Tidings of comfort and joy

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas ... especially in Cleveland’s Tremont neighborhood, where preparations are underway for the celebration that will commemorate the silver anniversary of the MGM movie, “A Christmas Story,” later this month. Based on essays written by humorist Jean Shepherd, the film revolves around 9-year-old Ralphie Parker’s wish to receive a Red Ryder air rifle for Christmas.

Much of the picture was shot in Cleveland, and a home on West 11th Street was chosen as the Parker family abode. Refurbished as a tourist attraction two years ago, the dwelling has been visited by more than 70,000 fans, eager to see the back yard where Ralphie engaged in target practice with his coveted gift. The house and nearby museum, filled with costumes and props, commemorate every facet of the film. (Not to mention, they do a brisk business in leg-lamp sales.)

And, as we do every Christmas Eve, my husband and I will tune in to watch portions of the “24 Hours of ‘A Christmas Story’ ” marathon on cable TV.

But with the humor also comes the bittersweet.

For I continue to mourn the loss of one of the film’s brightest stars: Higbee’s downtown department store, the site of Ralphie’s infamous encounter with Santa and two ornery elves. The sumptuous oak display cases and sparkling chandeliers — elegant accoutrements the stately emporium was famous for — needed no touch-ups for their on-camera close-ups back in 1983.

Although it’s been almost seven years since it closed, Higbee’s lives on in the hearts and minds of those of us who remember sipping a creamy malted whipped up at the Frosty Bar, or shopping for kid-priced holiday gifts in the Twigbee Shop.

In December 2001, several weeks before the store’s final day of business commenced, I decided to pay a last visit to the place that was such an integral part of my youth. Still raw from my mother’s death the year before, my eyes filled as I stared at the vast emptiness that had taken over on Three, which was always our first stop to shop. I decided to beat a hasty retreat before the waterworks began in earnest.
But fate had other plans. SallyAnn Mogford stepped in.

Strangers, we met while gazing at the barren retail landscape before us and began commiserating about it. Like me, SallyAnn was also there to pay her final respects. We bonded quickly, she and I, wondering what our mothers would say about the store’s demise if they were alive.
“I’ve been walking around, talking to my mother and reminiscing,” she said. “I bet you’ll find your mother here, too.”

She was right. The years flashed backward. And much like Ralphie’s experience seems to be, I recalled how each of my junkets to the department store was also an Event filled with lessons about Life.

My back-to-school routine always included a trip to Higbee’s. Every August, my mother would don hat and gloves and coax me into a dress for the annual shopping excursion to skirt the issue of mini, midi or maxi.

But no matter our purpose for being there, no visit was complete without a stop at The Silver Grille, the fashionable ladies-who-lunch spot that was clearly the store’s heart and soul. It was there that my mother began teaching me restaurant etiquette (not to mention, a fondness for creamed chicken, first tasted in a tiny wooden sideboard from the children’s menu).

As my chance encounter with SallyAnn reminded me that memories are ours to treasure forever, so, too, has Richard E. Karberg helped preserve them.

His trio of tomes, “The Silver Grille: Memories and Recipes,” “The Higbee Company and the Silver Grille: More Memories and Recipes” and “The Silver Grille,” published by Cleveland Landmarks Press, have become sought-after collectibles. For his series of books, published between  2000 and 2002, Richard diligently tracked down recipes for Welsh Rarebit, Maurice Salad and dozens of other entrees remembered with fondness. Thanks to him and his editorial team, these savory dishes have been rescued from the mists of time.

Below, Richard and the folks at Cleveland Landmarks Press generously share the famous muffin recipe that’s guaranteed to bring a heaping helping of nostalgia to your holiday table.

Here’s to good times past and present.

And thanks for the memories.

Linda Feagler
My Turn Editor

Let me know what you think. E-mail your comments and suggestions to lfeagler@myturnmag.com.

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