Few traditions are as closely connected with home and hearth, with the embrace of family, as the celebration of the holidays.
That’s why a group of women at East Ridge at Cutler Bay hosts an annual Christmas luncheon for neighbors who don’t have family nearby. The Three Sisters Luncheon has become a tradition at the retirement community in south Miami-Dade, a way of telling residents that family can be comprised of more than just blood relatives.
“I’ve always liked tradition,” explains Barbara Sims, 87, who has spearheaded the luncheon effort for five years. “And my family has always had these wonderful Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, so I thought it was sad that some neighbors didn’t have any place to go to celebrate.”
Sims took over the luncheon prep from the late Dottie Lester five years ago, when Lester got sick with terminal cancer. Lester’s two sisters, Lou Hasencamp and Ruth Hecht, also East Ridge residents, had helped put the meal together. The three were widows who understood the value of friendship and neighborly bonds.
The luncheon was never intended to replace the fancy holiday meal at East Ridge’s dining room, nor was it expected to masquerade as a gourmet experience. In fact, when Lester organized the luncheon, the meal was quite simple: Stouffer’s lasagna, salad and dessert.
Good thing that the 25 to 30 residents who come to the mid-December event at the community’s Lifestyle Center aren’t attracted by anyone’s culinary capability. That isn’t the point at all, anyway. As Sandra Reed, the 79-year-old luncheon co-chair, puts it: “It’s not so much about the food. It’s more about the fellowship, about getting together.”
Ruth Salsburg, 88, has been attending since she moved to East Ridge four years ago. A widow, she has no children, and all her close relatives and friends have died. The luncheon, with its festive, welcoming air, gets her in the spirit of the holidays — and it gives her something to do during a season when many of her neighbors are away, visiting family.
“You really do get into the feeling of Christmas,” Salsburg says. “It’s enjoyable to see people who are in the same boat. You don’t feel so lonely.”
Barbara Weston, 92, has two daughters, but one lives in San Francisco and the other in the Washington, D.C., area. Now that she doesn’t travel, she looks forward to the camaraderie of the luncheon guests. “It’s very much needed and very much appreciated,” she says. “People get excited about the holidays, but they don’t realize some people have to spend it alone because they don’t have family close by.”
This year, the Three Sisters Luncheon is scheduled for Dec. 19, and the intrepid women who put it on are upping their game. No more Honey Baked Ham. No more Betty Crocker scalloped potatoes. 2016 is ushering in a new menu: home-cooked chicken casserole, dill sour cream scones and pumpkin cake served with a dollop of whipped cream, the fan favorite. Oh, and cranberry Jell-O salad, too.
Reed’s husband, Barrie, serves as the maître d’. Tables are set up in a U-shaped format — the better for everyone to socialize — and decorated with holiday candles and paperware. A volunteer hands out party favors, and entertainment includes a sing-along with pianist Gaynelle Heim and a holiday poem recitation.
However, one tradition has been abandoned: champagne.
“The sisters used to serve champagne,” Reed says, “but that got a little out of hand. Now we serve iced tea.”
Unlike other holiday meals, the Three Sisters Luncheon carries none of the baggage of complicated traditional recipes or the diplomatic seating of warring relatives. Sims and Reed selected the chicken casserole as the entrée because it was easy to prepare. Three women will each contribute a batch to serve the guests.
“We don’t get stressed out because we don’t do this very often and we share the work,” Reed says.
This year, the Three Sisters Luncheon will be particularly meaningful for Sims. Her husband of 69 years, Bob, died recently, and though she has family nearby, she understands first-hand the importance of good neighbors.
“This place is like family,” she adds. “We live in a community where we care about each other.”
3 cups cooked chicken, cubed
1/2 cup mayo
1/4 tsp. curry powder
1 tsp. lemon juice
1 can cream of chicken soup
1 pkg. frozen chopped broccoli
1 small jar chopped pimento, drained
Butter casserole-mix chicken soup, mayo, and curry and lemon juice; add pimento, chicken and broccoli. Put in casserole with buttered crumbs on top. Bake for 45 minutes at 350 degrees.
Dill Sour Cream Scones
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
4 tbsp. Butter or margarine
2 large eggs
1/2 cup sour cream
1 tbsp. Chopped fresh dill or 1 tsp. dried dill
Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
Combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt in large bowl.
Cut in butter with two knives or pastry blender until it resembles large coarse crumbs.
Beat eggs with fork in small bowl. Add sour cream and beat to combine. Stir into flour mixture until it forms soft dough. Turn out on well-floured surface and knead about 10 times. Roll out in 9" x 6" rectangle. Cut in 6, 3" squares. Cut squares in half, making 12 triangles. Bake until golden brown 10-12 minutes. Serve warm, or cooled completely.
Yield: 12 scones
Pumpkin Pie Cake
Yield: 15-20 servings
2 15 oz. cans pumpkin puree
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 tsp. Salt
1/2 tsp. allspice
2 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. ginger
2 12 oz. cans evaporated milk
1 18 oz. box Duncan Hines butter yellow cake mix
1 stick melted butter or margarine
1 cup chopped pecans (or walnuts)
2 tbsp. melted butter
1/4 cup sugar
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter 9” x 13” pan. In a bowl, beat eggs, add pumpkin, sugar, salt, allspice, cinnamon, ginger and evaporated milk. Mix until smooth and spread evenly in the pan. Sprinkle cake mix evenly on top. Drizzle melted butter over the cake mix evenly. Bake one hour.
Toss pecans with melted butter, add sugar and stir. Sprinkle over top of the cake. Bake an additional 20 minutes until nicely browned. Cool slightly or completely, before serving with a dollop of whipped cream.
NOTE: For a smaller cake, use 8” x 8” pan, half the pumpkin filling ingredients, one box of Jiffy Golden Cake Mix and half the topping ingredients. Bake 45 minutes, add topping and bake 15 minutes. Makes about 9 generous servings.