Bright Christmas: What the Holidays Taste Like in Florida

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[Photograph: Shutterstock]

As Mom and I pull into the Publix in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, she parks her silver Cadillac beside a large crepe myrtle tree so the leather seats don't get too hot while we're shopping. The tear-away calendar from the local dry cleaner, the one she keeps adhered to her glove compartment door, has been reduced to its final month of December, and we've come to pick up some provisions for Christmas dinner—namely the pies. I don't know if anyone's ever told you this before, but Publix has great pies. At least I think they do. At the bakery, we purchase three of them—two pumpkin; one apple—as well as a dozen Danish, which are just as important since Mom serves them every Christmas morning. It's a tradition that started back when I was a kid growing up in Cincinnati; back when she would make a special trip to a Hyde Park bakery called Servati's to pick them up. With all of the changes that have happened in our lives since then, this is one of the few traditions we hold onto.

It's 74 degrees and Mom is dressed in her trademark white polo, white shorts, and white visor. Once our bakery order is filled, she takes off at a fast clip, cha-cha-ing it down each aisle of the Publix, grabbing random items and tossing them into her cart without rhyme or reason: a gallon of Newman's Own lemonade; a 24-pack of caffeine-free Coke, a jar of Smucker's strawberry preserves—Lunchables? She keeps her sunglasses on while she's doing this, and snaps her fingers to "Jingle Bell Rock."

Realizing she's in a world all her own, I fall back and head over to the produce section to start picking through Brussels sprouts, which I plan on sautéing with toasted walnuts on Christmas Day, plopping the smallest, greenest ones into a cellophane bag. I make my way to the beer section to buy some six packs of Sam Adams, and then to the cheese counter to grab my favorite holiday snack, a white cheddar and Chardonnay cheese ball, coated in slivered nuts, which I'll spread on Carr's water crackers. This is what Christmas tastes like to me.

Mom's decided to keep Christmas dinner simple this year. The guest list is smaller than usual, but encompasses just the right number of clashing political views for an "O'Reilly Factor"-style showdown. There's Mom's Tea-Party-affiliated boyfriend Wendell; my 92-year-old Massachusetts Democrat grandmother, Rose; a kind—and, as far as I can tell—moderate seventy-something Ohio couple from across the street named Jim and Betty; and Nancy, an 82-year-old Reagan Republican, long relocated from her native New England. She lives down the block and has a fondness for Yellow Tail Chardonnay.

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[Photograph: Shutterstock]

Over the years, the senior citizens of Sugar Mill Country Club, where Mom lives, have adopted me into a network of stand-in grandparents, great uncles, and third cousins. A few have come and gone: a professorial cardigan-wearing neighbor named Warren who used to work for the CIA, and spoke often of his personal interactions with John F. Kennedy; two bachelor brothers—one tall and thin, the other just the opposite (the former often spoke with deep conviction about his love of the unlimited soup, salad, and breadstick special at Olive Garden). Then there was a sweet-as-punch grandmotherly type named Diane. She baked the most delicious Christmas cookies I've ever tasted, but was known to drop occasional anecdotes about her sex life that were torn straight out of the Rue McClanahan Golden Girls playbook.

While I live in New York, I've been spending Christmases with the AARP set down in Florida for 15 years now—ever since my mother and her late husband Ted moved here permanently, after years of snow-birding, in 2001. For a while, the whole thing felt a little awkward—in my late thirties, and single, I was still the youngest person down here by at least, well, 30 years. I would spend Christmas Day hiding out in the kitchen, preparing some overly ambitious entrée or side dish from a cookbook I'd brought with me from New York. "Oh, look. The chef at work!" Mom's friends would say as they arrived, passing me by in the kitchen on their way to the living room to gorge on the cheese ball and water crackers. I wasn't a chef at all. I was a mid-level editor at a home improvement magazine who subsisted largely on cheeseburgers and chicken quesadillas from the sports bar down the street. I still relied on my parents to pay my rent sometimes. I was beginning to look like a lost cause. And so I tried to earn my elders' respect by cooking.

When I met Amy, the woman who would eventually become my wife, back in 2010, I asked if she would like to join me for Christmas down here, but not before warning her that it wasn't the stuff of glossy food magazines or Norman Rockwell paintings. Instead of dashing through the snow in a one horse-open sleigh, Mom's guests were more likely to arrive for Christmas dinner via golf cart after zipping past manicured lawns of lush Bermuda grass in 80-degree temperatures (any dreams of a white Christmas would be most definitely be shattered). Instead of colorful neckties and sharp holiday dresses, our guests were more likely to show up in khaki shorts and pastel polo shirts. The conversation at the dinner table would almost always involve troubled tales of broken hips, the side effects of a blood pressure medication, and sciatica. While Amy and I are staunch Democrats, I let her know that at least ten minutes of every meal would be dedicated to smack talking "that Hillary Clinton," whether she was in office or out.

To my relief, Amy not only accepted all of this—she embraced it. On our very first visit, she started seeing people like Wendell and Nancy and Jim and Betty as an extended family of her own. And in the five years since, we've developed some unexpectedly tropical holiday traditions, too. A few days before Christmas, we make a point of feasting on boiled shrimp and hush puppies at a ramshackle beachfront joint called The Breakers, washing them all down with ice-cold Miller Lite instead of hot mulled cider, as Jimmy Buffet sings songs of cheeseburgers and margaritas in the background. Afterward, we take a drive on the beach (yes, you can drive on the beach here), watching families engage in tailgating parties out of late model Buicks with Christmas wreaths tied onto their grills. We make sure to dodge the young surfers crisscrossing the tire-track-worn lane, the old couples walking hand in hand in holiday bliss. "They're still so in love," Amy will always say. At night, we drive our rental car around Mom's subdivision, windows open, taking in the displays of twinkly Christmas lights wrapped around palm trees and live oaks.

