Diary: Patricia Storace, Christmas ghosts and a treat with chestnuts

The Bidding Prayer, one of the loveliest prayers of the Anglican tradition, was written for the Christmas Eve Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols celebrated in the chapel of King’s College, Cambridge, in 1918, in the first year of peace after World War I. It is recited after singing the processional hymn, “Once in royal David’s city.” “Lastly,” the final verse reads,

let us remember before God all those who rejoice with us,
but upon another shore and in a greater light,
that multitude which no one can number,
whose hope was in the Word made flesh,
and with whom, in this Lord Jesus, we for evermore are one.

The season of Christmas has long been associated with miracle and revelation, a radiant interlude of cosmic transparency in which the living and the dead are present to each other, even though they cannot touch: invisible angels manifest themselves, and ghosts return to their previous lives. The eternal world is momentarily opened.

Christmas is, except perhaps in the United States, the season of ghost stories, mostly likely a pre-Christian tradition of “winter’s tales,” the sad stories of “sprites and goblins” the child Mamillius tells his mother in Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale. In Scandinavia, stories of revenants abound, often terrifying revenge tales of justice wrought unexpectedly, long after the crime has been forgotten.

In England, Christmas ghost stories are still a tradition, creating their own genre of classics, crowned by Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, but enriched by many nineteenth- and twentieth-century tales like those of such tellers as Algernon Blackwood and M.R. James. Henry James, who expatriated from the United States to England, paid tribute to this tradition with his chilling novella, The Turn of the Screw, told as a Christmas fireside tale by one of the fictional guests at a holiday feast. It was E.W. Benson, the bishop who devised the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, who told James a story he had heard that became the foundation of The Turn of the Screw, a coincidence that itself seems tinged with the supernatural. Benson would go on to become the Archbishop of Canterbury; his son, E.F. Benson, would not only write the playful Mapp and Lucia novels but become himself a master of ghost stories.

In the United States, the ghost story is associated more with Halloween: everyone has been appropriately terrified by Washington Irving’s Headless Horseman from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow before being made sick by the horrific industrial candies that are now a fixture of Halloween. This odd severance of the ghost story from Christmas was probably the result of the Puritan resistance to allowing elements of the pagan or supernatural to taint Christmas traditions (it was frequently a test of Puritan religious commitment to be willing to work on Christmas Day and not to celebrate it as a feast). And we can no longer ignore that the United States was actively engaged, from its outset, in making ghosts, by the commercial kidnapping, deracination, and enslavement of human beings. The 1930s black journalist, Dr. Andrew Dobson, before the US Congress managed to pass a federal anti-lynching law, wrote a memorable version of the Visit of St. Nicholas (now back in print in Bettye Collier-Thomas’s Treasury of African American Christmas Stories): “As dey celebrates Christmas I wants you’ll to see / I wants you to watch how dey decorates trees…” The suppressed consciousness of the suffering inflicted on others must have made it difficult to arrive at a sufficient sense of safety and well-being to sit around the fire enjoying a good ghost story. There is always a price to pay for silencing ghost stories. They possess us.  We live the stories we are unable to tell.

I know this very well, having spent many Christmases as a ghost, and then, as a revenant. I was not, as is often feared, a revenant bent on revenge, but one searching for my own face, searching for time that would take on the conventional properties of time, and pass. I was only seeking to be made flesh. An illegitimate child my mother unwillingly surrendered to adoption, my existence was both feared and denied. I was the ghost at all my mother’s, and, perhaps, my father’s Christmas feasts. And they were the missing persons at mine. When at last I met my mother, the Christmases we created together yearly from then on celebrated the miracle of seeing each other alive. There was a carved wooden crèche, to which we added a figure every year. My mother and Paul, who gracefully played the role of the father I would never meet, had been friends since drama school. They told stories in their resonant stage actors’ voices. Their voices were like fireplaces in which words kindled, flickered, blazed. Visionary poet William Blake saw trees filled with angels: We made our tree a shared autobiography, in which all that was angelic to us was represented, from crystal clusters of grapes and pomegranates to figures from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which my mother and Paul had acted together.

I would have been up since dawn, cooking Christmas dinner. Our table was set with an embroidered tablecloth from Damascus, and the food was deliberately traditional, a roast goose, or prime rib, a gratin of potatoes and celeriac, and always chestnuts in some form. They were a staple of the American table until the chestnut blight began in 1904, and they were a symbol to us of something lost and restored.

We had thirteen of these Christmases together, until my mother and Paul both died in the same year. Paul left me his marked copy of Thornton Wilder’s play, The Long Christmas Dinner, in which the same actors appear, disappear, and reappear over generations at an eternal Christmas table.

I spent the first Christmas without them in Madrid, not wanting to be anywhere near New York, where we had been together. I knew I could not bear cooking Christmas dinner that first year. Instead, I ordered a catered dinner from Embassy, a restaurant I’d discovered on a grand avenue in Madrid. They sent partridge from Toledo and a capon stuffed with chestnuts and prunes, reflecting the Moorish love of combining meat and fruit. Embassy turned out to have a dramatic history. The restaurant figures in Maria Duenas’s novel, The Seamstress, set in amidst the Spanish Civil War and World War II. Margaret (Margarita) Kearney Taylor, an Irish woman, had opened it in 1931; it was named for its neighborhood, Madrid’s embassy district. Initially it was a tearoom, where women could be served without men, and where they could also daringly order wine or cocktails, still scandalous for women in the Spain of the period.

