Comfort and Joy, Christmas and Food: An Unusual Mennonite Story
Today’s Christmas Eve guest post comes from Kathleen Foster Friesen, no stranger to these pages. Kathleen commented on a thread on my Facebook writer’s page several weeks ago, and I asked her to tell her family holiday food tradition story here.
So, from Kathleen and from me, Merry Christmas, curry style! And if you celebrate other holidays in this season, may they be blessed and full of light.
Comfort and Joy
by Kathleen Foster Friesen
The warm, complex smells of Indian spices permeate the house: curry, ginger, cinnamon, cumin, garlic, cardamom, turmeric. The textures beckon the palate: curries, korma, pilau, dal, chapattis, apple-raisin chutney, lime achar. The Friesen and Murray families are gathering. It’s time for stories and celebrating our connections to India.
My father-in-law, Paul Friesen grew up in India. He is the son of the first Mennonite woman physician, Florence Cooprider Friesen, M.D. and P.A. Friesen, missionaries to India. He tells adventure stories about tigers, leopards, and snakes. He describes the mobile clinics his parents held as Dr. Friesen made strides in treating Hanson’s Disease (leprosy). He shares the remembered pain of being left at boarding school when he was a small boy, watching the small white dot that was his mother walk down the mountainside, leading her away from the Woodstock school.
Paul’s sister Grace Friesen Slatter describes happier, Christmas memories:
Indians celebrate Christmas by caroling all night. So sometime that night or early in the morning, a group of carolers came around and woke us up with their singing.
On Christmas Day we all went to church for a Christmas Program. Then we went from house to house as Christmas dinner guests. … First they came with a basin and some water for us to wash the hand we would be eating with. Then came an assortment of Indian breads. And finally a helping of rice and curry and dal. We could not eat very much at any place as we had too many places to eat. It all tasted so good that it was hard not to eat to the full. (p. 186)
The Friesen family returned from India in 1941 as the World War II fighting increased in the Asian theater. Some would return as missionaries or visitors. But love of good Indian food and stories lives in their bones. In 1992, the family compiled a book, friesen flair for food and folklore. Grace writes, “This book has been compiled as an effort to keep alive the memories of good times, sad times, fun times and naughtiness, all interwoven with food which has not only sustained us, but has added interest and flavor to our lives (p. 1).”
Of note for memoir writers, she continues, “It has been interesting to note that sometimes our memories of the same events differ a bit – but they are nevertheless our memories and have been written as contributed – ‘variety is the spice of life’ (p. 1).”
My family, the Murrays, has our own India connections. My brother, John C. Murray first traveled to India in 1997 with Dr. Subbarao and Olga Yarlagadda and members of the Emma Mennonite Church. Together they established Menno Clinic India in Chiluvuru, returning annually to nurture relationships in the village and visit the clinic. And, my niece, Meghana Joy, was adopted into our family from Hyderabad.
When Jon Friesen and I married, we celebrated with a curry-bash, bringing together two families with a love for India. The joy of sisters, brothers, and mothers cooking together, chopping and talking on that day – rings warmly in my mind. The sadness of missing those who are no longer with us appears in the tears that well up as I write. And yet, a smile lurks as I recall only two evenings ago hearing the familiar words, “Tell us the story about when the tiger visited at night … .”
There will be comfort and joy in sharing savory food, playing music, and telling stories old and new this Christmas week. There will be sacred laughter, tears of remembrance, and the warmth of love. We will part until we meet again, sustained by the food of love and grace.
Descendants of P.A., Helena, and Florence Friesen. (1992). Friesen flair for food and folklore. Self-published.
Photograph copyright 2011 by Jon Friesen. Sculpture by Paul Friesen: “Soul of Florence”
We loved curry in our house too, and we had what now seem like extravagant food traditions but were more common in those days. In my childhood I can only remember that my mother was born on Christmas Eve and got to open presents–while none of the rest of us could. My grandmother would take us all out if she were visiting, or have a magnificent party and dinner for my mother if we were visiting her.
As we grew up and started going away to school (which my brother and I began in 1959), the night we all came home was December 23rd. The ceremonial returning home meal was leg of lamb, which we all loved–and it evolved into lamb curry in the days after Christmas. Then on Christmas Eve my mother would choreograph a party for herself, carried out by all of us, followed by a roast beef dinner that we all put together. And Christmas afternoon we would have turkey. Of course, my brothers and sister and I and our spouses all contributed to cleaning up every night after eating and sometimes partying. As grandchildren joined the group, of course, there was still plenty to eat, even as they turned into teenagers. And days of delicious leftovers served in a variety of ways! Yet when everyone left sometime after the 27th, the food would mostly have disappeared.
Today, as always on Christmas Eve, I miss my mother.
Tonight we are part of a new tradition with our daughter, who is having us along with her husband’s mother over for tamales she has ordered. She doesn’t eat red meat but will eat pork. And after years of staying at home all day to baste the turkey, I finally decided last year that we should have ham on Christmas. I still set a beautiful table, but is a lot easier, and the ham is beautiful.
Susan, thanks for sharing your wonderful Christmas feast stories. It sounds like you had just about every type of meat main course, and all of them sound delicious.
A good reminder that we can make curry with leftovers of almost every kind.
You are making me hungry. We are having chicken mirabella for Christmas Eve and ham tomorrow. All the children and grandchildren are here, and we even had snow today in Virginia. We went sledding down our driveway and made Frosty the snowperson.
Many blessings to you and all your family. May your fond memories of your mother ease the sadness of not having her with you.
Susan, thank you for adding your stories to this page. I especially connected with the fun you had cleaning up as well as preparing.
May the warm memories and the love of your family bring a measure of comfort as you miss your Mother.
Stuart made broccoli curry cheddar soup. Not exactly Indian, but very tasty. Thought of you, Kathleen.
Hope your family has seen and enjoyed this post. I remember someone in my Women’s Studies class at Goshen did a paper on Florence Cooprider Friesen based on archival materials. I loved reading about her amazing life. So glad that this cookbook helps preserve some of her memory as well as many others.