rest for additional 5 minutes, then slice thinly across the grain.

If using grill:

Place tenderloin directly over flame, close lid and cook for 12-18 minutes (12 for rare; 18 for medium, with well-done ends – cooking time may vary according to grill).

Turn meat and repeat process on other side.

Remove meat to platter and tent with foil for 30 minutes.

Remove foil, let rest for additional 5 minutes, then slice thinly across the grain.

Serve with horseradish, fresh steamed asparagus, roasted potatoes, and rolls.


This post is part of a series about our renovation of a house built in 1905 that we bought in 2003 from the woman who lived in it for 91 years. The first post in this series is “Jackie’s House.”

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