Embassy was popular with diplomats, and also with nobility. Royal wedding cakes have been supplied by Embassy, and scones made according to Kearney Taylor’s recipe were sent to the British embassy to be served to Queen Elizabeth II during an official visit. But Embassy is most famous for what was revealed about it after the war: Margaret Kearney Taylor had turned it into a meticulously organized rescue operation for prisoners of war, resistance operatives, Jews, and other refugees. Working with the British M19 intelligence service, which specialized in rescue, Margaret Kearney Taylor had, with unimaginable sang-froid, saved some thirty thousand lives, though her restaurant was on the same block as the German Embassy and was frequented by members of Franco’s cabinet. In Margaret Kearney Taylor’s apartment, which could be reached via the restaurant basement, she supplied escapees with money, manufactured identity papers, medical care from the British embassy doctor, and transportation in embassy vehicles, protected by diplomatic immunity, to points of departure in Galicia and Portugal. Margaret Kearney Taylor kept her secret so closely that it was not discovered until after her death.

I learned about her heroism that year in Madrid. It was only later that I began to wonder what brought an Irish woman to Spain in the thirties. It turned out that Margarita had already showed her valor and her daring: she had an illegitimate daughter in Paris in 1924, whose father was a Spanish diplomat. Incredibly, she made no effort to hide her child’s existence, but brought a paternity case against José Maria Linares Rivas, forcing him to recognize their daughter, Consuelo, so that she could take his name and not be ostracized in Spain. Consuelo would go on to marry a British scientist, and, as Lady Allen, establish a scholarship at Oxford for Spanish students.

In 2017, high real estate prices forced Embassy to move from its original location. Although I’d often walked to it, I had just moved from landmark to landmark on the sweeping avenue where it was located, without thinking about the street’s name—Paseo de la Castellana—the feminine form of the surname of the father I had never known, Castelllanos.

Chestnut and Chocolate Pavé
This is an adaptation of a recipe Elizabeth David collected in France, recorded first in her French Provincial Cooking, and later in Elizabeth David’s Christmas. It is time-consuming, but is prepared the day before serving, and is unforgettable.

1 pound chestnuts
Milk to cover the nuts (for vegans, coconut milk could be substituted, which might add an interesting nuance to the flavor)
6 tablespoons white sugar
4 tablespoons softened butter

For the glaze:
3 ounces dark chocolate of 68-72 percent cocoa
5–6 tablespoons sugar, to taste
2–3 tablespoons rum
2 tablespoons butter

The pavé should only be made with fresh chestnuts. You’ll want to buy a little over a pound, as some will inevitably be unusable. Soak the chestnuts in cold water to cover for 15-30 minutes and discard the nuts that float. Then cut crosses on the domed side of the chestnuts and set them on a tray in a 350-degree (Fahrenheit) oven for twenty minutes or so, until they are fragrant. Take a handful out and peel with a serrated utility knife, cursing inventively, as this is the most tedious part of making the dish. Cover the shelled chestnuts with half milk and half water, and simmer delicately for an hour, until they are soft, then drain off the liquid. At this point, David puts her chestnuts through a sieve, but I just use a strong handheld immersion blender to purée them. Make a syrup of 6 tablespoons of white sugar and 2 or 3 tablespoons of water, then beat in the 2 tablespoons of softened butter, and add this to the chestnut purée, blending until smooth. Lightly oil a small loaf pan, then pour the mixture into the mold. (A luxurious twist can be added, if you have a handful of marrons glacés. Crumble them, pour in half the mixture, spread the crumbled marrons glacés over the purée, then cover with the rest of the purée.) Refrigerate until the next day. Run a knife around the edges of the cake, and turn it out onto a plate. Cover it with the glaze: Break the 3 ounces of dark chocolate into pieces, and melt it together in a saucepan with the 5 tablespoons (or more) of sugar and 2-3 tablespoons of rum. Stir until smooth, then add 2 tablespoons of butter. Let cool slightly, then cover the cake on all surfaces with the chocolate glaze. Smooth the glaze, then let it set. Before serving, decorate the cake with 6 marrons glacés, if you have them. Elizabeth David says this will serve four, but, as it is rich, I cut it in thin slices, and find it enough for six people.

Patricia Storace’s most recent book is the novel The Book of Heaven, in which the intimate histories of eating and storytelling are also deeply entwined. She is also the author of Dinner with Persephone: Travels in Greece and a book of poems, Heredity. This is the third in her series on cooking and reading for Book Post. Read the firstsecondfourth, and fifth here.

Book Post is a by-subscription book review service, bringing to your in-box book reviews by distinguished and engaging writers, plus a few other treats, such as this one, for followers of our free updates and visitors to our site. Recent subscription-only reviews have included Joy Williams on Richard Powers, Brian Fagan on the last of the whalers, and Padgett Powell on Peter Taylor. Please consider a subscription! Or give a gift subscription to a friend! Their subscription starts up immediately with a notice from us and full access to our archive.

Book Post is a medium for ideas designed to spread the pleasures and benefits of the reading life across a fractured media landscape. Our paid subscription model allows us to pay the writers who write for you. Our goal is to help grow a healthy, sustainable, common environment for writers and readers and to support independent bookselling by linking directly to bookshops across the land and sharing in the reading life of their communities. Book Post’s December partner bookstore is Greenlight. Spend a hundred dollars there in person or virtually, send us the evidence, and we’ll give you a free one-month subscription to Book Post. And/or

Follow us on FacebookTwitterInstagram.

If you liked this piece, please share and tell the author with a “like.”

Images: 1904 illustration by James McBryde of “‘Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad’,” a story by M.R. James; Interior of Embassy in 1935