Close Call for Santa

recipes 16 & 17: roasted potatoes with garlic aioli

On the day Luca was planning to make roasted potatoes with garlic aioli from Fanny at Chez Panisse he cried in the car on the way home from school. “I had a really bad day!” he wailed. Apparently not only had he been excluded from a game by a couple of kids on the playground, but one of those same kids had told him that Santa Claus is a fake.

“I know that Santa Claus doesn’t buy the presents. The parents do,” Luca said looking at me as though daring me to give him his innocence back. He was bereft.

“Who told you that?” I demanded. I don’t know why it mattered who it was. What was I going to do to the little cynic? Beat him up? Complain to his parents?

“Santiago,” Luca said.

“Uh-huh,” I said feeling a surge of irrational animosity for Santiago. I was new to this, but it sprung to mind that there must exist a certain type of child who takes pleasure in bursting the Santa bubble. Since Santa Claus does not exist such a child is not actually doing anything wrong. And yet parents uniformly think it’s mean-spirited. Maybe it’s all the in intention. Some kids simply don’t believe in Santa and want to enlighten their friends. Other kids take pleasure in wielding the power of knowledge over their more gullible peers.

What struck me later was that even Santiago’s skepticism had its limits. The idea that Santa does not exist did not occur to either him or Luca. In the middle zone between believing and not believing, Santa was real. He just didn’t buy the presents.

Each year Luca has believed more fervently in Santa Claus, not less. Last year he was blinded with celebrity worship when he met “the real Santa,” so identified by his real white beard. “All the other Santas have fake beards,” he said. On Christmas Eve Luca left cookies for Santa along with a glass of milk, and that night after Luca went to bed Jim and I ate the cookies, making sure to leave a big crumby mess. Messy Santa was my sister’s idea and it was a great one. At the sight of the crumbs and spilled drops of milk on the table in the morning Luca’s eyes widened in delight. Santa was ravenous and sloppy, like a giant kid.

I don’t remember ever believing in Santa Claus. With three older siblings it would have been hard for me to maintain anything like this level of childlike ingenuousness. When Luca was a toddler I had mixed feelings about Santa Claus. I never told him that he existed one way or another and when his first encounter with Santa at age two left him in tears, I thought that settled the matter. I half expected Luca to grow up as I did, thinking that Santa was a harmless lie. Luca has come to his belief in Santa, just as he came to his disbelief in God, without any coaxing from his parents.

I suspect that Luca’s belief in Santa is really his way of attending to his own rituals. For every holiday he remembers everything we did the year before and wants the same events repeated to a T. Tradition is important to him, even if he makes them up as he goes along. As of two years ago Luca began insisting that we also celebrate Hannukah, which in our house consists entirely of lighting candles for the menorah which was given to us by a friend, and then hoping to get invited to a party with really good latkes. I think that Luca and I are not far apart in our notions of what constitutes holiday spirit: giving, eating good food and getting together with friends and family. But in the end it’s all about the candles. I light one or two at every opportunity, certainly with every nighttime meal (I roll my own from beeswax sheets), and doing so almost makes me mourn the coming of Spring when the need to light up the dark days wanes.

We once visited Copenhagen in December. Tickets from London were cheap because no one, especially not the British, wanted to go to Denmark in the darkest days of winter. Airline tickets were 99p each way (yes, the plane had wings and an engine but could have used a good cleaning). When we arrived we were struck by how many candles there were everywhere. Every shop window, every café, every house was lit up. Window displays filled with pastries and flowing fountains of chocolate glinted in candlelight. Here was a city that knew how to take advantage of its darkness and turn it into pure charm. Copenhagen was gorgeous (as were the people – within an hour of our arrival Jim and I were compelled to make a vow to remain attracted to each other no matter how many stunning Danes sailed past us on bicycles).

I pulled out the potatoes while Luca tied on his apron.

“How does Santiago know that Santa doesn’t buy the presents?” I pressed.

“Because one year he asked Santa for a car and he didn’t get one!” Luca said.

“Santa can’t get you something that is illegal for you to play with,” I countered. “Because it would get taken away from you and then it would be no fun.” This was obviously a desperate stab in the dark, and I had little hope that it would work. But miraculously, Luca perked up.

“He can’t get you a rocket ship!” he joined in.

