Growing up, I always wanted to host a Christmas dinner: guests seated around a beautifully set table, the smell of homemade biscuits in the air, amber lights glowing on a fresh-cut tree. So this year at my farm in Indiana—the haven where I go to replenish myself after days of constant doing—Stedman and I brought together nine folks for a celebration complete with the two ingredients guaranteed to make any gathering big fun: great laughs and good food.
Days before the first guest steps through the holly-decorated doorway, my chef, Art Smith, begins dicing, chopping, mincing, and brewing to stir up a menu with some of my all-time favorite fixin's: slow-roasted chicken with wild rice dressing (the perfect "I'm sick of turkey" choice), pantry tomato tart (a dish I've always loved), and sautéed greens with shallots (a scrumptious way to get those veggies in). Art always knows to start the meal with soup. As a child, I would watch Lassie, and there was always a Campbell's soup commercial where Timmy's mom would feed him soup that was "M'm! M'm! Good!" Ever since, soup has been my favorite thing to have for lunch, and in winter I have it almost every day. For this special dinner, I ask Art to mix up the soup I most often request: spicy winter squash. He makes his with butternut squash (it's absolutely de-lish!), but he tells me that any kind of winter squash will do: calabaza, hubbard, or, in a pinch, even a sugar pumpkin.
Few people get more excited about a party than my best friend, Gayle King. "I've just seen Art's menu," she exclaims hours before our dinner. "I can't wait." One by one, soon after dusk, the eight other guests arrive: Stedman's daughter, Wendy Graham; my father, Vernon Winfrey, and his wife, Barbara; my godmother, Rosalind Eddins (I call her Mrs. E), and her husband, Calvin; my longtime pals Mary Kay Clinton and her husband, Tom O'Brien. And of course, there's my one very special guest who steps in, working her new do: my goddaughter, 8-year-old Katy Rose, child of Mary Kay and Tom—whose flip is fabulous.
After a champagne toast accompanied by a taste of the South—drop biscuits with ham—we take our places around the dining room table. Some of my fondest early memories were around a table like this one. My grandmother, Hattie Mae, would stand over a hot stove for hours, preparing cheese grits, homemade biscuits dripping with butter, home-cured ham, red-eye gravy—and that was just breakfast! During Sunday supper—the one day when the preacher from Kosciusko Baptist Church down the road was sure to stop in to join us—our table was heaped with smothered chicken, black-eyed peas, fried okra and buttered cornbread. Food was the guest of honor, covering so much of the table there was hardly room for plates. As Stedman gives thanks for the bounty before us and the spirit of those gathered, I am grateful, more than 40 years after sitting at my grandmother's table, that I can offer the same gifts of abundance and care that she passed on to me during our feasts—all of the love, less of the butter.
Beneath the flicker of 12 dancing flames from the chandelier, dinner is punctuated with the sounds of celebration: Katy Rose's giggle, the clickety-clack of silver against china, Johnny Mathis crooning "Christmas Is a Feeling in Your Heart" in the background. Stedman carves the bird. I lift my glass for a wine toast: Gayle, the consummate abstainer who would ask a bartender for a hit of milk, of course declines. What she will partake of is the irresistible dessert: The fluffy coconut cake looks like it has floated right down from heaven and onto our plates. Later, in the living room, where crystal ornaments hang in the windows and the blue spruce towers more than ten feet into the air, Art serves up one of his grandma's old-time Southern recipes: a vanilla-fudge-like candy called divinity.
As a child, I always dreamed of the ideal Christmas: bows of holly on the staircase, mistletoe in all the doorways, snowman in the yard, elf dolls in every corner. In all my years of growing up, I'd never even had a real tree—and our fake one was only three feet high, dressed with one of those colored-light twirls. So for the first time, back in 1989, I gave myself all that I'd thought I wanted—starting with an ornament party, since I had not one single ornament to my name. As I sit with friends in front of a fireplace now, surrounded by more ornaments than I ever thought I'd own, I remember what I realized more than a decade ago: Christmas can't be found on a tree or in a package. It comes with the rich connections we make with those around us and with the nurturing we extend to ourselves and others—those are the gifts that count. Johnny Mathis had it right: Christmas is a feeling in your heart. And whether you're commemorating Chanukah, Kwanzaa, or December 25, the celebration is meaningful only if the spirit of the day lives strong in you all year round.