On my worn bamboo cutting board, I quarter two pounds of peeled and cored New England apples. My kitchen window, perched high above the moss-laden woods of Tea Lane in Chilmark, gazes out to the chalk-white sky of December falling upon a smokier shade of sea, and the gunshots of deer hunters echo along the raging wind. The apples begin to simmer in a pint of cider vinegar, and their sharp perfume dances through the whole house.
Is there any other time of year so insistent upon prompting our memories of meals and laughter shared, of family and friends passed, of tastes and traditions wrapped and unwrapped over generations? To this wash-ashore Vineyard resident, still dewy with the salt spray of my first year on this legendary Island, the ghosts of Vineyard Christmases past call out with an invitation to inherit their rich legacy of tasty traditions, to sit and savor the lavish table set over decades of storied celebrations.
Slipping through the scrub oak and conifers of memory, the merry violin, guitars, and singing of Portuguese carolers arrive at the door, calling “A Bom Natal!” In More Vineyard Voices by Linsey Lee, curator of oral history at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, Mary Drouin recounts the musical gifts her family wholeheartedly gave to neighbors and friends each Christmas Eve: “That was the day for caroling. My uncle John Coutinho played the violin, and Lester Perry from Oak Bluffs played the guitar, and my father used to be the lead singer. Then they used to have singers with them. In the old days they used to take the horse and wagon, go up to Tea Lane Farm, and sing at the doors up there.”
Betty Alley of Oak Bluffs holds close the precious memory of the Portuguese caroling as well. “The men would play their banjos and mandolin. And you could hear them play all the way down the street. And it would be so pretty to listen to them. I remember standing upstairs at my bedroom listening out the window,” shares Ms. Alley in Lee’s Vineyard Voices.
The apples have broken down. I pour two pounds of dark brown sugar, one pound chopped dates, two crushed cloves of garlic, a small handful of crystallized ginger, a dessertspoon of dry mustard, a teaspoon of salt, and only a wimpy pinch of the suggested one tablespoon of dried red pepper flakes into the bubbling apples. I am following a holiday recipe for Tea Lane Chutney from Louise Tate King and Jean Stewart Wexler’s Martha’s Vineyard Cookbook, one of the rich stalwart texts on Island cuisine. Yet as the cauldron bubbles, I hear the voices of Drouin and Alley, reminiscing on Christmas Eves long ago and the tradition of dancing the chamarita.
Ms. Alley remembers in Vineyard Voices, “There was a lady down the end of our street where I lived, and she was one of the best dancers. Little old lady, too. Everybody used to go to her house at Christmas. They always dropped in and they danced the chamarita there. And from our house we could hear them singing and dancing.”
As I tap my wooden spoon to the stamping feet of a chamarita, the memories of Ms. Drouin’s traditions come walking through the woods just out my window. “I had my dancing dolls that they brought from Portugal,” she says in Lee’s More Vineyard Voices. For all the generous singers and musicians in her family, “I had made them all red stocking hats like the Portuguese fishermen, you know? And his nose was as red as his hat all the time … We’d play all the way down the road as we went, you know, never get tired … Cold as it was too.”
Ms. Drouin tells in detail how after they sang “Abra La Porta” (Open the Door), families would invite them in and give them warm drink and food, while they kept singing and sharing their cheer. Perhaps a Wassail Bowl from Vineyard Fare and the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital Auxiliary would suit the mood: “Three gallons sweet cider, 24 oranges, juiced, 12 lemons, juiced, 6 cups of sugar, 3 cups of raisins, 1 tsp. nutmeg, 3 tsp. ground clove, 9 tsp. allspice and 12 cinnamon sticks, heated and served hot from a silver punch bowl.” And when all were warm, I would invite them to stay for a midnight mariners’ feast of my own Tia’s Portuguese Christmas Eve Cod, which she serves in Brazil on the sacred night: gently poached, served with potatoes, cabbage, and a garlic vinegar sauce.