“Or a 747 jet,” I said. It was working! Luca was coming in off the ledge. As the weight of not believing in Santa Claus lifted from him, his mood soared.

“Or an army base! Or a space station!” Now he was cracking himself up. My little boy was back. The belief in Santa Claus had suffered a terrifying blow, but it had been rescued. At least for the time being.

Luca cut each potato in half and then lined them face down in the baking pan. This precision is genetic. Jim is a detail-oriented film editor, a master suitcase packer and a thorough reader of instructions. He also has a very tidy underwear drawer. I am the opposite; impatient, impulsive, and imprecise. Where Jim measures out spices by the half teaspoon, I throw in pinches and handfuls and taste as I go. As a result we alternately admire each other and drive each other crazy and have learned to stay out of each other’s way in the kitchen.

When Luca’s potatoes were lined up like little soldiers, he chopped up some rosemary and sprinkled it on the potatoes. Then he drizzled olive oil and added salt and a few grinds of fresh pepper.

No longer afraid of putting things in the oven, Luca slid the potatoes in. I got out an egg for the aioli and then remembered that it was supposed to be room temperature. So while the egg warmed in the oven (probably a bad idea but I couldn’t figure out a better way) Luca measured out the olive oil.

When the egg was the right temperature, Luca wanted to separate it himself. I suggested that I do one and then he could do one afterwards. I cracked the egg and showed him how to transfer the yolk back and forth between the egg shell halves until all the whites were in the bowl. Then it was his turn. The egg fell apart and Luca dumped it in the bowl. Because it was too gooey and gross to resist, he shoved his hand in after it.

“OK,” I said. “Wash your hands.” Instead he dipped his other hand into the bowl and squeezed the yolk. If he was young enough to think this was fun, I thought, he was young enough to still believe in Santa Claus.

Then we took turns pouring the olive oil into the egg yolk “drop by drop” while the other whisked. The process proved to be quite suspenseful as we desperately tried to stave off the dreaded separation of oil and egg. Alice Waters states with frightening finality:  “Once they separate they cannot go back together.”  Because I am impatient and imprecise, I dribbled three drops at a time instead of one. Luca cried out “Mommy! Is it separating?!” It wasn’t. When it was his turn to dribble he slipped and dumped ten drops of oil in at once. He held his breath while I whisked and when it was clear that it was going to be OK, we both cheered.

This was my first time making aioli. I have heard too many stories of it going wrong. Even Jim with his precise measurements and strict adherence to instructions makes a chipotle mayonnaise that tastes delicious but is always way too thin. So far Luca’s was thickening up nicely.

We checked the level of the oil in the cup and it had not gone down one hair. This was going to take all night. “Mommy, I think it went up instead of down,” Luca said. I thought he was right.

We slapped each other five when we got to the point where we were allowed to add the oil in a “steady stream.” But now it started to thin out. I checked the recipe and there was nothing about thickening it, only remedies for thinning it. This is why I don’t make aioli.

Before Luca got a chance to say, “I don’t want to work with the garlic!” I showed him the mortar and pestle. “You don’t have to touch it. You just mash it.” Being a seven year-old boy, mashing was something he could relate to. He went at it, making a “purry” of the garlic.

He whisked the garlic into the oil/egg mixture and tried thickening it by whisking it some more. It didn’t work.

“It doesn’t matter. It’s going to taste great,” I said.

I lit some candles and we sat down to a meal of brussels sprouts with pancetta and breadcrumbs braised in balsamic, turkey soup made from Thanksgiving leftovers, and roasted potatoes with garlic aioli. Watching Luca dip his potatoes in the aioli one by one and pop them in his mouth I wondered if this the last year he will believe in Santa, the end of lining up to sit on Santa’s lap to ask for the outrageously huge toy that only his aunt will buy for him, and the end of Jim and I messily eating Santa’s cookies on Christmas Eve.

When Luca finally knows that there is no Santa, I wonder if he will he mourn the loss as he did today. Or if he will be satisfied, happy even, with the tree and the cookies, the trip to the snow, the Venice Boat Parade the music of Bach and Handel… and the light.


  1. This was lovely, thoughtful, poignant, and beautifully written. Thank you, and thank Tag Surfer for finding it for me.

    • Thank you, Heather. Tulum is one of our favorite places. You are so lucky!

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