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Stirring up memories


Churning Up Christmas Memories: Scuppernongs and Syllabub
December 21, 2005

            Every home glows with traditions at Christmastime.  Children joyfully take part—hanging stockings, opening gifts, watching bright-eyed at the Christmas table.  Year later those same children will relish the memories of this treasured holiday.

            On East Shotwell, at number 443, such memories certainly linger.  This home, built in 1899, has been a part of the Perry family since 1913.  That’s a long time to store up memories.

            Chip Perry, the present owner, has collected a lifetime of memories.  He moved into the family home, along with his parents, when he was only three.  He can’t remember a Christmas anywhere else.

            His mother, Mary Celia Davidson Perry, always made Christmas wonderful.  She didn’t restrict her traditions to the family.  Each year, early in the fall she began to prepare for the holiday by creating her own special scuppernong wine.  Through the fall she tended large crocks filled with grape juice, stirring them at least once a day.  When she deemed it ready, she filled bottle after bottle, decorating each one festively.  They adorned the dining room becoming part of the decoration, until it was gift exchange time; then friends and family alike received the bottles.

            Some friends appreciated the gift so much, Chip recalls, that they wanted to be sure and make the next year’s list.  When the bottles were emptied, they’d return them to Mary Celia, so that she could fill them again come the next December.

Not all the wine became a gift.  A little was held back for another Christmas tradition Mary Celia brought from her family.  “As far as I can remember it was always syllabub,” she said, speaking of Christmas to Lifestyles editor of the Post-Searchlight, Anne Laslie, in 1982.

            This delightful holiday concoction was the highlight of both Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, Linda Perry, Mary Celia’s daughter-in-law told me.  It’s been a tradition not only in the Davidson and the Perry families, but all across the American South and in England for generations.

            It’s no simple dessert.  It involves whipping cream, sugar, and wine.  And one more thing—a churn!  A special syllabub churn that pumps the mixture into a frothy, heavenly blend.  Mary Celia’s grandmother used a churn and taught her granddaughters.  Later, Mary Celia’s sister had copies made.  That’s the one that was used in the Perry household and  the one that Chip and Linda still treasure.

            “It’s a metal cylinder that looks like a paper towel roll.  It has holes in the bottom, and when you work the plunger up and down, bubbles form on the top and you skim them off,” Mary Celia explained in the 1982 article.  She also shared her recipe.

Mary Celia Perry’s Syllabub

1 1/2 pint whipping cream

1 cup whole milk

3/4 cup sugar

1 cup scuppernong wine

            Dissolve the sugar in the milk, and then add the cream.  (Use a big punch bowl; it’s going to grow!)  Stir well and let rest for a few minutes.  Then add the wine, stirring it in gently.

            Now the fun!  Immerse the pump in the mixture and begin to make bubbles.  As the bubbles form, skim them off into dessert glasses.

            “It tastes like sweetened air because you serve the bubbles.  And, it’s rich.” Mary Celia said.

            Chip and Linda agree.  Chip remembers his mom making it up right before Christmas dinner was served so that the froth would last.  Some folks suggest bringing the churn to the table, but Mary Celia found that too messy.  “Mine splashes too much.”

            Syllabub was also a tradition in the family of long-time Bainbridge librarian, Ruth Marshall.  Being a librarian, of course she had researched it!  She found that it was a favorite in the George Washington household.  The Washingtons served it at Christmas dinner—just like the Perrys.

            Ruth found one 1792 recipe for the dessert that insisted on really, really fresh milk.  It called for “Driving a cow up to the back door to milk it directly into the cup!”

            Does a Christmas syllabub sound good to you!  Don’t let not owning a cow or even a syllabub churn discourage you.  Here’s a recipe that comes close to the Shotwell Street tradition.

Twenty-first century syllabub

1 pint whipping cream

1/2 to 1 cup white wine or sherry (or scuppernong wine if you can lay your hands on it)

juice and grated rind of one lemon (optional)

1/4 cup sugar

            Chill a large bowl and put in all ingredients. Beat continuously with a hand or electric beater, skimming off foam as it rises. Continue until all mixture has turned to foam. Put the foam in a pretty serving bowl and chill in a refrigerator.


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