Rhumba and I had a low-key Christmas. We exchanged no presents, attended no feast, met with no relatives. In no way did our Christmas resemble the cultural standard.
Which, these days, has been set by the ’80s movie “A Christmas Story.” It’s a great flick, a movie about the goofiness of celebrating Christmas in America. Which, in in this movie includes an invading dog pack which devours the turkey and necessitates dinner at a Chinese restaurant: the only restaurant open on Christmas. Despite all that, and more, the family’s Christmas is a success, because there’s love. A lot of screaming, but also love.
Basic cable channels have played “A Christmas Story” to death over the years. It’s now the millennials’ paradigm of Christmas spirit. But let me tell you a slightly different Christmas story from years past. And it is about family, and friendship, and Christmas — and being hungry.
Rhumba and I were newly a couple, back bout 25 years ago, and we went north for Christmas to be with two of her dearest friends: two sisters who lived in Ashland, in southern Oregon. We had Christmas dinner at sister Carol’s house, and it was memorable.
Ashland is known for theater festivals, and theater in general Carol taught and directed children’s theater for the school district; her husband was a otherworldly Buddhist monk of sorts, shaved head and all. Between stints of meditation in the mountains, he did odd jobs. Together, they’d raised two very theatrical daughters.
They owned very little. Their rented house was little more than a shack; the Ashland winter chill beat against the walls with vigor. None of that seemed to matter; all four of them chattered with us about life in general with gusto and no restraint. At ages 10 or 12, the daughters freely joined in all discussion.
It was great discussion. At one point the ten year old daughter might be ragging out her father for screwing up her pet-sitting business. (“I CANNOT go away for THREE DAYS without SOMETHING HAPPENING!”) And from there to the perils of children’s theater, and on from there to an intense discussion of the Lost Continent of Mu. If I had taped that afternoon, you’d pay to see it. They were unconventional, over-verbal, and quite in love with one another.
All in all, one my most memorable Christmases. And they fed us a fine dinner but… there wasn’t very much of it. Rhumba and I looked at the modest platters of food and the modest surroundings, and stopped ourselves at one helping each.
“Please, have more.” “Oh no, we’re fine.” I could have eaten everything left on the table. But they had so little. Rhumba and I drove off with fond memories and half-full stomachs. It was better that way but.. there was no place to get food in Ashland. The whole town was locked down for Christmas.
It being four in the afternoon, we drove up to Medford for a movie. And maybe, maybe to find some food. Though Medford had gone as dark for Christmas as Ashland. We saw the movie: “We’re No Angels,” with Robert DeNiro. The sound went wonky about halfway through and management offered refunds to the audience. But we stayed to the end along with the ten other people in the theater, because there was damn all else to do in Medford on Christmas evening in 1991.
Then we were back in the car, roaming Medford’s empty streets for an open restaurant. Rhumba wan’t hopeful, but I kept driving. “I’ll know what I’m looking for when I see it,” I said. I did know what I sought, but I didn’t want to say. Because it no longer existed back in the Bay Area. Medford was 30 years behind the times, though — old cars, old storefronts, old everything. Maybe there would still be, after all these years….
A bright-red building with floodlights and a golden dragon on the roof. “Lucky Dragon, Chinese and American Food.” And the windows were full of diners.
“YES!” I shouted. “I KNEW they’d have one.” We pulled in immediately.
When I grew up, most Chinese restaurants advertised “Chinese and American Food,” because there wasn’t enough demand for Chinese food alone, especially bland, inauthentic Americanized Cantonese recipes. “Chinese and American Food” restaurants were a good place to get fried rice, or a hot roast beef sandwich. I usually had the hot roast beef.
“Chinese and American” had vanished in the Bay Area with the Asian influx of the ’70s; a Mandarin or Szechuan eatery could stand on its own now.
But in Medford, in 1991, Mandarin immigrants and Mandarin food were still but a rumor. Tacky, old-school “Chinese and American” restaurants still ruled. We were greeted by an Asian hostess in a silk dress slit up the thigh. She walked us into a red-and-gold movie set of a dining room full of golden statues of Chinese dog-demons. And yes, their special that day was turkey dinner with all the trimmings. Which we both were more than happy with.
That’s always been my quibble with the movie “A Christmas Story:” there should have been a “Chinese and American” restaurant around Indiana in the ’30s, one that could turn out a hot turkey sandwich with canned gravy. At least. But, oh well.
Rhumba and I did do one thing for Christmas today; as in Medford, we went out to see a movie. That’s also a sort of tradition: see a movie on a Thanksgiving or Christmas Day, when the theaters are empty.
But that tradition doesn’t work anymore, either. We went to see an honest-to-god new Hollywood musical, “La La Land.” and found the place was packed with 60- and 70-something couples like ourselves out for a double senior/matinee discount.
We don’t mind sitting in Row 4, though, and the movie was good. Later on, we noticed that only one real restaurant downtown had opened its doors for Christmas. it was Chinese, and it was two-thirds full.
Some traditions remain after all. A grand solstice to you all.