Photo by Jennifer Ward Barber, freshcrackedpepper.com
For the past nine years, I've been having coffee every morning with a group of fractious but wonderful men at our local coffee shop. This morning, as I bypass this meeting to write this post, it's not the caffeine I'm craving so much as the company.
Our crowd is mixed, and many are retired. There is Ty, a former fighter pilot in World War II who spent many years in the oil business. He is the most sharply dressed of our group and still has the ability to make the ladies blush. Daryl, a home builder, is always warm and friendly and makes everyone feel welcome. Jimmy Ray owns a chain of hardware stores and actually goes to work every day. John is there half the time, a civil war buff who has a historic home in Natchez but spends the other half of his time in Virginia. There are about ten others that drift in and out of our morning coffee session, including Father O'Conner, the priest from St. Mary's Basilica.
Then there is Jerry--my longest coffee friend, and one of the most interesting companions in our group. A true Natchezian, Jerry has stayed here to run his family businesses. He used to be an avid Chess player, but has since traded his passion for Texas Hold 'em, which we all play every Thursday. He also is one of the most knowledgeable collectors of American and Irish furniture I know.
I have learned many things from Jerry over the years, including much about his Jewish faith. One thing that's always stayed with me is the level of mitzvahs, or charity, written by 12th-century Jewish scholar and physician, Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon. What I took from that conversation is that the highest level of giving is when the giver does not know the receiver; the act is genuinely out of the goodness of their heart. That has always touched me.
When I think of the gift of food I would think the highest level would be to feed the hungry, giving to homeless shelters, or something similar to our local "Stew Pot" that feeds so many people through the course of a year. Town residents will put together all the ingredients for a holiday meal to give to one of the many families in need. If your heart has been touched with the spirit of giving, there are many places to help someone you may or may not know, and who has not even asked for your help.
I have been working on convincing you that Natchez is a special place--allow me one more story. In a holiday tradition dating back to the 1930s, members of our local men's social club follow Santa around town for a whole day, collecting donations for the children's home. They go from house to house, sipping cocktails, and snacking on goodies. Santa himself never drinks, but my father was known to enjoy the party a bit too from time to time. This year I will be preparing savory grits, pork grillades, and shrimp and andouille creole for their morning stop at my house.
On a lighter level of giving, I love sharing the gift of food with family and friends. I will be having an open house during the holidays with music and a fire: we will roast hot dogs and I will have a big pot of black bean chili with all the condiments. My coffee group, poker group, and other friends will all be here.
As for my own family traditions, I always have a few close friends over to spend Christmas Eve with my own family of five. (Christmas Day we go to my mother's family home and we share the food preparation.) This year I am going traditional with a crab meat mornay and a whole roasted strip loin of beef with a mustard herb sauce and white truffle mashed potatoes. There will also be a fabulously rich chocolate mousse for dessert. The gift of having people into your home for a meal may be on a lower level of charity, but I think it would still qualify as mitzvah.
And then there are homemade items you can give as gifts. Two of my favorite are a frozen hot buttered rum or bourbon mix and my praline sauce in a pretty jar. These are both easy to make and though they may not qualify as a mitzvah, are always appreciated by those who receive.
Recipe: Hot Buttered Mix for Rum or Bourbon
Recipe: Praline Sauce