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Eating Christmas 

A long-distance cooking course saves a stranger’s holiday dinner

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I was awakened by a text message at about 2 a.m. following Thanksgiving of 2014: "911!! 911!! I'm not bringing the rolls for Christmas. I'VE BEEN ASSIGNED THE SWEET POTATOES! WHAT AM I GOING TO DO?"

I had no idea who it was from.

I'd heard of families this organized, that assigned shared dishes early so they could be planned. In my own family you might get several green bean casseroles and no potatoes at all. This family had it going on. Whoever they were. I was a bit jealous.

I typed "wrong number" but paused before sending. There was a person in crisis on the other end. I texted on a lark, I think you have the wrong number. This is Jennifer. BUT, I have a TON of great sweet potato recipes. I'll send one if you want. You can do this!

I waited and got nothing. So, I went back to sleep.

Hours later, I was enjoying a breakfast of leftover pecan pie and coffee surrounded by the silence of my little house. My own Thanksgiving dinner for one had been a bit bleak but it was tasty. Rather than a huge turkey meal with all the trimmings, I had indulged in a nice steak, sautéed onions and mushrooms and a lovely bottle of wine. My pie came from a box in the freezer. While I imagined my texter had spent the evening surrounded by family, I finished not one but TWO intricate pages in my adult coloring book.

"I don't really cook." My cellphone dinged.

"Oh God!"

"This is awful."

"Frowny-face emoji"

I finished my pie and coffee.

Ok, Let's start at the beginning. I'm Jennifer. I live in Phoenix and I DO *really* cook. What's your name?

I learned that Sara was 23, lived near Branson, Missouri, and worked as a scheduler for the local cable company. She had meant to text a 660 area code and somehow got my 602 number instead.

"Dinner is at my sister's house. She knows I don't cook."

"Bitch."

I love family dynamics.

Ok Sara from Branson. Let's show your sister what you can do. Shall we?

Nothing. I figure Sara's gone away.

It's now 2 in the afternoon.

"Would you really help me?"

Sweet or savory?

"What?"

What's on the menu? Do you want a recipe that's sweet like with the marshmallows and stuff or do you prefer a savory recipe?

"I don't know what savory is."

Oh goodness, Sara cannot cook.

Savory means it's not sweet. It's salty or spiced... Just not sweet. You can make them both ways.

"Like 2 dishes?"

"I don't know. That would be hard."

I have some unresolved sibling rivalry issues perhaps. I'm really feeling for Sara.

Well, you could do one or the other but if you really want to show your sister, 2 simple dishes would do it. They're both easy.

I thought a second and then followed with:

SUPER EASY

I typed in all caps to emphasize that this would indeed be SUPER. EASY.

Personally, I was having a little crisis. What if I led poor Sara astray? Could this person really cook by text message? I pulled out my recipe books and began to search through them and even Googled sweet potatoes.

Evening fell, and I took the second half of my Thanksgiving bottle of wine outside to watch the sunset when Sara sent a volley of texts.

"Do you mean it?"

"It's easy?"

"I really can't cook."

I sipped my merlot and watched the sky change and wondered about Sara. I created this image of this young, Midwest girl—probably a bit of a rebel—now sweating the intrigue of the family holiday dinner.

EVERYONE can cook. You just haven't learned how.

I mean it. SUPER. EASY.

"Why would you help me?"

Now, that's a legit question. Why was I getting involved with some girl halfway across the country? Why should I care? She can Google as easily as I can.

I was lonely. I was bored. I was disconnected. I struggled with the holidays for years, choosing to spend them alone in my self-imposed solitude. I NEEDED my Grinch-sized heart to have a reason to keep beating. Sara was going to get me through.

Over the next weeks—all

by text—I taught her to infuse olive oil with garlic and rosemary and then brush it over par-baked sweet potato spears, generously add fresh cracked pepper and kosher salt and roast them to perfection. She under cooked the first one and then over cooked the next. But, by the third try, Sara had it down.

It would have been easier to talk, I suppose. Neither of us ever dialed the other. I feared it would somehow mess with our mojo. One text at a time, we got through. We made her shopping list, strategized on what to do the day before and what to finish at her sister's place on Christmas day. We talked about how to present her dish at the table. I knew the savory sweet potatoes would be unique and she'd score big points with that plate.

Now, the minefield of the holiday meal is the sweet potato casserole. Every cook has their own recipe. Sara, tell me about your favorite bite of sweet potatoes.

"I don't really like sweet potatoes."

Maybe you could have shared that before this. It's hard to make a dish you don't like and do it well.

She texted back, "It's ok. I hate the soupy green bean thing even more."

We all do Sara.

So, the sweet potatoes... Do you want them in chunky bites or whipped like mashed potatoes?

We went back and forth. Maple syrup or brown sugar? Walnuts? Pineapple? Marshmallows?

In the end she decided on whipped sweet potatoes smothered in butter, bourbon, vanilla and brown sugar—with a twist. She was excited by the twist. We practiced the recipe in a small quantity and her co-workers LOVED it.

"I am so sick of sweet

potatoes," Sara texted one day.

I hear you girl. This has become an obsession for both of us.

"My sister is not going to know what hit her!"

Atta girl.

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As I sat in my undecorated home, counting the days until the holidays were over, Sara's upcoming Christmas dinner was the only one that mattered to me. I felt no personal connection to the spirit of the season. Every text from her was a little bit of holiday cheer.

As we finished Sara's preparations for her Midwest Christmas, I planned my own holiday dinner: homemade pumpkin curry soup, a small game hen with dressing, brussel sprouts, mashed potatoes and sweet potatoes—two ways.

On Christmas day, I threw open the doors, put on the yule log YouTube video, and cranked Ella Fitzgerald as I cooked. I hummed along contentedly as I stirred and basted. I roasted my savory sweet potatoes to perfection. Then, I added a generous pinch of fresh black pepper to my sweet potato casserole, before I covered it in marshmallows and set it in the oven to brown.

Sara had been alarmed when I told her about the pepper. "They'll be ruined! That will taste horrible!" she worried.

I assured her that the sharp note of pepper would cut the sweet just enough to give it balance.

"OMG I'm a friggin gourmet!"

As I settled in for my Christmas dinner, I checked my phone. Nothing from Sara.

I washed up after dinner, enjoyed wine and sunset on the patio and headed to bed early.

Around midnight my phone dinged.

"They LOVED the sweet potatoes!" "I think you're my Christmas angel."

A string of holiday emojis.

"My sister asked for the recipe."

I never heard from Sara again. I dropped my phone and cracked it soon after that and lost all my old text messages when I got my new phone. While I remember Sara with fondness, I love that our friendship was random and ephemeral. I treasure how her confidence grew over that month we cooked together. I wonder what she's cooking this year. I hope she always remembers that it's that note of sharpness that balances the sweet and makes it sweeter.

Jennifer Longdon is a professional speaker, freelance writer and a member of the Arizona House of Representatives. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @jenlongdon.

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