Every family has some gelatin-infused, cream of mushroom soup-soaked holiday culinary shame. What was yours? Today’s column in the Star…

I was invited by a favorite friend to join her intimate Thanksgiving dinner this year, which included lively conversation, abundant alcohol and — as is always the case at her house — incredible food.

A casual neighborhood dinner in the Napa Valley often includes cooking that would rival Michelin star restaurants elsewhere, with wine pairings that should make a French sommelier want to emigrate. Even everyday meals are thoughtfully conceived and executed with the finest ingredients. But on Thanksgiving, as we devoured a second helping of terrifically turkey-free dishes, the conversation turned to less lofty culinary offerings.

Hearing my hostess apologize for the plainness of her beautifully balsamic-blessed salad, I explained that Thanksgiving at my grandmother’s house always meant green lemon-lime Jell-O salad with Miracle Whip, Pet Milk, pineapple chunks and chopped walnuts.

This resonated at the table and in later discussions; apparently every family has its own version of some gelatin-encased or cream-of-mushroom-soup-smothered secret culinary shame, the memory of which we hold exceedingly dear. The green gelatin salad seems ubiquitous, whether almonds take the place of the walnuts, grapes stand in for the pineapple, or shredded carrots find themselves improbably enshrined in a citrus Jell-O mold.

That orange color would have nicely complimented my grandmother’s autumnally-themed Thanksgiving décor: wicker horn-of-plenty stuffed with gourds and cornstalks, ceramic turkey salt-and-pepper shakers, and a fold-open paper turkey with tissue-paper-cutout body. Our “kids table” always included candles shaped like pilgrim couples which were never actually lit, because they were among her “good” candles.

My grandmother kicked-off holiday meals with a plate of symmetrically-placed celery sticks stuffed with peach-colored pimento cream cheese, which we kids regarded with horror. We preferred to raid the dish containing canned, pitted olives, placing one on each fingertip and slowly devouring all 10 — ignoring admonitions not to spoil our appetites.

A cheese ball with Ritz crackers might appear, accompanied by baby pickles and salted nuts. My uncle worked for Sunsweet, and he would occasionally contribute some exotic prune-themed amuse-bouche, such as his patented “prune chewie:” bacon wrapped around a prune stuffed with a nut; a combination that has been inexplicably overlooked by Martha Stewart.

Although Christmas dessert could include traditional pies and cakes, my favorite was always my late aunt’s persimmon cookies with brandy-flavored frosting. For most of my adult life, Auntie’s cookies arrived by mail, usually in a shoebox lined in foil, covered with Christmas wrap, and shoved inside a reused shipping box. In a post-9/11 world, I suspected that the cookies might have passed through multiple radioactive screening devices and been defiled by packs of bomb-sniffing dogs — their butter-based frosting reaching full toxicity — but I couldn’t stop eating them.

We weren’t fond of fruitcakes in my family (unless you count my crazy cousin), but I once made an authentic Christmas pudding with suet and candied fruit which we soaked in brandy and set on fire — my Great Britain-obsessed grandmother was delighted. She also sometimes made eggnog from scratch, which contained an unthinkable amount of fat, thinned by an unwise amount of alcohol.

I’m particularly particular about potatoes; heaping helpings of heavily buttered and gravied mashers have seen me through many emotional crises, including those precipitated by the aforementioned holiday gatherings. Apparently many families have major fights over side-dishes — a friend didn’t speak to her sister-in-law for years because she brought sweet potatoes when she was specifically assigned mashed potatoes (or was it vice versa?).

And speaking of sweet potatoes versus yams, the question is: to marshmallow or not to marshmallow? And don’t slivered almonds make a delightful garnish for frozen string beans? Or was it green bean casserole with dried onion rings and cream of mushroom soup with your people?

Of course, today’s health-conscious holiday diners would be horrified by such frozen, heavily-processed holiday fixings. But will their children look back with the same nostalgia on grandma’s gluten-free stuffing, low-fat cruelty-free skinless turkey breast and organic Brussels sprouts? Will they ever know the joy of eating snowman-shaped ice cream balls covered with shaved coconut, with plastic holly garnish and a candy-cane-striped birthday candle stuck in the middle? Or will they reach adulthood believing that Jell-O and aspic are the same thing?

My own holiday meal memories are not so much of the food itself, but of the struggles to get it on the table. I recall my grandmother cursing the stubborn tin molds restraining her gelatin salad, bathing them in warm water to coax the quivering green masses onto waiting leaves of iceberg lettuce. I recall my aunt’s annual tradition of clogging the garbage disposal with potato peelings, the endless arguments about whether the turkey was done and when to put the dinner rolls in the toaster oven. And of course, the fight to get the family to leave the television and come to the table.

My much-missed grandmother and aunt each left me some of their favorite recipes, including the persimmon cookies and the green Jell-O salad. But I would hesitate to make them for myself. Without the anger, joy, panic, laughter and affection whipped into the mix, they just wouldn’t taste the same.


