Boxing Day at Brick Arbor: Poppyseed Chicken
My mother adored Christmas. Early in December, we’d rummage the boxes of decorations down from the attic: the plaster of Paris crèche from Japan, the ceramic tree lit from within and studded with plastic “ornaments” (rather like Lite Brite), scads of 1960s era figurines, like a Santa band and little angels. We twined the bannisters with garland and hung brass horns all over. A wreath went on the outside of the front door and sleigh bells hung on the inside, jingling at every entry and exit. The house was transformed, and she loved it.
Christmas dinner was nearly always just our family of six (excepting the odd relative who might be in town or a college student or two unable to travel home for the holiday). But when I was in college, my mother instituted another dinner occasion that began to rival Christmas—for me at least. My unabashedly Anglophilic parents knew, of course, of the lovely English tradition of celebrating Boxing Day on the 26th. In 1989, Betsy invited a group of folks over for a Boxing Day dinner—a tradition that persisted in one form or another for over two decades.
The first Boxing Day invitees were the Powers family, who lived in the neighborhood, and Bill and Ellen, teachers and theatre directors who later married (by the power vested in my Baptist minister father). Bill had recently become the theatre director at the high school, and my brother and the youngest Powers son had just appeared in The Crucible (as Samuel Parris and John Proctor respectively). Although I didn’t know Bill or Ellen really at all, my mother had become quite fond of them. (The following summer, I would play a Pink Lady in Grease under Bill’s direction—one of two summer shows we did together—and get to know him quite a bit better.)
All these years later, I recall how festive it felt to have such a party following after Christmas, to keep the merry going. It speaks volumes about Betsy Stine, too, that the day after putting on a big Christmas for the family she still had the energy, resources, and inclination to host six or seven guests to a sit-down dinner. For that first Boxing Day, she made rich and delicious Poppyseed Chicken. I was not yet the pescatarian I am today, so I loved that creamy, cracker-topped dish. The recipe is written in my mother’s hand on an ‘80s vintage card bearing a Bible verse. It comes from the kitchen of Martha Santon, a hometown friend whose daughter Karen loved my mother like a sister. (As an aside, I find poetry in the fact that a recipe from the kitchen of the family closest to my mother in her growing up years ended up feeding the neighbors who remain my dearest friends from childhood.)
It’s a simple and delicious dish, if one doesn’t mind so much canned soup.
6 whole chicken breasts, cooked (reserve stock)
1 pt sour cream.
1 can each cream of mushroom, celery, chicken.
2/3 C chicken stock 50 Ritz
[and on the reverse, the directions, rather telegraphic]
1.) Chicken in 9 x 13
2.) Sauce (soups, cream, stock)
3.) Fine cracker crumbs,
melted butter and poppy seeds
Bake 350º until brown & bubbly.
My mother held an annual Boxing Day dinner at Brick Arbor until 1999, the year her ALS made itself known. By the following December, she was unable to host, and the Powers family made everyone welcome in their early 1900s cottage-style house. That Boxing Day, the last my mother attended (she was hospitalized by the next Christmas), she gave a recitation I’d never heard before of a funny poem she performed in a Swedish accent. I can’t remember what it was called or what the substance of it was, but I was struck by this: here was my mother, struggling to walk and speaking in a hoarse voice from her advancing disease, but still pulling out a surprise monologue she had memorized long ago.
After that year, Boxing Day traveled: sometimes the Powers family hosted, sometimes Bill and Ellen at their astoundingly decorated recently built home. When husband and I moved back into Brick Arbor for a spell in the mid-2000s, we hosted once or twice. Everyone from the Original Guest List who could kept the day open and worked hard to be there. My mother passed, and still Boxing Day continued, with new additions to the guest roster. My father hosted it once at his retirement community; another family friend who’d joined the guest roster also held one or two Boxing Days at her great big house on Sheepdog Hill. The year before my father died, the Powerses were slated to host but snowy conditions and concern about older folks’ mobility led them to cancel. So 2009 was the last, and no one knew it at the time. Once my father died, Boxing Day as we knew it was at an end. But I’d say it had a Damn Good Run.