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Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Memories are made of these

Snowy Mussoorie nights, the family under one roof and chocolates before breakfast. Author Stephen Alter revisits the Christmas of his childhood.

Written by Stephen Alter | Updated: December 14, 2014 12:07:21 am
ST1_M Winter wonderland- Landour under a blanket of snow (Source: Photo express by Ganesh saili)

Candied Sweet Potatoes


1 kg sweet potatoes
1½ cup orange juice
1/2 cup raw cane sugar powdered (gur
or shakkar)
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon grated orange peel
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons Old Monk Rum


Boil the sweet potatoes until tender, then peel and cut crosswise into round sections half-an-inch thick. Arrange these in layers in a shallow casserole. Mix the remaining ingredients, except the rum, in a saucepan and allow to thicken over low heat, stirring constantly. When thoroughly mixed, add rum and pour over the sweet potatoes. Place in an oven at 375 degrees and bake for approximately 30-45 minutes, until most of the moisture has evaporated. Let it cool for 15 minutes and then serve.

My mother, Ellen Alter, published a variation of this recipe (minus the rum) in The Landour Community Centre Cookbook sometime around 1965. It’s a favourite dish of hers, which she remembers from her childhood in rural Pennsylvania. When mom first came to India in 1947, she brought this recipe with her from North America. It was always served with Christmas dinners at Oakville, our family home in Mussoorie. Compared to the rest of the food on the table, candied sweet potatoes are a humble side dish. But as far as I’m concerned, no holiday feast is complete without it.

Most people think that memories are stored in that soft, gray hard drive known as the brain. But I like to think they exist in other parts of our bodies too, particularly our digestive tract, which recalls memorable meals we’ve eaten in the past. Whenever I think back on Christmas celebrations from my childhood, it’s usually through my stomach instead of my mind.

ST-1 The family at Christmas dinner. (Source: RC Alter)

Our family has always gathered for Christmas in Mussoorie, though in recent years, with all of us scattered farther and farther apart, these annual migrations and kinship rituals have become less frequent. In the 1960s, when I was a boy, and later, during the 1980s, when our children were growing up, Christmas was the most important date on the calendar. My brothers and sisters-in-law, nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends flew in from as far away as the United States and Australia, carrying gifts and special delicacies to eat — sugared almonds from London, Hershey’s Kisses from Boston and Kwality Toffees from Dehradun. During the last week of December, it often snowed in Mussoorie, turning the forests and mountains surrounding our home into a winter wonderland, just as the song promises.

On Christmas Eve, children were shooed off to bed and adults piled presents under the tree, which was decorated with lights, ornaments and tinsel. The fireplace burned late into the night despite the fact that Santa Claus was expected to come down the chimney. The next morning we were up early. Christmas was the only day in the year when we were allowed to eat chocolate before breakfast. Anything that resembled a healthy diet was abandoned over the next 24 hours. My mother made sure that each of us had a Christmas stocking filled with small gifts, nuts and sweets, and an orange or an apple in the toe of the sock (the only healthy option). Stockings were opened immediately after we woke up. Their contents satisfied our cravings until the porridge, scrambled eggs and toast, whipped cream and strawberry jam were put on the table, the first round of an ongoing orgy of eating that continued all day.

EMBED_ A young Stephen Alter (standing) opening gifts on Christmas morning; (Source: RC Alter)

After all the presents had been opened, dinner was served in the afternoon. There were usually a dozen or more dishes including roast chicken with stuffing and gravy, mashed potatoes, mashed turnips, creamed spinach, pickled beets and anything else that could fit on the table. By the time dessert arrived, I was usually too full to eat any more. At the risk of sounding like Ebenezer Scrooge, who refused to enter into the holiday spirit, I have to confess that I’ve never liked Christmas cake. When I was a boy, bakers in Mussoorie would deliver these seasonal confections to our home. The white icing, with “Happy Christmas” spelled out in pink letters tasted like over-sweetened Plaster of Paris, hard and brittle. Inside, the raisins, candied cherries, walnuts and orange peel were mixed up in a sticky muddle of sugar, oil and flour, which had a dry, doughy texture. My father was the only member of the household who liked fruitcake, recalling his childhood in Abbottabad and Srinagar, when their family cook got ingredients fresh from Kabul.

Years later, I realised what a Christmas cake should taste like, when Ameeta, my wife, made an authentic English plum pudding, composted and fermented over several weeks before being steamed in the traditional manner. Served with “hard sauce” (which is actually soft and buttery), the pudding was brought to the dining table one Christmas, engulfed in blue flames with a brandy flambé.

Dinner was followed by a long nap, or sledding for the younger crowd, and if anyone was still hungry, they could help themselves to leftovers during the night. Though bloated and sluggish from too much rich food, I could never resist stealing into the kitchen before bedtime and searching for the remains of the candied sweet potatoes. Even when cold and congealed into a toffee-like mass, the flavour was unforgettable, even better than dessert.

Stephen Alter’s most recent book, Becoming a Mountain: Himalayan Journeys in Search of the Sacred and the Sublime, was published in November. He and his wife Ameeta live in Mussoorie with their three dogs.

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