One flew in from the west coast, I from the east, and sixteen others arrived from their respective corners of Wisconsin and Illinois. We descended on Aunt Sue and Uncle Jim’s house in one fell swoop, armed with platefulls of baked goods and paper bags filled with intricately wrapped gifts. The dogs raced a quick loop around the house before they were exiled to the breezeway; the beer bottles were cleared from the living room floor to make space for the toddlers to unwrap their mountain of gifts. Balls of wrapping paper literally flew from one corner of the circle of 18 to the other as we shouted thanks across to the room for our new handknit scarves, favorite books, and in one case, fermented beet juice. Before we realized it, we’d been swept to our seats at the dining room table (my brother and I finally graduated to the adults table this year, though we prefer to think of ourselves as the “big kids”) where we filled our plates with an array or carefully crafted entrees. I caught wind of conversation about job promotions to my right, tropical cruises across from me, and a debate about what instrument is used to play the theme song for “The Twilight Zone” to my left.
The expected (and entirely enjoyable) whirlwind of this holiday family gathering ensued without pause, until, after dinner, my aunt brought out her anticipated Christmas Cake, baked from an 1861 recipe. In that moment–as she described how she’d found the recipe in a treasured book of Christmas stories, how her search for the ancient ingredient “treacle” led her back to molasses, and how she measured her ingredients with a china teacup as called for by the dated recipe–it felt as if the night had been put on pause and all 18 people and 2 dogs of us were in the same room at the same time listening to the same story. As I took a bite of my gingerbread-like Christmas Cake, I realized how timeless cooking is, and how it likely brought people together in 1861 in the same way as it does today. I realized how special it is share a meal with three generations of my family, even if we’re in three different rooms of the house and it’s only for a few hours…I realized that one should never doubt the powers of a 151-year-old cake.