Here is a Christmas present for you to open: Lillian Smith’s Memory of a Large Christmas.
It is a treasure that deserves to be as familiar and repeatedly savored as the other more famous story of Christmas set in the South, Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory. Capote’s memory is a carefully lit, virtuoso performance delivered before a rapt audience. Lillian Smith invites us into her childhood as companions, offering one of the miracles of reading, the capacity to remember mutually, to live a past with someone we have never met. We can time travel through taste, too, through the legacy of dishes ritually cooked over generations, like the dearly anticipated Christmas turkey dressing served at the Smith family feast after the yearly reading of the second chapter of St. Luke, appearing as a recipe at the end of the book. In Lillian Smith’s girlhood South, of the 1910s and 1920s, spent in Jasper, Florida, and, later, in northern Georgia, grandparents’ bitter memories of the Civil War meant that Thanksgiving, a Yankee holiday, was not celebrated. Fireworks also were reserved for Christmas: “We southerners were still too sullen to celebrate the Fourth …”
Lillian Smith’s lifework complicated the reception of her books, a source of great pain to her. When Lillian Smith is remembered, she is more likely to be described as a pioneering white Civil Rights activist, a businesswoman, and educator who remained a prominent public figure in the Southern town where she lived even as she described segregation as “spiritual lynching” and struggled publicly and urgently to undo it at every level—legal, social, economic. The novels and essays she labored over are more likely to be remembered now for being banned than for being read; her writings were seen more as illustrations and instruments of her political goals than as art. Her novel Strange Fruit, about an interracial romance that leads to a lynching in a small Southern town, outraged many readers, as much for its dark presentation of violence as romance as for its forbidden love story, and her work was often characterized as sermonizing and didactic. There’s some justification in that criticism; she had the Cassandra problem, the call to express elemental, terrifying truths in forms that did not distort or disguise them with artifice. But to cast her storytelling power as merely homiletic suggests a willful dismissal—like the kind working in the career of the singer Paula Wayne, who kissed Sammy Davis in the 1964 musical Golden Boy, a performance that suspensefully dramatized the way love can come so close to overcoming despair, only to lose courage, and fail; she never got another leading role on Broadway, though she evolved into a nightclub singer, and, later, became a beloved theater arts professor in Florida. It is easy to see how Lillian Smith’s work got lost, even Memory of a Large Christmas, her most perfect book, in which she describes her own large family’s experience of Christmas.
She recounts in the simplest way her family’s customs, what they embrace and what they turn away from, the ardent and punitive Christianity that sets a peach switch next to the Bible on the dining room shelf, the grave commitment to moral life that nevertheless is split into two ethical systems, differing for white people and black people. Through memory she looks at the nature of experience itself. That is Smith’s essential preoccupation: what constitutes experience? What do we allow ourselves to know? And how it is possible for us to pass our lives like marionettes in a simulacrum of experience, refusing it, as “we mortals can effect an annihilation which death is not capable of.” Lillian Smith saw racism as a maddening rejection of reality, a turning away from the fullness of life. In Memory of a Large Christmas, she writes with an acrobatic freedom, a new spirit of comedy, unburdened by her enormous sense of moral obligation, free not to anticipate the savage insults and malign incomprehension associated with her other books that grapple directly with racism. This book makes us regret all the more the loss of the drafts of her unpublished and most autobiographical novels, along with a lifetime’s letters, destroyed in an act of arson provoked by her civil rights work.
For the nine Smith children, growing up in a house that evolved from two room Reconstruction poverty into a prosperous middle-class household in Jasper, Florida, a countryside of brown sand-edged rivers and swamps, the cycle of Christmas was seasonal. Christmas was natural as well as theological, a series of practical as well as spiritual rituals. Even the kitchen was an extension of the natural world outside; a precise knowledge of the qualities of wood, for instance, was necessary to operate the stove: “resinous kindling for a sudden flame, splintered dry pine for a quick breakfast fire, a little green pine to temper the dry pine, oak split into the proper size and length for the long haul of the four-hour roasting which a fresh ham requires.”
The topography of Jasper, with its fathomless ponds, and quicksand that the indigenous Indians called “trembling earth,” surrounded the children with a landscape of natural ambivalence. Their Christmas, too, like the landscape, was no idyll, filled with danger and pain, as well as joy and love. There was guilt over relatives who could not be loved, anxiety about earning presents through being perfectly behaved, the combination of pity and delight over receiving dolls beautifully dressed by a woman who frequented the cemetery wearing the wedding dress she would have worn if her fiancé had lived to marry her.
“Christmas,” Lillian writes, “began when pecans started falling … In the night you’d listen and you’d know IT would soon be here.” Her “IT” anticipates passages of terror as well as marvel that are part of Christmas; the nightmarish hog-killing that provides Christmas ham and sausage will follow the pecan harvest.
