Tuna Fish Christ­mas

Pasatiempo - - Essays - By Pa­tri­cia Conor Ho­dapp

Chicken on a ro­tis­serie ap­peals to me. There is the chicken, head­less, foot­less, gut­ted, feath­er­less, and browned to per­fec­tion. Makes me hun­gry to see one.

Liv­ing on a poor farm, I did not use to think so kindly of hav­ing chicken for din­ner. How could I, when I would have to catch the cho­sen chicken, hold it down so that my mother could take its head off in one fell swoop of her sharp­ened ax, and then I had to carry it to our back porch? There, boil­ing wa­ter would be in a tub to start wash­ing the chicken and pluck­ing off the feathers. Then we would hold the chicken over the fire in the wood stove to singe off the rest of the feathers. Noth­ing but skunk smells worse than wet chicken feathers. My sis­ter was so sen­si­tive to the smell; it was the one thing she would bribe me to do for her. I loved it; she would even dip into her sa­cred jars of sil­ver dol­lars to pay me off to es­cape pluck­ing wet hens.

Two roasted chick­ens were the main dish for Christ­mas. We had chicken sev­eral Sun­days a year, as we could not af­ford turkey or ham. But on Christ­mas, we would roast two chick­ens and have all the chicken we could eat— and have left­overs.

Mother al­ways went into town to barter her eggs with Mr. Mollett for our sta­ples and even, hope­fully, a treat for Christ­mas din­ner. Even though she had bartered with him for years, he al­ways called her Mrs. Conor. He al­ways gave her the best price, be­cause he said her eggs were the clean­est and best eggs in the county.

One day near Christ­mas, when Mom and I were shop­ping, we ran into Mrs. Sin­gles and her daugh­ter June. Af­ter sim­ple pleas­antries while they care­fully se­lected items for their gro­cery bas­kets, June be­gan to cry. She could not stop and sobbed into a hand­ker­chief her mother gave her.

“What’s wrong?” my mother asked. “Will June be OK?”

“It’s just that it’s Christ­mas,” Mrs. Sin­gles whis­pered. “And we just don’t have the money for a chicken, turkey, or ham. I can only af­ford to make soup. I used to make pies and rolls— oh, how peo­ple raved about my pump­kin pie.”

My mother sighed and said, “I know how hard it is on the chil­dren. We at least have our chick­ens.”

“I don’t be­grudge you that; I am happy your girls will have a good meal at Christ­mas,” Mrs. Sin­gles said. “It’s some­thing they will re­mem­ber.”

Later that night, af­ter the chores were done on the farm, my mother asked Camilla and me to sit at the din­ing-room ta­ble with her. “You know,” she said, “we have chicken al­most ev­ery month. What if we do some­thing dif­fer­ent for Christ­mas Day din­ner?” “Like what, turkey or ham?” Camilla asked. “I don’t know— maybe a spe­cial baked dish. You love scal­loped pota­toes. And I have a new casse­role recipe your sis­ter Jean brought from col­lege. She said it is so pop­u­lar.”

“What’s in it?” Camilla asked, more than a lit­tle sus­pi­cious.

“Well, let’s look at the recipe. It has mush­room soup, peas, mac­a­roni, and tuna fish. Doesn’t that sound good? And it is topped with crushed po­tato chips. You two could make it to help with din­ner.”

“For Christ­mas? I want a drum­stick like al­ways,” Camilla whined.

“No whin­ing, now. Let me share with you the story of a lit­tle girl who won’t have any­thing but soup for Christ­mas. Her fa­ther does not help bring in money for food. Do you want that lit­tle girl to only have soup when we could spare a chicken if we had a casse­role in­stead? You think about it. We’ll de­cide in the morn­ing. I know the Christ­mas spirit is in all of us, and we can make sac­ri­fices.”

That night in bed Camilla whined, “I don’t want casse­role. It’s not fair.”

“It isn’t fair that lit­tle girl only gets soup when we have chicken on lots of Sun­days all year,” I replied.

At break­fast, Mother asked what we were go­ing to do for that lit­tle girl for Christ­mas.

“We’ll share, if you are sure there will be po­tato chips on the baked casse­role!” I said. And Camilla nod­ded her head. We had never had po­tato chips. It was an ex­trav­a­gance.

The day be­fore Christ­mas, mother and dad drove into town from the farm. The car was laden with fresh eggs, squash, pota­toes, a pump­kin pie, and a chicken— all plucked and ready to be put in the oven. Camilla and I helped take the bas­kets of food into the Sin­gles’ house.

“How can I ever thank you?” Mrs. Sin­gles cried. “All I had was soup and tuna for our din­ner to­mor­row.” Mother just smiled and shook her head, say­ing, “It was our plea­sure. Christ­mas should be a good mem­ory.”

For Christ­mas din­ner, we helped Mother go all out. There was one chicken, stuff­ing, scal­loped pota­toes, green beans, and the fa­mous tuna casse­role with crushed po­tato chips on top. And pies of ev­ery type and kind — pump­kin, mince­meat, and ap­ple. It was a feast, and no one missed hav­ing a huge plat­ter heaped with chicken.

It was no sac­ri­fice for us; it was a won­der­ful meal. One we would al­ways re­mem­ber.

And here it is, 50 years later, and I still re­mem­ber that Christ­mas. It was our Tuna Fish Christ­mas.

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