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Church & Parsonage at Old Town (1846), by Julius Mickey. From an exhibition at the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts in Old Salem, NC.

Church & Parsonage at Old Town (1846), by Julius Mickey. From an exhibition of Moravian landscapes at the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts in Old Salem, NC (www.mesda.org).

Katherine Mansfield once said something very mean about one of my favorite writers: “E. M. Forster never gets any further than warming the teapot,” she said. “He’s a rare fine hand at that. Feel this teapot. Is it not beautifully warm? Yes, but there ain’t going to be no tea.”*

I think that’s a terrible thing to say about a fellow writer, and Katherine should be ashamed of herself. But I do think it’s a pretty good quote, and it helped me recognize a terrible truth: it’s a quote that applies to me, especially at Christmas. I can warm up the pot, but my fire goes out long before the tea is brewed. Back in mid-December, I had a wreath on the front of the house, and I had hung the stockings (because how hard is that?) but there was no tree up then and there was not one up on Christmas Eve, either. I produced several batches of fudge and spiced nuts, but I never got around to making my usual cream cheese cookie-press wreaths with tedious little maraschino cherry bows.

As E. M. Forster himself once said: “I do like Christmas on the whole…. In its clumsy way, it does approach Peace and Goodwill. But it is clumsier every year.”

It certainly feels clumsier every year, and on top of that my Christmas skills are weak. I spent 45 minutes on December 14th trying to wrap the top and bottom of a shoebox separately in nice paper, like you see all the time in magazines. The box was meant to hold a loaf of homemade pumpkin bread. Well, I finally got the wrapping paper on both parts, but it looked like hell. Ernesto shrugged it off. “At night and walking fast, no one will notice,” he said. That was a comfort, since the loaf was being shipped to his mother.

I’ll tell you who knows how to do Christmas (besides Martha Stewart): the Moravians. I grew up near Winston-Salem, where Moravians settled at Bethabra and Salem and then spread out from there, and the holidays were greatly enriched by Moravian traditions like the candle tea and the Moravian star, Moravian cookies and sugar cake. It’s a high-calorie religion.

I remember multiple school field trips to the historic village of Old Salem. A large tin coffee pot stands at its boundary, and rumor had it that a soldier once hid inside the coffee pot during some war or another. My classmates and I trooped through the village, visiting shops and homes and the doctor’s office and even the cemetery. We saw beeswax candles being made and sampled paper-thin ginger cookies from the bakery. Everything smelled divine.

The Moravians also excel at Christmas carols, sweet coffee, and lovefeast buns. My family once attended a Moravian holiday service in Winston-Salem, and I could not have been happier: I got my very own beeswax candle in a red paper frill, I drank a cup of sweet coffee, we sang carols, and I ate my first lovefeast bun. Later my mom bought us an entire bag of them for non-festival use. They look a bit like hamburger buns, but they are faintly sweet and make the best fish sandwich you ever ate. I believe that I prayed for several years that I would turn into a Moravian, but I never did.

How I yearned for lovefeast buns during the 23 years that I lived in the wilderness outside North Carolina! By 2007, when we had migrated west to St. Louis, the stars and the Internet and someone’s treasured family recipe aligned, and I found instructions for making my own lovefeast buns online.

I gathered the ingredients and waited for a day with no other distractions. Lovefeast buns are a project: They start with a batch of mashed potatoes and they must rise for two hours before being divided into little balls and then they have to rise again until doubled in size. But a terrible hunger for lovefeast buns drove me, and one rainy Sunday afternoon I rolled up my sleeves and commenced to make a mess.

I made the mashed potatoes—dry, unseasoned, plain potatoes. I mashed them for long minutes to avoid lumps in the bread. Then I creamed the butter and sugar, and added the yeast and warm water. When I stirred the potatoes into the mixture, a Christmas miracle occurred. The dough became silky-smooth, and glossy. It was beautiful.

I added nutmeg, mace, orange and lemon peels, and flour while singing a silent fa-la-la-la-la inside my head.

It was a cool day of dark rain-clouds, not an encouraging environment for bread dough. I circled the house trying to find a warm spot for it to rise.  Finally I warmed the oven up a bit, turned it off, and stuck the bowl inside.

By the end of the second hour, Ernesto had taken over the kitchen to cook a ham hock in the pressure cooker. “Look at the size of this hock!” he said, holding it up before it went into the pot.

“How much does it weigh?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know, but it cost $5. It came from a huge pork.” He left me with very little counter space, and I needed to preheat the oven for my final baking, so I removed the pan of dough from the oven and set the proper temperature for the baking.

I formed my little rolls and placed them on a large pan, covered with a dishcloth. By now a tiny, uncertain sunbeam fell on the center of the dining room table, so I left the pan there for the final rising.

