by Dean McCord
As we approach Christmas, weary of the incessant blares from the TV, newspaper, radio, and the gazillion catalogs to buy, Buy, BUY, I return to the old clichés: “It’s better to give than to receive,” or “Christmas is the season of giving.” Well, it’s not. My kids, even the grown ones, want stuff, any kind of stuff. Heck, I like my stuff, too, and even though I’m 50, I still find myself petulantly and selfishly saddened when my presents aren’t up to snuff. Childish? Yup. Sad? Absolutely.
But each Christmas, it isn’t a syrupy sweet movie on Lifetime or Ira David Wood’s portrayal of Scrooge that reminds me that the season is indeed all about giving. This wake-up call comes from a lovely couple living near Cameron Village, a couple who have been married for more than 50 years, a couple with some of the largest hearts I’ve ever encountered. I’ve been fortunate to know this couple for more than 20 of those years, because they happen to be my in-laws, Ben and Lianda Taylor.
Each year, they host a fairly simple but generous Christmas Eve party. This party is not designed just to have fun, but it’s a night to get a good meal. To have some cheer. There are usually a couple of soups, some wine, and whatever anyone else brings. Anyone can be 50 or more people, mostly old friends and family, but each year, someone new. Someone the Taylors just met. A year or two ago, a dog got loose in the neighborhood, and the owners chased it onto the Taylors’ lawn. Of course, Ben and Lianda struck up a conversation with the dog’s owners, and they were promptly invited to the party, strangers no more.
At the end of the night, everyone walks home with a gift. In some years, it was a cookbook or a toy. Lianda has also given away homemade liqueurs like limoncello or cookies or other tasty treats. But everyone gets something.
And now it’s figs.
Fig preserves. Fig butter. Fig pickles. Fig cake and fig cookies and fig syrup. Lianda Taylor has become the fig lady. If you drive down Daniels Street, you’ll see that their front yard is now a small fig orchard with seven or eight trees and more being planted. I’m wondering when they will cut down the magnificent cedar of Lebanon in their front yard to make room for more fig trees. It’s a bit of an obsession, of course, but a delicious obsession at that.
Ben picks the ones up high, and the diminutive Lianda gets the rest (except for what the birds eat). She cleans them and into the freezer they go. They even had to buy an extra freezer to store all of these figs. And then she really gets to work, making all kinds of different jars and cakes and pastries of delightful figgy-ness.
Ben and Lianda have not always been so giving when it came to figs. They used to treat fig preserves like they were gold. At my first Christmas with them, as we sat down to a Christmas morning breakfast of biscuits, eggs, melted sharp cheddar cheese, and fig preserves, Lianda told me, with very little affect, “You don’t need to try those preserves. They’re an acquired taste and aren’t very good.” Of course, Ben’s smirk gave her away. A fig and melted cheddar biscuit is heaven on a plate, a perfect combination of sweet and salty and deliciousness.
I know that this year, once again, it will be party night. I’ll hug folks I know and some I don’t. I’ll make new friends. I’ll have some great pasta e fagioli soup. I’ll pour wine, clean dishes, and chase after my kids. Even though it will be Christmas Eve, the night before what might be the most selfish day of the year, my mind won’t be on tomorrow. It won’t be about the swag coming my way. Instead, it will be about making others feel welcome. It will be about giving. And that’s because my in-laws taught me properly.
But I’ll take a peek in my gift bag as I leave.
Dean McCord is a Raleigh resident, a health-care attorney, a father of four reasonably well-adjusted children, and an avid home cook and eater. He is active in a number of local and national organizations, including the Southern Foodways Alliance. He was also the creator of the popular local food blog VarmintBites.