What’s most surreal about Auction Napa Valley? Read my column in today’s St. Helena Star

The Friday opener of Auction Napa Valley always provides plenty of surreal sights, although I hear that the weekend gatherings provide even more.

I’ve heard tales of 110-pound cheetahs lounging on the Meadowood fairway alongside purring Jaguars (the four-wheeled species), of distinguished revelers dousing one another with squirt guns at resplendent dining tables, and of Robert Mondavi modeling a dinner jacket made entirely of wine corks for auction by Jay Leno, fetching $95K. And speaking of emcees, I hear Ryan Seacrest once spontaneously raised 70 grand by inviting 8 bidders to hang out with him backstage at “American Idol.” I wouldn’t know, because such extravagant weekend auction events are above my pay-grade, or more precisely, above my press-pass access.

Still I was thrilled to once again troll the Friday marketplace for signs of Auction Napa Valley’s trademark brand of over-the-top indulgence in the name of warm-your-heart philanthropy.

In past years I’ve spotted Oprah Winfrey, or the specter of her anyway, dressed in blazing yellow and surrounded by a phalanx of large, black-suited bodyguards, her filtered image shimmering like the sun peeking through a forest of towering Versace-clad sequoias. I’ve watched eager, overstuffed crowds descending en masse into the serpentine water-featured caves at Jarvis Winery, like vacationing Disneyland passport-holders waiting to board the Pirates of the Caribbean ride.

But I hadn’t seen anything until I saw the Red Room at Raymond Vineyards, which I was privileged to visit this past Barrel-Auction Friday morning, bright and early, for breakfast.

Plunging into this darkened lair from the bright Napa Valley morning sunlight, it took time for my eyes, and then my brain, to process what I was seeing. There was a red velvet canopied ceiling with gleaming Baccarat crystal chandelier, reflective fleur-de-lis flocked wallpaper, and voluptuous red velvet Victorian furnishings just asking for an assignation. Offered for consumption was an abundant feast of breakfast foods and bubbly; the glossy lacquered black bar served coffee and juice to those lacking the moral courage to drink before 10 a.m.

Portraits of seductively-sprawled Marilyns adorned the walls, alongside books on Playboy and Pucci. Corner glass display units offered Baccarat crystal and designer leather goods and handbags. I was puzzled by the purse display, until I remembered a female sociologist telling me that the handbag is a metaphor for certain ladyparts — which makes it the quintessential accessory for the Red Room (although this sociologist carried an oversized, beaten-up leather bucket bag, so what subliminal message was she sending?)

If one assumes, as I do, that the hereafter consists of one’s own individually-themed luxury lounge, not unlike Auction Napa Valley’s Live-Auction lots, then the Red Room surely resembles the future heavenly abode of Hugh Hefner, where he will swap decorating tips with neighbors Sally Stanford, Mae West and Gypsy Rose Lee. What’s so strikingly different about the place, as situated in the Napa Valley, is the uncensored sense of naughtiness it conveys. A Napa Valley winery can be many things — graceful, bucolic, stately, even earnest, but naughty is not in its nature. Where most tasting-rooms would be perfectly paired with a soft-rock concert, a cool jazz combo, or even a country hoedown, this opulent outpost shares a closer kinship with the burlesque peep-shows of Dita von Teese.

Just as I adjusted to all this delightful decadence, hosts Jean-Charles Boisset and the Staglins started speaking. They were engaging, playful and infectiously enthusiastic, sharing stories of early-bird pledges and worthy beneficiaries, of the Staglins’ exceptional efforts to extract extraordinary donations, and of Cabernet-colored nail polish — only $30 at the Auction gift shop. Monsieur Boisset captivated the crowd with French flourish, making everyone present — even lowly “journalists” — feel important to the Valley and to the Auction. “If you are heeere today, you are now members of zee Red Room,” he proclaimed.

I fear his statement was purely symbolic, because I now wildly covet Red Room membership, not only so that I might at-long-last invite someone to “meet me in my favorite dark bar in St. Helena,” but so I can carry the membership credential, which I imagine to be either a crystal credit card, a platinum Playboy Club-type key, or a key fob in the form of a cabernet-red velvet-covered vibrating grape cluster.

Back outside on the expansive lawns of Raymond Winery, there were echoes of the Red Room’s bordello-chic, but this time in tastefully-placed white divans and carved white chairs that glowed in the blinding hot Napa sun. White café table sets sat under sheltering trees, sunlight flickering through the leaves although there was no breeze. There might have been a white peacock in a cage, or perhaps I dreamt it.

What stayed with me was not the sight of the Red Room, or the lovely winery and its festive food and wine marketplace, or even the fevered bidding at the barrel auction. It was the image of Jean-Charles Boisset clearing out his own wine, just because Garen Staglin asked to use Raymond’s barrel room for the weekend, to raise money for Napa Valley neighbors in need. That’s an image I find absolutely, wonderfully, surreal.