Celebrating our roots

illustration by Ippy Patterson

illustration by Ippy Patterson

by Cokie Roberts

Despite the muzak in the malls, I’m dreaming of a green Christmas, just just like the ones I used to know. Until I had children of my own, every year my family trekked from Washington, D.C. to Louisiana so that my sister and brother and I could savor the sights and scents and tastes of southern Christmas. Sometimes it was with my mother’s family in Pointe Coupee Parish, sometimes with my father’s on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, always it was in a home filled with family – and I mean filled – aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, great-grandparents, great aunts and uncles, more cousins, courtesy aunts and uncles, still more cousins and dear old friends.

But after we all grew up, it became expensive and exhausting to cart a bunch of babies and boxes of presents on those airplanes headed south, so we moved the celebration to my parents’ house in the suburbs of Washington. It’s the house where I was raised and where my husband Steve and I raised our children. And it’s still the scene of southern Christmas. My mother and father made sure of that, and of course we have carried on the tradition.  It’s not green outside, it’s usually a muddy brown, but inside the smells of pecan rice-stuffed goose and oyster dressing could be coming straight out of Pointe Coupee. And that lush Louisiana parish just up the Mississippi from Baton Rouge literally gave life to the specialty of the house: ground artichokes.

My father was an avid gardener, coaxing greens of all kinds, okra and other southern vegetables out of our Maryland soil. But he wanted his ground artichokes – sometimes called Jerusalem artichokes, or, these days, “sunchokes” – to come directly from Pointe Coupee.

Though the native-to-America plant grows pretty much anywhere in this country, Daddy was convinced that the ones from Louisiana tasted better than all others. So about sixty years ago he convinced my great-aunt Martha Morrison, my mother’s mother’s sister, who was married to my great-uncle Norbert Claiborne, my mother’s father’s brother, (you know it can’t be a southern story without a little aside to tell you about who’s related and how) to fill her suitcase with her homegrown tubers. He then proudly planted them in a patch behind the house. Mamma actually liked the sight of the artichokes growing, unlike the corn “decorating” the front yard, because the plants bloom as cheerful tall sunflowers in the summer.

Every year we anxiously watch for those flowers to see if Aunt Martha’s gift has survived another season so that in late November or early December we can dig up the knarly roots for Christmas. Lately, the deer have managed to do a good deal of damage, despite a fence, and we’ve supplemented the originals with a few store-bought “sunchokes” which are a markedly cleaner than the filthy backyard variety.

For years I would just boil the artichokes and mash them with butter and cream (and still some of that stubborn dirt) and serve them. Though I thought they were quite tasty, the children’s table objected loudly to the “yucky green stuff” and I half-heartedly searched around for other recipes. Then one year as the holiday approached I was assigned to interview the famous chef Emeril Lagasse about a new cookbook he had just published for the season: Emeril’s Creole Christmas. So I asked him what he would do with Aunt Martha’s artichokes. “Make a gratin,” he immediately replied. “How?” I asked. He answered: “Oh, I guess with some onions and cream.”  That was it.

So that year instead of mashing the artichokes, I sliced them, buttered up a couple of big Pyrex baking dishes, and started layering. First a layer of artichokes, then a layer of onion, salt and pepper, and then I did it again. I poured heavy cream over it all and sprinkled shredded parmesan on the top, baked it at 350 (or whatever temperature the oven was on for the meat) until it was hot throughout and the cheese melted. You talk about delicious! I have no idea what the measurements are. We usually have about fifty people for Christmas and lots of different dishes so we stop at two big Pyrex pans full.

Actually, it’s not “we,” it’s our son-in-law Dan who’s filling those pans. Bless him, he’s taken over artichoke duty. Our daughter Rebecca cooks up the geese and I do the turkey and dressing plus my famous crab meat hors d’oeuvre, which is the same as everyone else’s famous crab meat hors d’oeuvre. Other family and friends bring vegetables, bread, wine, and fabulous pies.  Then we sit down and toast our Raleigh “children” and grandchildren enjoying a true southern Christmas while we re-create it a few hundred miles north. Then we say prayers of thanksgiving and joy and celebrate our roots – quite literally.