We circled the truth, hardly daring to admit it even to ourselves, until it came out in a brother and sister moment of truth in our late twenties: we loathed Grandmother’s port wine jello.
Grandmother’s port wine jello was a staple of every holiday meal, passed down from her mother before her. In fact, it was the only part of any holiday meal she made herself. Though she boasted that she had won prizes in two recipe contests (not with port wine jello), the nitty-gritty of holiday cooking was not for her. She left that to her daughter-in-law, my mother, and had no territorial feeling whatsoever for her kitchen.
We were dutiful children, and it really wasn’t that bad for the first few bites. It was pretty, made in individual-size molds, with a deep burgundy color from the all-important port. Celery and cherries floated in it like green and scarlet astronauts. A dollop of mayonnaise topped it off. And really, I repeat, the first bite or two wasn’t that bad. After that, it became a matter of how much you could squish down on your plate to make it look like you’d eaten more, or how casual you could be as you lay your napkin on top of it.
But, like arsenic, port wine jello has an accumulated toxicity. We had all reached our limit by our eleventh birthdays.
In particular my brother Chris had to guard the secret of our loathing, because my grandmother was convinced that he did not just like port wine jello, but downright adored it. As we drove to visit her one day, I gathered my nerve to ask him, “Do you really like the port wine jello?” My feelings for him could have been altered forever if he said yes.
But he responded with a blunt, “No.” He only gritted his teeth a little.
We tried to analyze the origin of Grandmother’s delusion, but he couldn’t recall any particular time he had made the mistake of raving about it. If you could rave about the port wine jello, he said, you were probably just raving in general.
We weren’t in her house ten minutes before Grandmother mentioned Chris’s abiding passion for port wine jello and her regret that she had none to give him. We made the mistake of glancing at each other, but self-control, or at least self-preservation, is a strong trait in our family, and we were not rude or disowned.
When my grandmother died at the age of ninety-eight –- a fascinating study would be the preservative qualities of port wine jello –- my mother inherited all of her recipes, prize-winning and otherwise. I would include the recipe here, but she claims to have “lost” it.
So when my family gathers around the holiday table, and clasps hands to give thanks for life and home and each other, we are port wine jello-less. We do not mention this in our prayers, although fervent alleluias can be read in our eyes. As with many families, unity comes in the form of a common enemy.
I’ll let you know if we find the recipe.