The apple chutney is cooked and cooled, and while sterilizing the glass jars, I delight in knowing this recipe finds its roots in both England and Tea Lane. As described in The Martha’s Vineyard Cookbook, the hot apple chutney holiday tradition began a half-century ago with the friendship between two English ladies, one residing on Tea Lane. “Every Christmas for many years, certain favored up-Island households were the recipients of a jar of this prized apple chutney.” King and Wexler write in their book, “A foil-wrapped and beribboned jelly glass always appeared in the mailbox of this cookbook’s authors.”
While carefully filling the jars with chutney and sealing them with another hot-water bath, I turn from spicy to sweet, and thus to a fudge recipe by Evelyn DeBettencourt, as it appears in Slapdash Cookery on the Island of Martha’s Vineyard by Louise Aldrich Bugbee, the legendary scribe of the Vineyard Gazette.
In her hilarious book of Island cookery, Ms. Bugbee elects Ms. DeBettencourt’s fudge “the best homemade candy I ever ate and here’s how to make it… Mix 3 cups of sugar, ¾ cups of butter and ⅔ cups evaporated milk and bring it to a rolling boil. Cool rapidly for five minutes over medium heat, stirring constantly. Remove from heat, stir in 12 ounces semisweet chocolate, 2 cups marshmallow cream, one cup of nuts, and a teaspoon of vanilla. Pour into pan.” As as footnote, she adds, “Vanilla is best for flavoring, but a drop or two of almond extract adds a special something to fudges…. Some people hate almond extract. If you are one of these people, I’d advise not using it very often. I happen to dote upon it.”
As I gather the fudge ingredients on my cold marble counter, the whirl of a propeller plane thunders just above the house, and Lee’s highly esteemed More Vineyard Voices calls out again from the laced history of the Island: “We’ve got a flying Santa Claus coming and he’s going to come over in a plane and throw you a present.” This Island heirloom comes from Seamond Ponsart Roberts, a lighthouse nomad whose family moved and guarded lights from Dumpling Rock to Cuttyhunk to West Chop and East Chop.
Seamond Roberts recounts, “When we were still over at Cuttyhunk, my mother read in the paper that there was a flying Santa Claus and he’d drop toys and stuff to the lighthouse kids.” A grand Christmas saga of a prized doll dropped on a beach rock, broken, and then wired together again finishes just in time to add two drops of almond extract and cool the DeBettencourt-Bugbee Fudge for squaring.
Staying close to lives lived off the water, in the archives of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum I was able to find two historic Island recipes, perhaps of the whaling era, both replete with local ingredients — these traditional crops were cultivated by Wampanoag wisdom and honed by Pilgrim tastes: Cranberry-Pumpkin Pie and Steamed Carrot Pudding.
“These two dishes might be typical fare of captains’ households served in a sumptuous holiday spread,” said Museum librarian Bow Van Riper. The Carrot Pudding includes unusual ingredients such as cherry preserves, suet, and potatoes, steamed for four hours in a large basin and served warm with a white vinegar sauce. The simple pie is made by “lining a pie tin with good crust; fill with alternate layers of fresh cranberries and raw pumpkin sliced paper-thin. Sprinkle liberally with sugar, a cup at least. Add a dusting of cinnamon, if desired, and dot with butter and bake in moderate oven for ¾ an hour.”
I wrap my finished chutney with silver foil and red cellophane, spiral a ribbon around the neck, and pack carefully for shipping. Tastes of holiday Tea Lane will travel as far as Canada, Hawaii, and Brazil to share my newly acquired Vineyard heritage with friends and family.
True tradition is composed of many voices, weaving through time and influence to create culture –– Vineyard residents are hard pressed to walk along any beach, seasoned dock, wooded lane, or cottage way without the voices of the past echoing all around. The Portuguese, English, Brazilian, Wampanoag, and Puritan celebratory stories and foods bedeck the Vineyard holiday table, along with those of the newly washed ashore, who find their rightful, grateful, and cherished place in the richly woven story of tradition.
To hear more holiday excerpts from the voices of Linsey Lee’s oral history treasuries Vineyard Voices and More Vineyard Voices, published by Martha’s Vineyard Museum, visit this link: mvmuseum.org. Or explore more Island heritage at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, open year-round. Hours are Monday to Saturday, 10 am to 4 pm. Admission is free to members; admission for nonmembers is $6 for adults, $5 for seniors, $4 for children 6 to 15, and free for children under age 6.