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[Photograph: Shutterstock]

Mom's kitchen is almost the same size as our entire apartment in New York, Amy and I love taking it over each year, and I try not to complain too much that all the cutting boards are glass, all the knives serrated. While we occasionally like to show off with our cooking, we've come to realize that it's better to play it safe in Florida. A few years back, I tried to up the ante by spending three hours making an elevated green bean casserole from a famous chef's cookbook only to be told it was "too rich." I spent the next quarter of an hour angrily listening to the praise bestowed upon my mother for the goddamn steamed carrots she'd made without a thought 20 minutes before we sat down to eat.

A true Midwesterner, Amy knows how to cook dishes that are well executed enough for food snobs, but approachable enough to keep Mom's finicky friends from crying out for takeout from the country club. This year, I'll be in charge of the crown roast (as well as the aforementioned Brussels sprouts), while Amy is playing it extra safe by sticking to Hasselback potatoes and cranberry sauce with orange and ginger.

After leaving the Publix, Mom and I head down I-95 toward South Orange to pick up the crown roast at Gaff's Meat Market, a remarkable butcher shop that opened in Detroit in the 1940s before retiring to Florida decades later. It's packed when we arrive, so Mom and I take a number and wait a good half hour before being called. In the meantime, I inspect the meat cases while Mom starts talking about the chaos of the holidays with another visor-wearing customer. "I can't believe it's actually Christmas," she says.

Gazing at a refrigerated case of porterhouses and New York strips, I think about how, when I was little, Mom used to run me around Cincinnati on errands as we listened to Blondie and John Lennon cassettes in a big wood-paneled Pontiac Safari station wagon she'd named Nellie. I remember how we would pick up our chocolate eclairs and Danish at Servati's bakery in a fancy neighborhood called Hyde Park; and our sliced turkey, roast beef, and greens at D.J.'s General Store near our home on the East Side. Our final stop was always a butcher shop in a neighborhood called Mt. Washington, where Mom would buy pre-assembled chicken Kievs and thin strips of London broil that my dad, who passed away a quarter century ago, used to make on an almost weekly basis.

Mom was in her forties back then, around the same age that I am now, and I remember how the men behind the counter would light up whenever she walked in. She knew each of them by name, and would share little anecdotes about them with me on our way back home. Scott was going through a tough divorce, she'd tell me. Jimmy was a flirt. "Joe just found out he has cancer," she'd explain. "Thank God, they caught it early, so he'll probably be okay." I miss the days when Mom had to explain such things to me. I miss when she was in charge of our dinners and my lunches—when my only duty in life was to be her accomplice. Mom is 72 now. She's outlived two husbands, and kicked the crap out of cancer three times. But she's getting older now, and I worry. I worry all the time.

While settling up with the cashier, Mom snatches up a bag of Pepperidge Farm Milano cookies that we tear open as soon as we get back to the car. I get on her sometimes for not eating well, but these cookies take me back to those errands we used to run when I was a kid. Mom would always buy them as reward for our accomplishments. It's a tradition I'm not willing to let go of.

Back home, Mom and I find Amy asleep in the living room as an old Turner Classic Movie plays in the background. Amy is three months pregnant, and as I look at her, I am overwhelmed by the fact that I will soon have a little family of my own. As I unload the groceries, Amy wakes up and joins me in the kitchen as I unpack the groceries. "Those are some good lookin' Brussels sprouts," she says. Raised in a small northern Ohio town surrounded that was surrounded by farms, she knows good produce when she sees it.

I wake at 9 a.m. Christmas morning, and the house is completely silent save for the humming of the central air. It's 73 degrees outside and Amy's gone for a walk. Mom's bedroom door is closed. I assume she's still sleeping. And so I brew some coffee in the percolator and put Handel's Messiah, my father's favorite, on the CD player. Looking toward the ceiling, I mouth "Merry Christmas" to Dad as I start to plate the Danish.

Once the coffee is done, I head outside to the back patio with one of Dad's old mugs and watch as a man in yellow shorts retrieves a golf ball from the ninth hole. It's downright balmy out here, but I really don't mind. Next week, we will return to another cold, dark winter in New York, so I'm going to enjoy this while I can. The screen door creaks as Mom comes outside in her nightgown, her eyes still puffy as she holds a half-eaten pastry in her hand. Plopping down in one of her lawn chairs, she lets out an audible sigh. "Merry Christmas," she says.

"Merry Christmas," I say back.

"Want a Danish?" she asks.

"Yes I do," I reply.

As Mom fetches me one from the kitchen, Amy returns from her walk and joins us at the table outside. We still have hours before our guests will arrive, so the three of us sit there for a while, trying to come up with some good names for our daughter. As I bite into my Danish, I realize it's nowhere as good as the ones mom used to get from Servati's when I was a kid—then again, everything was better when we were children. A warm breeze blows in from the golf course. A palm tree sways. Florida washes over us. This is home for the holidays.