November 20, 2018 News & Features » Cover Story


Butter Beans, Babka & Bourbon Balls 

Restaurateurs share their culinary holiday memories.

click to enlarge Hall at his Fan District restaurant, Spoonbread Bistro.

Scott Elmquist

Hall at his Fan District restaurant, Spoonbread Bistro.

For many folks, the holidays are the equivalent of a part-time job.

The convergence of shopping, mailing, cleaning, cooking, decorating, entertaining, being entertained, traveling, looking up far-flung friends, looking after far-flung relatives, volunteering, activities at places of worship, attending seasonal musical, dance and theatrical events, and dining out is not for the faint-hearted.

But consider Richmond's growing cadre of restaurateurs: The owners, chefs and managers who attempt some, or all of the above activities, must also work tirelessly to deliver culinary magic to their expectant, if not demanding, clientele.

Something they can enjoy, however, despite seasonal pressures, their own first encounters with holiday foods, the spirit of hospitality and the singular peoples who inspired them. These memories have been edited and condensed.

Michael Hall, owner and chef
Spoonbread Bistro, 2526 Floyd Ave. and Spoonbread Deux, 3416 Lauderdale Drive

At Christmas, when I was young, we'd go from house to house because we had so many relatives. My grandparents had 14 children! It was like a pub crawl. Since my mom's house was the biggest, everybody gravitated there. Everybody brought something to eat.

My mother, Rosa Hall, was a single parent and I was raised in an old house on North 35th Street on Church Hill. The ceilings were fricking high and we always had a live Christmas tree. As time went on, we moved to Henrico County and began using a fake tree. Mom had all kinds of Christmas decorations, but I remember a decorative plate with a picture of Jesus on it.

My mother sometimes did a turkey or a picnic shoulder ham. We never had pork chops or sweetbreads. We usually had a broccoli and rice casserole. My aunt, Doris Buskey, would bring macaroni and cheese. Harmon Buskey was an uncle who owned the D&D Barbecue which used to be at Broad and 17th Street in Shockoe Bottom, where the McDonald's is now. He made the best barbecue and since he was from North Carolina, it was vinegar-based. Someone would always bring chitterlings and souse. Souse is made of chopped pigs' ears that are worked down to a gelatinous state. We always ate these on simple saltine crackers. Delicious.

When I was young, unspiked eggnog was prepared by another uncle, Jack Hall. He, like much of our family, was from the small town of Jarrett, near Emporia. When I got older, the eggnog was spiked.

Sometimes Mom did a great carrot cake. She had once worked at Ukrop's [grocery stores] decorating cakes. But she was most famous for her rice pudding. She always made two versions of it since my brother didn't like raisins, while she and I loved them.

My mother was also very superstitious. Even after we moved to Henrico, without fail, she served black-eyed peas at Christmas. She believed they brought good luck.

click to enlarge SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist

Bruce Rowland, co-owner and co-chef with his wife, Virginia Rowland
Rowland, 2132 W. Main St.

I never had the joy of believing in Santa Claus. When I was about 5, my two older brothers told me that there was no such thing as Santa Claus. But I'd never believed in Santa in the first place, so I guess I turned it around on them.

However, I do believe I remember my first special Christmas dinner. My mother, who loved to cook, prepared a goose. I'd never had it before so it was pretty exotic. I was 5 or 6, and we were living in Brussels, Belgium, at the time. We moved around quite a bit because of our father's occupation. He was an engineer who designed hotels, and later, nuclear power plants.

Our holiday traditions weren't that grand. We always had a Christmas tree and that was about it. But as kids, my five siblings and I — I'm one of triplets — were into Christmas because of toys.

At one point we had a nanny, Linda, and she cooked for us. She was a great lady. She made the most delicious crepes with orange juice and fresh citrus. It was a bit of a British thing.

As a child, our grandparents usually couldn't come for Christmas often because we moved around and they didn't live nearby. But when we lived in Pittsburgh and my father's parents lived in Ashville, N.C., they visited. Papa, as we called our grandfather, had worked for Coca-Cola for 65 years. He would always take us kids to fast food restaurants like Kentucky Fried Chicken and Burger King—places that carried Coke products. We hadn't been exposed to fast food so it was a treat. He would stuff us. Meanwhile, he'd always be observing the operations, quizzing the employees and looking for sales opportunities.

