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At Home for the Holidays

Beverly and Craig Calvert
Calvert's  Restaurant

Pecan pies come in all shapes and sizes, dressed up with chocolate or with bourbon, but for Craig and Beverly Calvert, owners of Calvert’s in Surrey Center, the holidays have always been about pecan pie—specifically, Opal’s pecan pie.

The recipe belonged to Beverly’s mother, Opal, whom Craig fondly called the Big O. “Mother did a lot of baking and sewing—that was kind of her thing,” says Beverly. “I never did help mother with pecan pies.... That was mother’s domain, the kitchen.”

Like other experienced bakers, Opal made her pies by hand with a little bit of this and a little bit of that—no measuring cups required. They were beautifully browned, light and sweet—filled with the pecans that fell from her grandparents’ huge backyard pecan tree in Clinton, Miss., which also made it into pralines, fudge and divinity candy.

No holiday—from Easter to Christmas—was right without one of Opal’s pies and, when Beverly’s family moved to Augusta when she was a teen, the tradition continued and even grew in fame, so much so that every Masters golfer Hale Irwin would request two of Opal’s special desserts.

Craig (and later his parents) moved from Michigan to Augusta at about the same time to launch the Green Jacket Restaurant and, after he and Beverly were married, the families would often celebrate the holidays together—including huge get-togethers of about 30 to 35 people at Calvert’s. Even when they celebrated at home, Craig and Beverly would split the work, combining his parents’ traditional fare with old and new Southern classics, such as beef tenderloin and pineapple casserole (introduced a few years ago and now a staple at the Calverts’ holiday celebration).
The combined family also added other traditions from the Calvert side of the family. Growing up in Michigan, football was everything and some of Craig’s fondest holiday memories include gatherings of aunts and uncles, friends and neighbors, all waiting breathlessly for the start of the Rose Bowl at around 4:45 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day, and tossing the football around in the afternoon. “It truly is all about family,” says Beverly. “The food can be the simplest. There’s no question about it, [it’s about] just being together. The older we get, we realize how important it is.”

Still, every time Opal asked what she should bring to a holiday celebration, the answer would be the same: pecan pie. Since Opal’s death a few years ago, other pecan pies have been served during the holidays, but none quite like hers. So recently, Beverly dusted off her mother’s old Mississippi cookbook with its basic pecan pie recipe and tweaked it based on what she remembers seeing Opal doing in the kitchen—using granulated sugar and lowering the oven temperature for more even browning.

With their children growing up, the holidays haven’t involved the huge get-togethers of years past, but this year, more family members will be back in town, and Opal’s pecan pie will be on the menu again.

Drew and Chris Cunningham
WifeSaver Restaurant

Every year, WifeSaver’s Chris Cunningham fries hundreds of turkeys that are the centerpiece of holiday tables across the CSRA. But at home, Chris and his wife Drew celebrate in not-so-traditional ways. It’s all part of their own spirit of fun and in response to their growing family—son, Cash, and his wife, Chrissy, whose parents live in Atlanta; and daughter, Lindsey, her husband, Todd, and grandchildren Sumter, 2, and Bates, 4 months. “We’re very flexible,” says Drew.

Chris continues: “A lot of times you have a grandmother who’s kind of the matriarch that makes all the demands and wants everybody at a particular time and causes more stress.”
“I’m not going to be that kind of grandmother,” Drew finishes with a laugh.

Both Drew and Chris are from Augusta, so the weekend before Christmas they celebrate with Drew’s siblings when the highlight of the weekend is a fun-filled holiday gift exchange. Drew, her daughter and daughter-in-law also host a scarf party with all their friends at which 40 or 50 women, at the ring of a bell, dive into a pile of gift-wrapped scarves with mad abandon—a much-anticipated annual event (with wine!).

The tree is also Drew’s domain. She carefully wraps each branch with lights according to her own particular method—then hangs special pieces collected throughout her marriage as ornaments, including a hotel key that she and Chris kept from their honeymoon.

