Growing up, my favorite holiday story was “A Christmas Memory” by Truman Capote. Anyone who has read that book knows how sentimental, sad, and magical it is. A lot of holiday stories are tinted with a bit of melancholy, and I’m sorry to say that this story about cream puffs features a bit of sadness. But that’s just the nature of this time of year, when family, tradition, and memories are at the forefront of our minds.
Like many families, the Sorias place a tremendous amount of importance and meaning onto food. Food is a strange thing, practical and necessary while also having the ability to be a luxury, a glamourous frivolity. One of the most important and storied foods of my Christmas pasts is the cream puff. There has never been a year in my life, aside from one that I note below, that my mother hasn’t prepared beautiful, delicious cream puffs. If you’ve never experienced a homemade cream puff, you’re truly missing out. They are a delectable pastry, filled with vanilla bean custard and topped with hardened dark chocolate.
Because my mother has so many desserts in her repertoire, the cream puff has never been featured as the signature dessert in our house. It’s understated. It’s more the treat you sneak before dinner while everyone is in the living room eating, drinking, and being merry. My mother would always scold us for eating cream puffs before dinner, but secretly we always knew it was totally okay.
One year, when I was 11, my grandmother started eating the cream puffs before they were finished (my mother hadn’t drizzled them in dark chocolate yet). I remember my siblings, cousins, and I all thinking it was the funniest thing in the world. Grandma English eating all the cream puffs before they were ready! It puzzled my mother and her sisters.
It turned out my grandmother had a cancerous brain tumor, and was dying. We wouldn’t have known about it but for the weird behavior with the cream puffs. We lost her four months later and it was the saddest thing in the world. No one had ever died before.
The next year, my mother didn’t make cream puffs. My sister, brother, and I were all outraged. This was a treat we’d been raised with and it made no sense to us because we were young and didn’t understand the connotation it had for our mother, who’d just left her job to take care of her dying mother. I think it was just too much of a reminder of when things went afoul, when my grandmother actually got sick, started to slip away.
I know what you’re thinking. Thanks for telling me this sad-ass story, Orlando! But for me it’s not really a sad story and here’s why. After our harassing and cajoling, my mother made cream puffs again the next year. I guess this was our way of letting her know we loved her, that life was going on, and that we could continue celebrating. There will always be a bit of a sad memory associated with cream puffs, but they also remind us of our (grand)mother, who was dearly loved and who was the only one who knew how to play Christmas songs on our piano, who read us Christmas stories, who snored endlessly on the other twin bed in my room.
Now every time we eat a cream puff we think of my awesome grandmother. Clearly, there’s a little bit of sadness mixed in with these memories, but this time of year is all about remembering everything that is important to us, and not all that is important to us is joyful.
We are lucky to live in a culture where we can give food such meaning, where we are so far beyond depending on it that it can work itself into the conceptual framework of our lives. So this holiday season, if you can look at a dish, a specialty, a dessert and have a memory, you’re a lucky person. The only thing better than food is food that reminds you of the people you love.
Feast your eyes on these glamourous cream puffs:
Some GENIUS decided to make Totoro-Inspired cream puffs. I’m so mad I didn’t think of that.
These are the cream puffs, finally done after my mother slaved for hours (I helped by making the custard filling).
And here is my mother filling the cream puffs with custard. With a nice glass of white wine. I always say the only thing more relaxing than cooking is cooking with a glass of wine. Actually I never say that. But I should.
Thanks for reading this totally long, depressing story about what cream puffs mean to me. I’d love to hear what stories you have to tell about foods that have meaning for you.