In high school, I worked my first restaurant job. There were more than 20 employees. It was owned by a young couple. They made it fun and I thought it was cool going to work.

When we were 17, my sister Sarah [one of the triplet siblings] lived in Colombia for a year as an AFS [American Field Service] foreign exchange student. When she came back she was a vegetarian. Of course, we asked her how this had come about. It seems her adopted family owned a cow to which she'd become quite fond. Her name was Rosie. The night before Sarah was leaving to come back to the United States, the family had a farewell meal for her. The next day, when Sarah went to say 'good-bye' to the cow, she was nowhere to be found. When she asked her whereabouts, she was told: "You ate Rosie last night."

I have to give my sister Sarah credit: She can make mean vegetarian lasagna.

My mother liked to cook and she was great at it. We didn't always have goose at Christmas. They can be hard to find. So she liked to mix it up from year to year. Sometimes she prepared prime ribs. One year I remember helping her with the turkey and peeling potatoes.

As to holiday desserts, we did nothing exotic. Back in the day chocolate chips cookies were always delicious and my mother made pumpkin pie. But her pineapple upside down cake was her specialty.

When you're a kid, it's all about the sugar, right?

click to enlarge Maria Oseguera photographed in Lucca Enoteca, a restaurant she and her husband, Michael, formerly owned. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Maria Oseguera photographed in Lucca Enoteca, a restaurant she and her husband, Michael, formerly owned.

Maria Oseguera, chef and co-owner of Maya Mexican Grill and Tequila Lounge
525 E. Grace St.

I am from Chinchina, Colombia. It is located in the coffee region of the country. At Christmas the temperature is warm, the weather is beautiful. I have two older brothers and a younger sister. Our grandmother, Abuelita, was a very church-going Catholic, attending religiously.

An important part of our family's Christmas was Advent. Each night leading up to Christmas Eve we would say a special prayer. And every night we would get a little present or treat. All the children looked forward to it. And each night we would visit a different house of our cousins, aunts, uncles and close neighbors.

Everyone also had new clothes for Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve. We would try the clothes on and then they would be put away until the big night

Christmas Eve was the night we received the baby Jesus.

The Christmas Eve dining tradition was that everyone has roasted suckling pig that is cooked on a spit. This is called lechon, or pork. My grandmother raised the pigs on her farm in the country. It was a bit traumatizing hearing the pig cry as it was slaughtered. We cooked it in our backyard. It was a huge team effort and everyone helped. The men started the fire. The pig was stuffed with rice, raisins and olives.

The Christmas Eve meal also included a potato salad with raisins, onions and apples. It was delicious and I still make it.

Something I never enjoyed were the buñuelos, which are very traditional. These are a kind of cheese pastry formed into little balls and fried.

In addition to the roasted whole pig, everyone has natilla. This is a vanilla-based custard that is served cold. It was my grandmother's thing to make.

There was a very, very big kitchen with a big table in the middle. I loved the smells and to listen to the adults' conversation. I found the Christmas music so inspiring.

There was so much food, we ate leftovers on Christmas Day.

I have not been to Colombia for many years. As for Christmas traditions, nothing has changed there. It makes me emotional. I wish I had time to do these things with my three children.

click to enlarge Wright in his restaurant at Broad and Adams streets. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Wright in his restaurant at Broad and Adams streets.

William Wright, owner and manager, Bistro 27
27 W. Broad St.

We did the holidays, two of them. My father is Catholic and attends St. Andrews in Roanoke. My mother is Jewish and goes to Beth Israel. I have one brother, Matthew.

From a young age I picked up on how special food, traditions and religion all come together at the holidays. We never did Santa Claus. We did have a menorah and lit the Hanukah candles.

It was also the time of the year that Matthew I saw our grandparents since they didn't live in Roanoke. Each set visited at different times. When I was very young my maternal grandparents didn't come that often because my mother had married outside of the faith.

I called my father's mother Granny. She lived on a farm near Harrisonburg and was a large woman. For her, Christmas was everything. And, oh my god, she loved to cook and eat. She ruled in the kitchen, and didn't especially want others to help: "I'll do it," she'd say.

Throughout the year she would put up pickles and preserves. Then for Christmas she would do turkey, roast beef that was really well-cooked, and mashed potatoes. Her biscuits were the best, best, best, you ever tasted. Then there were pies and cobblers. Nothing elegant.