The food is always easy. For Thanksgiving, it’s a fried turkey (What else?) and traditional Southern sides. (Chris also jokes, “We do so much catering and fry so many turkeys during Thanksgiving that on Thanksgiving, all I want is ham and wine; that’s my tradition.”) The day after Thanksgiving, Drew often uses the leftover turkey to make her grandmother’s Country Captain, a Southern dish that typically includes chicken seasoned with curry and tomatoes and served over rice. “Every time you eat it, you always think about Crisco,” says Chris. (Crisco was Drew’s grandmother’s nickname.)

At Christmas, Chris puts on his alligator belt, a Christmas gift from his own mother when he was just 16 years old, and Drew puts her breakfast casserole in the oven—to get it piping hot before serving it at her own dining room or taking it along to wherever they might be celebrating Christmas morning that year. The dish has been a Christmas staple their whole married life and is what Chris lovingly calls a “D.C.”—Drew concoction—which swaps the usual white bread for (you guessed it) buttery WifeSaver biscuits.

The holidays are different from when their children were young and their home, Camp Cunningham, was the place for all the neighborhood kids to go. But their traditions still have that sense of fun and ease, whether it’s their annual funny photo Christmas card (This past year, the family wore Santa beards!) or the “Santa is real” video they filmed for their kids one Christmas Eve, complete with sleigh bells, glitter and magically appearing presents. “Our traditions have changed,” says Drew, “but we always try to make it fun...and have our family together.”

 

Gail and Chuck Baldwin French Market Grille

Six days a week, restaurateur Chuck Baldwin puts on a party at French Market Grille in Surrey Center. During the holidays, it’s no different. “The restaurant and family are inexorably intertwined,” he says. Every year, FMG is open for Christmas Eve lunch, when Baldwin (and special guest St. Nick) welcome the same families year after year as part of their Christmas traditions.


After 3 p.m., it’s a quick change to get ready for Christmas Eve services with the grandkids (Baldwin also sings in the church choir every year). And that’s when his family’s own low-key style of holiday celebration begins. Throughout the year, Baldwin eats his meals at FMG six days a week, twice a day—and Sundays are his time to cook a big meal when his family comes over. But during the holidays, his wife, Gail (whom he lovingly refers to as “the brains of what we do”) takes charge.


As the owners of French Market Grille, you might expect that Chuck and Gail Baldwin would celebrate the holidays with a similarly spicy, New Orleans-style meal. But their traditions harken back to her parents’ celebration in Michigan, which is where they both grew up. According to Chuck, Gail’s mother “would put on food for 50 or 60 people by herself...and my folks did a very similar thing.... The way I saw it, they typified that era of people raised in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s…where interpersonal relationships were vital.”


Although their holiday family get-togethers are down to nine (including their two sons, their wives and three grandchildren, ages 2, 4 and 5), Gail still hosts a very traditional Christmas celebration featuring a table groaning with simple, hearty, Midwestern fare—Brussels sprouts, rutabagas steaming with butter, corn, carrots, green bean casserole and white-bread dressing.

Years ago, the Baldwins added their own unique twist to the celebration by switching out the main course year after year, each more grand than the last. One year they might celebrate with turducken or Beef Wellington. The next it might be grilled tenderloin or a crown rib roast.

Three of the four Baldwin siblings are in the restaurant business and Chuck often swaps holiday main-dish recipes with his brother Jeff. “He is the jam,” says Chuck. “He’s really renowned as one of the best chefs in Michigan.... He’s a much better cook than I am.” It was Jeff’s dish that they prepared last year—a pork tenderloin grilled and stuffed with apples, goat cheese, sun-dried tomatoes and bacon.

The goal, says Chuck, is simple and classic: good food shared with family in a relaxed atmosphere. A second goal? Leftovers! “We’ll go a week or so, just eating leftovers,” he says with a laugh. “Because nothing’s better than heated-up mashed potatoes and dressing and all that, with gravy.”

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