It's funny that when I look back on life, from the cupcakes I'd bring into school for birthdays to the ice cream my family ate on that summer vacation to the time where my parents and my brother ate lobster while wearing giant plastic bibs, I often seen things in terms of food. Like Christmas.
When I was growing up, the month of December meant tins of all kinds of cookies and fudge lined up along my grandma's creaky staircase, gifts she planned to take to every friend and relative, with at least one container of oatmeal chocolate chip cookies planned especially for me.
I baked cookies covered with red and green sprinkles, eaten while I was watching It's a Wonderful Life or a made-for-TV movie about a girl who wants a mom for Christmas. My mom baked cookies rolled in powdered sugar or kolachkys with apricot and raspberry jelly in the centers. We sipped hot chocolate. We gave away panettones. We even had presents that related to food: I'll never forget taking my new doll up to my room, her hands holding a tray of muffins that actually smelled like chocolate, thinking that life couldn't get any better than this.
Then there were the parties. Christmas parties at our house were the sound of many voices and the smell of coffee brewing and tables covered in meatballs and sandwiches and chips and dip and enormous trays of cookies and fudge. I'd gravitate towards the sweet rather than savory (I still do), filling my plate with the Jell-O mold and some fruit and desserts, a glass of homemade punch on the side. I liked the meatballs and the cheese and crackers, and you know I loved the cookies, but one item on the buffet I never missed was this: my mom's cherry cream cheese spread, pink and whipped, slathered on top of mini bagels and studded with dates, walnuts and chopped cherries. I don't even like the texture of cherries (the flavor, yes; the texture, no), but this spread is so good, I got past it, scooping the glossy, red bits to the side as I piled more cream cheese on another piece of bagel.
Today, when I whip up my mom's cherry cream cheese spread, I remember the way I felt at Christmas parties, usually a little shy, hoping to hug the food table rather than make conversation, but knowing my parents were expecting me to be friendly and kind, like a hostess. In a way, maybe that's why I remember the food best: because when all else fails, you always have that bagel with cherry cream cheese to hold in your hand, to talk about when you're desperate for a topic, to fill your mouth when there's nothing to say. Food is what we all have in common, at Christmas and all year long. It is what nourishes us, it is what pleases us, it is how we celebrate, it is how we show love. At Christmas especially, food is what I'll remember.
Cherry Cream Cheese Spread
I make this spread with a few alterations to my mom's original: where she stirs everything by hand, allowing the dates and nuts and cherry chunks to stay intact, studding the spread with crunch and dimension, I zip it all through the food processor, creating a version more smooth and simple and void of any large cherry pieces. You choose which you prefer.
Ingredients: 8 ounces plain cream cheese 3 teaspoons cherry juice (from a jar of maraschino cherries) 2 teaspoons chopped dates 2 teaspoons chopped walnuts 2 teaspoons chopped cherries
Directions: Combine all the ingredients in a food processor and blend until thoroughly combined, with the additions reduced to tiny bits throughout. Slather on bagels (I like the plain mini ones) and enjoy!