The children are not only receivers of Christmas, but participants in it, helping to harvest the pecans for dressing, confections, and pies, as well as performing other preparatory chores. She conducts us through the entire cycle, punctuated by the devout Methodist practice of the children reciting Bible verses before breakfast, starting with the oldest and descending to the youngest, who clings fiercely to her two-word verse (“Jesus wept”), like a puppy to a favorite toy.
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Even confined by the rote memorizations, the children express themselves irrepressibly. The scholarly daughter, “proud of her memory … hung on to Genesis and begat and begat and begat.” The eldest son, at fifteen, in an act of theatrical daring (reminiscent of Shakespeare presenting Macbeth before James I, a Scottish king with succession problems and an obsession with witches), comments on the pervasive solemnity and squeamish Puritanism by rehearsing the siblings in the recitation of the Song of Solomon. “He led off with, ‘How beautiful are thy feet with shoes, O prince’s daughter … thy two breasts are like two young roes.’” “Each picked up his split-second cue and carried on, and it was climaxed by the two-year-old who piped out gaily, ‘Tay me wif flagons, tomfort me wif apples for I am thick of love.’”
Lillian’s harrowing description of the hog-killing after the first frost, a Christmas ritual throughout the South, surely owes something to this immersion in the Bible; the children, hiding throughout the large house as they “waited waited waited until the silence came from the outside where death and blood and squeals and glistening steel blades and smoke had driven tranquility off the face of the earth” reads like an eyewitness account of Herod’s killing of the innocents.
Perhaps the most moving of all the Christmases is the Christmas of privation, after the Smith family lose their business. That year, the parents’ gift to their children is to pool their resources in order to have enough food for forty-eight chain-gang convicts they invite to be their guests at Christmas dinner. Every year I read Lillian Smith’s Christmas story, as I read Dickens; I catch a glimpse of this girl becoming what she did not know she would be, a woman that James Baldwin described as “a very great, and heroic, and lonely figure” who “paid a tremendous price for trying to do what she thinks is right.”
Lillian Smith’s Famous Christmas Day Turkey Dressing
A ten-inch pan of buttermilk cornbread, made Christmas Eve so its crumb will stale into the right texture for the dressing to be made Christmas Day.
(Use a rather austere recipe, such as Scott Peacock’s simple buttermilk cornbread. The dressing will be luxurious as constructed, so avoid recipes using cream. And this is a Southern cornbread, so should be made with salt alone, and not the sugar added to other regional cornbreads.)
Two cups strong turkey or chicken stock
Two cups diced celery
Four cups crushed crackers (Lillian used Uneeda biscuits, Nabisco’s earliest biscuit, which is no longer made. I use Peter’s Yard Sourdough Crispbread. This is a UK brand, but widely available, and it adds a marvelous tangy note to counter the buttery richness of the dressing.)
One cup pecans, walnuts, or hazelnuts (of course, Lillian used pecans.)
One cup shucked oysters
One half-cup oyster liquor
One cup chopped onion
Two cloves minced garlic
One cup chopped mushrooms
A half cup pitted, chopped Kalamata olives (optional)
Thyme and 5-6 sage leaves, finely minced
A cup of melted butter
Make your turkey or chicken stock. Brown the bird’s neck, gizzard, and liver in a little butter then add a liter of water (and white wine if you like), along with two stalks of celery, two carrots, and a bunch of thyme. Season with salt and pepper, bring to a boil, then simmer for at least two hours. Add liquid if necessary during this stage. You will need at least two cups of concentrated stock for the dressing, and a bit more if the final amalgam would benefit.
Crush the crackers to obtain four cups. Add two cups of strained stock to the crackers.
Crumble the stale cornbread into a large bowl, then add the crushed cracker mixture. Mix in thoroughly the two cups of diced celery, the cup of nuts, and the cup of oysters.
Add the half cup of oyster liquor.
Stir in the chopped onion and garlic, followed by the mushrooms, optional olives, and herbs.
Beat the three eggs, and stir into the mixture. Then, as Lillian Smith’s mother did, take a large spoonful of stock from the Christmas turkey you are in the process of roasting, and splash that into the mixture, which should be tender, but not soupy, like a batter. You can adjust the texture by adding more stock, if it is too firm, or a few more crushed crackers, if it is too liquid. Pour over the mixture a cup of melted butter. The dressing should stand for an hour to develop the flavor. Cook in a preheated 350-degree oven for thirty minutes, for a dressing with an elegant texture and haunting flavor, which will be as or more delicious the next day.
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 fifth in her series of diaries on cooking and reading for Book Post. Read the first, second, and most recent, as well as her 2018 Christmas diary, about ghosts and chestnuts.
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Image: Lillian Smith (top left) and friends in Jasper, Florida. From the Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library, via Lillian Smith Resources, Piedmond College
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