No one really knows how this tradition started in my family, but somewhere in her later years, my mother began serving porcupine meatballs as Christmas Eve supper. It was your basic Campbell’s tomato soup recipe from the 1950s, or earlier. She always made them in a pressure cooker, also from that era.
During a period when friends and family members dwindled down to just a few, we cut back on big fancy holiday meals. I think that’s when the meatball tradition took root, actually. My kids loved them, along with Mom’s traditional green gelatin with red cherries on top. Add some dinner rolls and that was dinner!
Then came some additional folks into the holiday family fold; a cousin, his paramour and her adult kids, an elderly neighbor, a new sister-in-law, and her college-age kids. You know, people who couldn’t quite feel the joy of porcupine meatballs and green gelatin for Christmas Eve dinner. The outspoken paramour, also a gourmet, expressed downright disgust, to a point bordering on anger. The others politely went along with the program until they realized there could be many years ahead of doing things Grandma’s way. Some gently suggested they bring additional dishes, others loudly demanded such, and eventually, the meal transitioned to ham, macaroni and cheese, fancy salads, and amazing desserts, all preceded by a long happy hour flowing with booze and some kind of exotic pate’ brought by the paramour. Oh. Mom insisted that she make the porcupines and green gelatin, too. Every year.
More people entered the family as time went on. My son married and had children, then came the Christmas my daughter brought her charming British fiancé to meet her grandma and the rest of the family. My daughter and the fiancé had not arrived yet, but my brother had declared the meatballs uneatable, as they had gotten stuck in the pressure cooker for about the past 48 hours. We were all standing around the kitchen and no one could get the top off the pressure cooker, not even the young men in the party. Tools and brute strength had been used to no avail. Secretly, we were all giving each other sideways glances of relief while my poor mother fretted as if the world had come to an end. Big brother said that even if we could get the pot open, the meat would have spoiled by now.
That’s when it happened. My daughter and her charming Hugh Grant look-alike arrived. After initial introductions, all still gathered in the kitchen, my brother announced he was taking the pressure cooker and its contents out to the trash. Mom was about as crestfallen as I’d ever seen her, as she explained the problem to her granddaughter and Hugh Grant.
“Oh Grandma, I can get it open,” he declared in his Hugh Grant accent. A collective “NO!” rose from the group. He glanced from my mom to the group, back at my mom again, and grabbing the pot, ran out the door. Less than 2 minutes later, he walked back in with the lid in one hand and the pot in the other. My mother lit up like a candle and joyously proclaimed her gratitude. The rest of us glared at Hugh, who beamed devilishly at the points he had just scored with the matriarch of the family.
“How did you do it?” Mom asked in bewilderment. “Oh, I simply plunged it into the snow for a few seconds and the contraction popped the lid right off. But Grandma,” he said ever so kindly and gently, “the meatballs can’t be eaten, of course.”
And that is how the first and only Christmas Eve dinner in a couple of decades had no porcupine meatballs. But Grandma had her beloved pressure cooker back and you can bet there were meatballs the following year. Even Hugh Grant might have regretted his choice then!
One of my earliest memories of dinner preparations as a child was hearing a great explosion followed by my parents thundering down from the attic to find a mess of tomato sauce and bits of meatballs hanging from the ceiling of the small kitchen of our post-war-type bungalow. I was afraid of pressure cookers from then on, but as an adult I learned to make porcupines in a saucepan, having little imagination or interest in the meal prep department myself. We have them every Christmas Eve, along with the green gelatin and red cherries.