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Sausage Rolls: Seriously

DSC00865 If you had asked me, thirty years ago, what sort of holiday magic I hoped to someday impart to my grateful family, I never would have predicted that it would be all about pork products. But such is my fate. I am the official maker of the sausage rolls. That is my one unchanging task, year in, year out, Thanksgiving and Christmas.

            It’s no small job. I’m one of six siblings, who all married and have two or more children. My oldest nephew is now married and has a baby of his own. Looks like our gatherings, which average 20 or 25 people, are just going to keep getting bigger.

For each holiday, I purchase four pounds of pan sausage from Bob’s Quality Meats on Rainier Avenue in Columbia City. In recent years, I’ve also bought a package of fake sausage for the vegetarians in the family. Then I mix up a quadruple batch of buttermilk biscuit dough. I roll out a quarter of the dough at a time, cover it with sausage, and roll it up together into four and a half long cylinders, which I wrap and put in the freezer. When the big day comes, I slice, bake and serve the sausage rolls piping hot. I must do this. It is written.

           Except, of course, that it’s not written at all. It just sort of happened, a long time ago, that sausage rolls became mandatory. And I went along with it, because—well, maybe because I like having one unchanging holiday task, one that I know will make everyone happy and make me feel useful.

            What many of the younger family members don’t know is that it’s also my own small annual testament to a woman I still miss. A long time ago, she was my mother-in-law.

            “Oh, there she goes, bringing up that first marriage,” I can hear my children saying.

            “What first marriage?” I can hear my youngest nieces and nephews asking.

            Well, kids, way back when I was in my twenties, before I met your Uncle Rustin, I was married to someone else. A nice young man from North Carolina. And so I had a Southern mother-in-law. She was no home-fried stereotype: stylish in an unpretentious way, she worked full-time for a jewelry company, a job she liked. Her nickname was Sam. 

Sam was a voracious reader, an Anglophile, and she enjoyed cooking. And what she cooked bore little resemblance to what my mother cooked. Potato-chip cookies, for example. Or Broccoli Surprise, which involved a lot of cheese, breadcrumbs and sauce. My first husband had never eaten a naken broccoli spear until he dined at our house in Seattle.

            But it was Sam’s sausage rolls that really won me over. What a sinfully rich, animal-fat-laden, incredibly tasty idea: to roll up sausage with biscuit dough, bake, and eat while still piping hot. And so versatile: have a few with coffee on Christmas morning, OR serve as an appetizer later in the day! Sam made them with Bisquick (and so I did too, for many years) and Jimmy Dean’s Pork Sausage (ditto, until I discovered Bob’s).

            In those first-marriage years, I liked to cook, but I wasn’t terribly confident. So to come across something I could make so easily and that everyone in my family instantly loved? It’s no wonder I’ve clung to the formula for three decades.

            And even though, to our Northwestern taste buds, sausage rolls seemed so Southern and therefore clearly tied to that first marriage, the fact that my family members wanted me to keep making them was more than just a damn, these are good! product endorsement.  It was also a way of saying, without having to say it out loud: Don’t worry, Ann. We will ALL survive your divorce. And we will all continue to cherish memories of your first mother-in-law, who died too young from cancer, and your first husband, who really was a nice guy—and who, I’m happy to report, remarried a long time ago and has two kids of his own.

You know what’s funny? I’ve never asked him if they have sausage rolls every Thanksgiving and Christmas. I’ve just always assumed.

Registration is open for Intro to Memoir Writing at SCCCStarts Jan 6, 2014. Six Monday nights. Non-credit = all inspiration, no stress!

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And All Will Be Well

IMG_0395Happy Holidays, Restless Nest readers! For the past several weeks, I’ve been devoting my writing energy to finishing the first draft of The Observant Doubter, my memoir about faith and doubt. I’m happy to say I now HAVE a first draft, which I’m about to (nervously) share with my first circle of critical readers.

Meanwhile, here is a little seasonal morsel from my manuscript. It’s a story from my junior year in college, when I was an exchange student at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England, which some of you may know as the city where the medieval mystic, Julian of Norwich, cloistered herself in a barnacle-like cell attached to a parish church and wrote of her encounters with God. IMG_0644
When I was there four decades ago, I knew little of Julian: I had made a firm turn away from the religious fervor of my teens and was now embarking on the decidedly all-doubt, no-observance phase of my life.

However: there was one frigid December evening in London.

My new boyfriend and I had been walking all over the city, both of us infatuated with its grit and beauty and history. Unlike me, he had done some advance planning for his year in the U.K., and had brought with him not only a copy of Let’s Go Europe, but one of the wonderful, fusty old Blue Guides, which helped us find the homes of famous writers and the Punch Tavern and the dozens of churches designed by Christopher Wren, their spires popping up suddenly between sooty Victorian office blocks like little havens of wholesome village life in the midst of the hectic capitol.

St+James'sWe happened across a Wren church called St. James Piccadilly. Usually, we just admired churches from the outside. But we heard a choir singing a Christmas carol, one of the English ones we Americans sing less often—was it “Lo, how a rose ere blooming?” Or “I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In?” Or “The Holly and the Ivy?”—I can’t now recall. What I do remember is feeling that I must go inside.

“It’s alright,” I said. “We’ll be very quiet. No one will notice us.”

We opened the door and saw that there were stairs to an upper gallery. We tiptoed up and slipped into the front row.

No one was in the church but the choir. It must have been a rehearsal. I remember whitewashed walls, dark pews, red drapes, stained-glass windows. I remember white choir robes. I remember that the choir was young: children and teenagers. I remember music filling the church, filling me.

Oh, the rising of the sun, and the running of the deer; 

The playing of the merry organ; sweet singing in the choir.

I remember feeling not just filled but held. The way a mother holds a baby, bathing her child in warmth and light. I remember crying.

Later, I called it a blast of intense, Christmastime nostalgia. But I knew, though I did not want to try, then, to describe it to anyone, including myself—I knew that it was more than that.

It felt like the reassurance of which Julian wrote: All will be well. I, God, am still here. And all will be well. I’ll always be here. And every kind of thing shall be well. Come back when you’re ready.

In the years ahead, that hour in St. James Piccadilly became a place I could go to for an instant. A match I could light, quickly, and blow out before anyone saw it.


Merry Christmas.

Here are a few more seasonal stories: a guest post I wrote for the Patheos/Good Letters site called Going to the Manger as She Is, and this favorite from the Restless Nest archives: Sausage Rolls.


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