Ho, ho, ho. Ah, the holidays. That magical time of the year. At least in theory. Usually, the ole Christmas cheer is weighed down by extended stress, the special joy of hanging out with dysfunctional relatives, and the urge to punch someone in the esophagus.
(The following story is all apochryal, of course, not really passive aggressive blogging.)
Special Kind of Christmas Crazy
This year featured a new entrant to our special brand of Christmas crazy: my mother’s new boyfriend. At first, I was a tad worried. Christmas is already vexing enough without a veritable stranger in tow.
Then, I figured that he might keep my mother’s worst instincts at bay. You know, the hyper judgment and so-called “constructive criticism” that makes you want to run faux errands and hide on the treadmill downstairs. I love her dearly, but we seem to rub each other the wrong way sometimes.
Lately, my mother had taken to calling herself the “family matriarch.” (I wondered if you could really be a “matriarch” if you had to label yourself one.)
While she means well, my mother generally contrives to be the center of attention, regaling us with 40 year old tales, “I love the gays” comments, and unhinged conspiracy theories. It all tests one’s capacity for self-restraint.
And it is, thankfully, all recessive.
The first few days were nonetheless consistently merry. I was injected with hope that it might be a decent holiday, despite some niggling complaints about my daughter hiding out in her room upstairs.
Teenagers are prone to disappear, of course, rather than dote on a would be teen-splaning matriarch. Especially if the aforesaid matriarch is prying for details about “boyfriends” and other decidedly private information.
This year, as a tonic against crazy, I had built in a few distractions to act as CPR if my standing cease and desist order against dispensing parenting advice was violated.
As a final pit stop in the visit, I had a reservation at Superior Motors, a restaurant listed by Food & Wine as a Top Ten best new restaurant in 2018.
Who could resist that?
My other daughter arrived for a few days, so we had a gaggle. She is quite lovely and doesn’t hide in her room. But I had to warn her that there could be no present counting this year.
And so it began. Our house looked like a bloody Norman Rockwell painting. The stockings were hung by the chimney with care. The cookies were baked, gifts attractively wrapped, and I had enough champagne for liberating Paris.
I have a thing about champagne. Typically, I’m imbibing a buttery chardonnay.
But good champagne, with its sparkle and pop, always seems to infuse everything with “all things merry and bright” festivity. That was the atmosphere I was striving for.
I had a feeling it might all be in vain, as can often be the case.
But the unexpected source of Christmas ruin was not my mother, but my son.
On December 23, as we returned from a cozy dinner out, my son dropped a wretched bomb that shattered everyone’s equanimity, especially mine, and gave an extra bit of fuckery to the blessed occasion. He announced, via cell phone, that he had broken off his engagement.
That took my breath away.
The timing was less than ideal and the event ignited a conflagration. After all, we loved his amazing fiancee. We loved her more than my son, truth be told. It was a blow, and took the jolly right out of holly jolly.
And then there was a long succession of whys, what ifs, and expressions of sorrow and misery.
And, then, good grief, what about the wedding venue deposit?!
And, embarrassingly, which my mother couldn’t resist pointing out, there had been a fancy engagement party. It was all too much.
I took to my bed. We threw our movie tickets for The Favorite in the garbage. I can’t remember what meal I had planned, but people were lucky to have take out.
Then I took to the treadmill, as I am wont to do, trying to drown my mind chatter into oblivion. Of course, as soon as one tries to eliminate an emotion, it only gets stronger.
Would it be too much to hope that my mother could stand by steadfastly, saying nothing, judging nothing, being nothing? What an irrational thought.
Her first reaction was to say that my son “was going to have to answer to the family.” Doesn’t that remark make you just want to head for the hills? Or to an ugly sweater party?
Even though I didn’t want it to, Christmas Eve dawned, like a weird fever dream. The usual exchange of presents ensued without major incident or cattiness. I drank a vat of champagne to dull the heartbreaking news.
Several days passed. The old venal forces of familial destruction were mostly held at bay. But there were complaints about the lateness of dinners (“you eat too late, it gives me heartburn”), my teen daughter (she’s “spoiled” and “shouldn’t have received so many gifts”), my proposed kitchen renovation (“it’s all wrong, so dark”), and my mood (“if you keep this up, you’re going to lose your son.”).