Ernesto’s pressure cooker was singing and sputtering, a fog of steam hung near the ceiling, and he had a large pan filled with potatoes, tomato sauce, onions, and garlic simmering on the stove. I left the area to do something else, and when I came back into the kitchen 30 minutes later to check on my rolls, I found both windows next to the dining room table wide open.

“Why are these windows up?” I asked, running to close them. Ernesto ran to open them again. “They need to be up,” he explained, “because of the steam and food smells.” The temperature inside the house dropped.

My buns never did double in size. But I baked them, anyway, and they came out looking like rather large, smooth biscuits.

We ate our love biscuits with Ernesto’s $5 ham-hock-and-potatoes dish.

“This is real soul food,” he said. I had to agree. They weren’t exactly right, but those far-from-home lovefeast buns fed my soul.

Now that we’re back in North Carolina, my friend Sara keeps me supplied with actual lovefeast buns. Sara is a true Moravian. She dressed in a Moravian costume and presided over an open house at the Leaksville Moravian Church in Eden last month, as part of a holiday tour of homes. “I always tell a little about the history of the Moravians in America, and the history of our church,” she explained. “And we have beeswax candles in all the windows and of course the putz is always on display.”

“Of course. The what?”

“It’s spelled p-u-t-z, but it’s pronounced to rhyme with foots.” It’s German, meaning decoration or adornment. A Moravian putz is a Christmas village, usually with a nativity scene incorporated into it. Sara told me that her household putz includes twelve scenes from the Christmas story, beginning with Isaiah prophesying the birth of Jesus. “We have a small figure of Saint Thomas representing Isaiah,” she said. “He sits in an abalone shell.”

She asked me if I hadn’t seen the putz on display at the Single Brothers’ House in Old Salem, and it turns out that I had. One of my clearest memories from those long-ago field trips was standing in front of a large table with a miniature version of Salem village on it. I just didn’t know it was called a putz.

My one Christmas success this year was a sort-of putz. I put fake snow and tiny fake evergreen trees into vintage jars. It’s not Isaiah on the half-shell, but they were still rather nice. In fact, now that Christmas is well and truly behind us, I have them gathered on the mantel as a wintery accent thing.

I’m sure that Katherine Mansfield would argue that my quasi-putz are, like most of my attempts at holiday cheer and home-making, a mere warming of the teapot, and not a brewing of good, strong tea. But they are a simple adornment, so they do qualify. They also feed my soul, just as E. M. Forster does. Like Ernesto, he always has something comforting to say when things go clumsy. Forster put it this way: “Life is easy to chronicle, but bewildering to practice.”

That’s right. And Katherine Mansfield is a schmuck.

 

*Zadie Smith, “E. M. Forster, Middle Manager.” In Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays.

 

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A Mad Tea Party

On Saturday morning Mama and Daddy were sitting drinking coffee when Mama disturbed the peace by mentioning gutters. This was an old, old story that I had lost interest in some time back, but Mama had become fervent about the need to get the gutters cleaned so that water would not build up and drip down her neck when she walked out the back door.

Daddy had no interest in cleaning gutters. He is not light on a ladder, nor is he particularly deft at height. For weeks he had put Mama off, advising caution and the need for expertise. Now Mama was fed up and wanted action.

“I’ve found your expertise,” she announced. “I saw a wiry little man cleaning Miss Elton’s gutters last week. Name’s Weatherby, if you can believe it. Weatherby Soames. Anyway, he leaned a ladder on that east side where the ground drops off kind of steep, so it’s a good three stories on that side, and he scrambled up that ladder just as pretty as you please. It was a marvel.”

“Was it, now?” Daddy asked. I could tell by the set of his mouth that he didn’t think much of a man who was nimble on a ladder. Daddy hates to come up short in any competition.

“I’ve already placed a call to Mr. Soames, and he’s coming this afternoon. All you have to do is get the ladder out for him and pay him $35.”

“I bet I don’t,” Daddy said. “I’m not paying any man $35 to clean a gutter. Lord have mercy, that sounds like doctors’ wages. Cleaning a gutter does not require an advanced degree.”

“No,” Mama shot back, “you don’t need an advanced degree. All you need is a dime’s worth of initiative, but evidently there’s not a nickel’s worth around this house. Now I’m going to make the baby’s birthday cake, and I suggest you dig up $35 in cash.”

Daddy is peacock-proud of Mama’s fiery spirit, right up until the minute when he is on the receiving end of it. Then he finds it offensive, and says so. I noticed that he went out to fetch the ladder though, and he even leaned it against the side of the house.

