Winnfield LA. Of Vacations and Going Home… by Jenean Gilstrap. Because ‘vacations’ can have different meanings.
vacation to me means not the same as to others perhaps…a week in the mountains or at the beach or traveling europe by train…it isn’t to say that i wouldn’t love all those things…it’s simply to say that my life’s “vacations” – the memories i cherish most of happy times of fun times when anything and everything was possible – those vacation memories all have to do with family – with everyday occurrences – and, of course, with special day events such as the winter holidays – from the time of my birth until i was a teenager, because of my father’s job, our family traveled constantly – we saw sights that most “vacationing tourists” might not ever get to – from the east coast to the west and north to south of this country – so every day was a “vacation” the way most define the word – for me, however, the word vacation means just the opposite – for me, it means not going away, but “going home” – a stationery home i never had – but there was the “always there” home of my paternal grandmother – clarissa caroline mcgalliard gilstrap – or, mamastrap to all us cousins – hers was the big house with the large central hallway that sat a couple of blocks from the courthouse square in a little central louisiana town called winnfield – hers was the house that belonged to all of us all of the time – hers was the house where there was always something cooking – literally – where there was always room for one more at the table or overnight – hers was the house with the wide screened in front porch where the grown-ups sat in rocking chairs and the big swing and told jokes and played jokes on us little ones – hers was the house with the huge live oak trees lining the sidewalk and the rope swing tied to one of the tallest limbs – the house with a yard filled with lantana and hydrangeas and daffodils and ivy and honeysuckle and holly bushes – hers was the house with the little green banquette-styled “breakfast nook” lined with calendar pictures of cats that she loved – and – during the fall/winter holidays of thanksgiving and christmas and new year’s – the house of the ceiling-tall christmas tree sitting beside the fireplace in the “living room” – hers was the home we returned to from our vacation-life –
during the winter holidays, especially christmas, hers was the house of gathering and cooking and baking and eating and more of all – way before thanksgiving, the aunts would come over to begin the cooking rituals – for these rituals, and for every day, mamastrap and the aunts wore beautiful dresses that they protected with just as beautiful full-length aprons – and they wore their high heels and “stockings” every day including days spent standing in the kitchen hour after hour – their hair always done every saturday at the “beauty parlor” where they also got their nails manicured weekly – all beautifully dressed and done in the kitchen as well as any social event of the day –
the christmas holiday cooking rituals began with fruit cakes – not the average everyday fruit cakes – but exotic smelling and looking fruit cakes – and even more exotic tasting fruit cakes – cakes filled with richly colored fruits and big chunks of pecans and walnuts and a moist batter that was heaven-ordained – the cakes were baked in coffee cans that had been set aside for months just for the holidays – and once baked, the cakes were wrapped in rum and bourbon-soaked cloths and put aside to “set” to soak to absorb – setting foot inside the perimeters of the sacred grounds of the kitchen during this time was a treat we kids loved – sometimes just standing at the entrance and watching quietly, soaking up ourselves all the glory of the wonderful sights and scents from the baking – for these big days, there was always a banana pudding, too – always made in a huge pan that held enough to “feed an army” – the aunts also made “layered” cakes with huge mounds of thick creamy frosting between three or more layers – there were also pies – coconut creme my favorite – buttermilk pie and, of course, what’s a holiday in the south without chocolate pie in a crust not to be equaled by any today – and no decent southern kitchen would go without tons of fudge during the holidays – decadent nut-filled fudge that, once made, was kept in beautiful tins that had been saved and re-used year after year – and when empty again, would be put back on the shelves that lined the walls of the breakfast nook – and for these holiday dinners there was always a beautiful ambrosia served in a large elegant cut glass bowl – and another large bowl of pickled peaches –
for the main course, a large ham smothered in a bourbon/brown sugar glaze and studdied in pineapple rings with centers of red maraschino cherries – and a turkey with rich moist cornbread stuffing and a thick gravy that included chopped boiled eggs – green beans slathered in butter and mashed potatoes using “canned” milk and again, lots of butter were always served – a large serving tray lined with green lettuce leaves was filled with deviled eggs sprinkled in paprika – and for any and every day there were large cut glass pitchers filled with lemonade and sweet tea and water [all of which were served in stemmed crystal goblets] –
the dining room sideboards were decorated with red poinsettia plants and held the crudité trays, the desserts and the stacks of white linen napkins, delicate china and sparkling silver laid out banquet style – on the dinner table, the extra table leaf was put in to accommodate everyone and large white linen table cloths covered the long table – the main dishes were placed strategically end to end on the table with red taper candles intermittingly placed –
as was the custom then, after dinner, the men retired to the front parlor or porch with their cigars and after-dinner drinks and the kids flocked behind them when they could or gathered around the christmas tree waiting for the grown-ups to come in for the opening of gifts – the women cleared the table and put leftover dishes away for the next day before going into the living room to sit with coffee and/or hot tea – and then – drinks and sitting done, they all gathered with us kids in front of the fireplace – where our vacation continued – under the christmas tree…