How I wished my mother was home flossing the dog.
Mostly, I was able to ignore her and not smash my keyboard through the Mac screen, showing very atypical composure. My husband got an earful though, and patiently listened to the snap and crackle of my (justified, I thought) aggravation.
A Dining Intervention
Then, December 28 arrived, and our reservation at Superior Motors loomed. As a thoughtful daughter, I had made the reservation at 6:00 pm over a month ago to preempt any long-winded discussion of the vagaries of dinner timing. At the time, I had thought it was a Christmas present to myself, a chance to eat for research.
Now, my hope was that a fine dining experience would shape shift us all back into cheerier versions of ourselves and restore some of that elusive “holiday spirit.” And mostly it did, an ode to the transformative power of a wonderful meal.
It was food CPR.
Superior Motors in Braddock PA
Superior Motors is a culinary powerhouse, set in a former car dealership in the shadow of Pittsburgh’s last steel mill in Braddock PA. Agreeably, no effort is made to disguise the smoke stacks from the diners’ views. As a former Pittsburgh denizen himself, my mother’s partner was suitably impressed with the restaurant’s historic and authentic pedigree. Ahhhhh.
As the New York Times had heralded, Superior Motors “trades fussy for fun.” Kevin Sousa’s menu has an eclectic farm to table vibe with a few Asian ingredients thrown in for good measure. It was right up my alley.
Jordana Rothman, restaurant editor for Food & Wine, who crisscrossed the country for more than six months and visited many a restaurant to compile its Top Ten list, said Superior Motors had “exceptional food, deep sense of commitment to its community, powerful narration and special voice in the region.”
Cocktails & Fine Dining
We began with cocktails. I had the “vermouth,” a delicious orange hued blend of vermouth, herbs, and a lemony citrus flavor. My husband had the “vodka,” a colorful mix of vodka, mulberries, and lemon. My mother and her partner had “whiskey.” The cocktails were all delicious; we were off to a great start.
Then we cast our eyes down to the menu. My mother looked a bit confused by the descriptions and unfamiliar words (edamame, nori, kimchi, bonito, conte).
I had a tiny spasm of fear that the restaurant was too intimidating for her and that theatrical complaints might ensue. No complaints, I mentally pleaded to the Christmas fairies, Santa, elves — whichever deity was in charge of Christmas miracles.
I reminded my mother of Superior’s Motors “top ten” status, trying to appeal to her attachment to accolades. It seemed to work, and she studied the menu intently with a surprisingly willingness to experience the new. Another ahhhhh.
My first course was the beautifully composed “carrot” with smoked ricotta, parmesan and hazelnut.
Next up, was the octopus. It was a big portion and doted with saffron, olive, and citrus. It was perfectly cooked, tender, not gummy as octopus sometimes is. It was my favorite course of the dinner.
Then, I progressed to the hangar steak, which tragically is not on the current menu. I finished every bite, practically licking my lips in delight.
Everyone was on good behavior. There was no discussion of the “tragedy,” the topic of my teen daughter was implicitly verboten, and any festering grievances were fastidiously set aside in the pursuit of felicity and fine dining.
A Felicitous End, Indeed
We chatted like old acquaintances about the new Winston Churchill biography, Trump’s lack of intelligence, and Game of Thrones trivia. My husband, ever the conversationalist after a cocktail or two, kept things humming with his banter and bad jokes. He knows he’s an essential buffer.
Little by little, my bones stopped straining under my weight. I felt the beginnings of a smile. And there was, at long last, laughter.
The truth is that even the world’s worst Christmas can flip flop and end well. Clouds part, the proverbial sunbeam shines down, and cumulative demons are exorcized, even if only temporarily. (After all, we didn’t know yet about the possible retrievability of the hefty wedding deposit.)
I feel I owe Kevin Sousa a favor. His restaurant worked a holiday miracle. It was a one stop remedy, a barrier between us and holiday misery. I’m booking way in advance for next year.