We call it Christmas now, or the Festival of Lights, Kwanzaa, or whatever politically correct nomenclature is in vogue in a particular century. The fact remains, however, that our venerable ancestors feared the cold shadows of midwinter, and thus welcomed the return of the sun. Celestial bodies traveled in their spheres, the solar system hummed along on a tightrope of balanced Newtonian forces. Blind to all that, they knew only that it was cold and dark and scary out there. They huddled around the fire, eyes stinging with smoke, grateful for the warm dogs by their feet. They just wanted their sun back. If they planned well and if hunting was good, the smell of roast meat would ride high on the air. Wood smoke, meat, and the fresh evergreen boughs they brought inside mingled into a smell of their winter solstice.
The frozen roads and snowed-in cars heralded the upcoming midwinter only a week ago. Here in Pittsburgh, the unpredictable weather swung the other way and within days, the persistent rain washed away the blanket of clean, white crystals. The respite is surely temporary. There will be more snowball fights later, and sledding, and slipping down the driveway to take the garbage out. For now, I enjoy the scent of baking gingerbread that permeates the house, and of orange peel.
This morning is one of those productive ones, when I got up earlier while the house is at peace. My loved ones still rest in their beds and the dog snores in her crate. The knowledge of their presence is like a warm blanket around my heart, across my shoulders. The French spice bread would be in the oven too, had somebody not eaten all the candied orange peel. I searched for it everywhere. Who to blame? Who ate that crucial one third of a cup? Blaming late sleepers won’t fix the recipe. And that’s why the house smells like orange peel, because, you know, Julia Child didn’t have to buy it either. It’s not difficult to peel two oranges, simmer the bright and fragrant rind to get the bitters out, then soak it in hot simple syrup. It sets me back almost an hour – but I can roll with that. I can drink my bitter coffee and enjoy the sweet counterpoint of the cookies a cousin sent us. This is what passes for breakfast this time of the year. I can wait for the lovely orange peel to soak up just enough sugar to call it good enough, mix it into the batter, and pop it in the oven.
I should thank the nameless pirates for devouring my ingredients. It forced me to slow down, it granted me this peaceful moment on what will be a busy day. It allowed me to smell the fresh sap of our tree, punctuated by gingerbread and garnished by the high notes of tropical citrus while the midwinter rain drums against the windows.