Weatherby Soames arrived in due time. He pulled up in a small red pick-up truck, and behind him came a large woman with interesting hair in a silver Mercury. Daddy met them in the yard, but once he had seen Mr. Soames safely up the ladder he ushered the woman into the kitchen to visit with Mama.

“Mel,” he said, and his eyes danced with mischief, “this is Mrs. Soames. She has escorted Mr. Weatherby Soames here this afternoon. Wasn’t that nice?”

Mrs. Soames sat down on one of the kitchen chairs with the air of a woman who intended to take her time and soak in whatever passed by. “I did that,” she said, smoothing down her wild, graying hair. “I came to keep an eye on him. Had to follow him in the car because he wouldn’t say exactly where he was going. The man just got out of the hospital day before last with his heart! My, that’s a beautiful cake. I don’t reckon you’re ready to slice it?”

Mama’s Southern hospitality and naturally excellent manners fought briefly with her desire to present Bethany with a fresh cake for her second birthday. “Would you like a piece?” she asked, somewhat unnecessarily. I saw her hand shake a tiny bit as she took the dome off the cake, but then she raised her head high and cut a good-sized piece for Mrs. Soames and smaller slices for the rest of us. Bethany was napping, so she didn’t know.

“Anyway, I followed him out here to make sure he didn’t try to do too much,” Mrs. Soames continued. “That man will scramble onto a roof and he does not care how high it is or how hard the wind may blow. I told him, said, ‘Weatherby, if you get up on a high roof 48 hours out of intensive care I’m going to have something to say about it.’ Told him if I caught him up on the roof of a two-story house I would throw rocks at him until he came down peacefully. But I got here and I could see that your roof isn’t high at all, so I don’t think there’s a thing to worry about here. He needn’t even climb onto the roof, just has to go midway up that ladder and my granddaddy could still handle that.”

Daddy was delighted. He suggested that Mama put on a pot of tea to go with the cake, and when Mrs. Soames admired the blue willow tea pot and cups he went and fetched the camera and took a picture of her drinking tea. “I’ll send you a copy to keep,” he promised.

“Would you do that? I would enjoy that above all things. My, this is some good fresh cake. Y’all are the nicest folks. I’m going to have to go ’round with Weatherby more often! Now, talk about nice? He is a man will do anything that somebody asks him to do, purely does not know how to say no. He’s all, ‘Yes, ma’am, I’ll bust up that chiffarobe for a nickel’ whether he’s got an axe to bust with or not. It’s no wonder his heart isn’t right. When he first came up with symptoms I thought it was nothing but a bout of bad gas. Turns out it wasn’t.”

Mrs. Soames didn’t say no to a second slice of cake, and then she caught sight of Mama’s little wool felt tea pot ornament that sits on the shelf with the blue willow tea things. She got up from her chair to look closely at it, and went wild over it—pretty much exactly the way Mama had fussed over it when she first got it.

“Isn’t that the cunningest thing?” Mrs. Soames exclaimed. “It’s so darling—just the cutest little thing I ever saw! Wherever did you get it? I sure would like one of those for my kitchen.”

Mama explained that her childhood friend had made it for her and sent it at Christmas time for a tree ornament, but Mama loved it so that she wanted to keep it out all the time.

“I would, too. I would, too. That is darling as it can be.”

Mr. Weatherby Soames appeared at the back door, looking in, and Mrs. Soames made him come in and have his share of the cake and tea.

Daddy paid Mr. Soames, and to his disappointment Mrs. Soames almost immediately set down her tea cup and announced that they must go.

“Good grief,” Mama said, after the door had closed behind them, “I thought we were probably going to have her here all day, or at least until after dinner.” She stopped and stared at her shelf with the blue willow cups and saucers on it.

I told Mama that when Mrs. Soames walked past me on her way out the door I saw that she had the little wool felt tea pot in her dress pocket. I wished I had the nerve to say something before it walked out, because I knew that Mama thought a lot of that little tea pot.

“You did the right thing, Dixie,” she told me. “I wouldn’t want you to embarrass a guest.” But she sighed when she said it.

“It was worth it,” Daddy said. “It was worth the $35 and half of Bethany’s cake and the handmade tea pot to listen to that woman for three-quarters of an hour. Shoot, I wish to goodness we had a chiffarobe that Mr. Soames could bust up. Wouldn’t that be a treat?”

He was deeply content. Mama was wistful.

“Never mind, Mel,” Daddy said, patting her hand. He raised the camera and showed her the picture he’d taken of Mrs. Soames with her wild hair, drinking tea from the blue willow cup. “Look at this. And don’t forget the most important thing.” 

“What’s that?” Mama asked. Wearily, she began to collect the dirty cups and plates and put them in the sink.

“Why, the most important thing of all!” Daddy said. “The gutters are clean, Mel. The gutters are clean.”

END

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