Family friends would drop by throughout the day on Christmas, and folks from church and temple, the Kauffmans, the Katzes, the Kurtzes, and the Haazys.

My maternal grandmother, Nanaw, was tall and thin and lived in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. She always had her nails and her lipstick well-manicured: She wouldn't leave the house unless she was made up like a Picasso painting.

When she visited, we always had the matzo ball soup and a holiday brisket. We also had rugelach, which were little puff pastries, and babka, these were super-sweet desserts and are wonderful.

My father would always say a special prayer at Christmas. It reminded us to be thankful for what we had, to always give back, and to be nice to mankind.

Today, I have a nondenominational holiday tree at my house and a silver menorah. I may not be a practicing Jew, but I'm very religious from the inside.

click to enlarge Conway at Metzger Bar & Butchery in Union Hill. Pewter pieces that once belonged to his grandmother hang on the wall. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Conway at Metzger Bar & Butchery in Union Hill. Pewter pieces that once belonged to his grandmother hang on the wall.

Nathan Conway, co-owner
Metzger Bar & Butchery, 801 N. 23rd St. and Brenner Pass, 3200 Rockbridge St.

We did a pretty traditional Virginia Christmas. It was centered at my grandmother's house in Glen Allen. She was Dorothy Leiffer, I called her Nanny.

As a boy, the weekend before Christmas, my mother would drop me off at her house. I'm an only child so this was free babysitting and I'd help Nanny get ready for the holidays. She had my chores already listed on a yellow legal pad. When a job was done, it got crossed through. She had this wooden, conelike thing with nails coming out of it. I'd stick these specific little apples on it. Later, she'd interweave evergreens.

While I worked my list, she'd sit at the kitchen table, planning the Christmas meal and smoking Misty cigarettes: I remember the pink and white package.

This is how Christmas dinner would play out: Aunts, uncles, relatives and friends, some 20 to 30 altogether, would come on Christmas at about one o'clock. The house would be all decorated with gaudy, sparkly stuff from the '70s.

We'd gather in the kitchen for appetizers.

"This is the only time this year that I peel the shrimp for you," Nanny always announced. She'd have cooked the shrimp in beer with Old Bay and chopped onions and celery.

The crab dip was served from a copper chafing dish heated with a flame. It had sherry wine and we scooped it out with white bread. The spinach dip contained horse chestnuts and was served in a hollowed out loaf of King's Hawaiian bread.

She never had eggnog or punch, but homemade Kahlua that was kept in a clear container identified by neat, old lady cursive written on masking tape. She also believed that Jack Daniels Whiskey Green could cure any ailment.

When the rolls came out of the oven it was time to make our way to the dining room table. The rolls were served in an insulated aluminum ice bucket with penguins embossed on the sides.

We always had a "ha-am," as Nanny would pronounce it, in two syllables. It came from Kite's Hams near Gordonsville. Sometimes we had turkey and cornbread stuffing. The first cooking assignment I remember was making gravy.

There were butter beans cooked to mush and sweet potato casserole with marshmallows on top. Also, steamed peas in butter and mashed potatoes.

For dessert we'd make our way to the front parlor which was decorated with its own special decorations. The house plants had been removed temporarily from their table and replaced with desserts. The display was pretty epic. There were Christmas cookies, apple pie and sweet potato pie. But most important of all were the bourbon balls. These had been aged between sheets of wax paper and when you opened up the tin, the aroma was WHOOO!

They were the one thing that I'd made in the way of baking. Nanny would give me the recipe, which was protected in plastic and kept in a binder where she kept all her recipe clippings. I'd crunch up vanilla wafers, add cocoa powder, and measure out half a cup of bourbon before rolling them into little balls. One year, Nanny came over, swept some up with her finger, and sampled my batch.

"You haven't put enough bourbon in," she said.

I assured her that I'd followed the recipe. Without missing a beat she added an additional cup and a half of Jack Daniels.

Christmas was always kind of boisterous with my uncles Pat and Buzz keeping the conversation going.

For Nanny, it was the highlight of the year. Afterward, she'd sleep for a week.

Click here to return to The Holiday Almanac


More by Edwin Slipek

Connect with Style Weekly

Copyright © 2022 Style Weekly
Richmond's alternative for news, arts, culture and opinion
All rights reserved
Powered by Foundation