By Jenny Neyman
There’s a special kind of magic infusing kitchens this time of year, bestowing the power of speech upon various combinations of flour, sugar, butter, eggs, spices and flavorings.
What goes in the mixing bowl may be any old recipe for cookies or candy, but what comes out of the oven, gets packaged into brightly colored tins and delivered to various friends, family and acquaintances becomes a way to say, “You are appreciated.”
“As we start getting close to Thanksgiving you kind of get more in a mindset of really thinking about the things you’re grateful for and the people you’re thankful for in your life — whether it’s every day or just a couple times a year. You just start thinking about that stuff. If a plate of cookies is something I can do to say, ‘Thank you,’ then that’s what we do,” said Sheilah-Margaret Pothast, of Soldotna.
Pothast has a lot to say. Combine a teacher’s inherent friendliness, a mom’s genuine interest in your health and a personality that tends toward being effervescently chatty and you’ve got a woman who will greet you warmly, inquire sincerely about your well-being and offer attempts to make you more comfortable within the first few seconds of meeting her.
Mix that personality with a family tradition that food equals love and you’ve got a baker who produces a steady stream of goodie packages over the holidays, the sheer volume of which seems disproportionate to the amount of time and energy you’d expect a working wife and mother of two active teenagers to have.
“I basically start in late November and just keep on going,” she said. “I don’t even know (how much time I spend). I can’t even put my brain around that. Last week I took my son to school, came home and hammered it for two hours and got out three batches of various things before I went in to work, so it just happens in pieces. It’s a lot of a little at a time. Sometimes the dough gets made the night before and then I bake the next day.”
Pothast’s holiday treats are spread far and wide throughout the community. The Alaska State Troopers, Soldotna Police Department and Central Emergency Services offices all get trays heaped with homemade caramel corn and cookies. The family’s doctors, dentists, hairstylists, orthodontist and chiropractor get plates. Her husband, John “J.P.” Pothast, is principal at Redoubt Elementary School, so his staff gets goodies. Pothast teaches Spanish at Soldotna Middle and brings treats for her co-workers, as well as the office crew at the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Office and the school board.
“And we do goodies for neighbors, friends and family, priests, people from church — folks that you might have on
your gift list anyway,” she said. “And it kind of grows sometimes, because it seems like every year there’s somebody else we think of — ‘They were really good to us this year.’ Or, ‘We really appreciate this or that.’”
As of last week, the staff of the outpatient surgery department at Central Peninsula Hospital got added to Pothast’s baking list, after her son had his tonsils taken out.
“I’ve never had surgery before and this is my baby and I’m terrified but I’m trying to hold it together, and the people were just really, truly fabulous,” Pothast said. “So at some point I’m going to take a platter in there, because that’s how I say ‘thank you.’”
Food has a lot to say in Pothast’s family. She grew up in Camp Verde, Ariz., a small town about an hour and a half north of Phoenix. Her dad was a teacher, mom worked in the schools and her grandmother ran a school kitchen for about 27 years and loved to cook even outside of work.
“That’s how my grandmother showed us she cared is she fed us. She fed us to congratulate us, she fed us if we weren’t feeling good, she fed us if things weren’t going our way,” Pothast said. “… I grew up watching her love overflow for people just as their plates did when they were at her table. So, yes, I guess my treats are somewhat of a ‘family tradition.’”
Every Christmas Eve Pothast’s family held an open house where her Mima — grandmother — prepared a mountain of tamales made the old-fashioned way on a wood stove, pork and red chile, tortillas, baked goods and salads.
“People from all over our small community came through our house all evening, eating and talking and just enjoying each other’s company. I loved that tradition and can still picture Mima standing over a pot of steaming tamales and encouraging everyone to eat. That’s how she showed people she cared. Mima cooked and you knew she loved you,” Pothast said.
She, her parents and siblings would also take plates of treats to the sheriff’s department and fire department in town.
“My mom, I feel like she goes all out because she delivers to every shift change. I just deliver once. I can’t even go there, Mom,” Pothast said.
Pothast inherited her family’s love of cooking, but didn’t realize it until later in life. Growing up, while her Mima loved to cook, she didn’t love others being in her kitchen, so Pothast didn’t learn any of her skills.
“The only fish I had was fish sticks. Except maybe a catfish when my dad and brother went fishing, and I certainly didn’t know how to cook them. I knew how to do fish sticks — throw them in an oven for a little bit, I think,” she said.
Her husband is an outstanding cook, she said, and he did most of the cooking when they got married about 16 years ago.
“It wasn’t until we moved to Alaska that I had the time and desire to figure it out. J.P. and I made a deal — he’d try anything I fixed. I would ask if it was a keeper, and if so, I kept making it. If it wasn’t, I agreed not to have hurt feelings and I moved on to another recipe. It’s a deal that’s worked great for the nearly 12 years we’ve been here,” she said.
The progression from confused in the kitchen to chef wasn’t instantaneous, however. They took up fishing as soon as they moved to Alaska, and soon had ample salmon to eat and feed their dinner guests, including the family priest.
“And that’s like a big deal in my family — having a priest over for dinner — that’s a huge deal. My mom was calling me like every five minutes, ‘So what are you having? How’s it going.’ And I set the salmon on fire. I tried to broil it and John had to carry it through the house. It was flaming and smoking. I just sat there going, ‘Oh my word.’ It was one of those things where you either laugh or you cry, so I just laughed because crying wasn’t going to help. Bless Father Tero’s heart, he was so kind. He just rolled with it. He said, ‘Oh, it’s blackened salmon. Just scrape that part off.’”
Nowadays, she’s got drawers stocked with specialty scoops, crust rollers and other gadgets, a shelf full of dog-eared cookbooks and recipe magazines, and if her fudge comes out a little grainy it’s beneath her standards. But that’s OK — “My kids don’t mind. They’re excellent taste-testers,” she said,
Many of her six to 10 holiday recipes are made year after year, especially the ones that are quick to whip up and produce a big batch, like caramel corn and ginger cookies.
Others are more complicated but too good not to make.
“Chocolate revel bars. They’re really gooey and kind of a pain but, man, are they totally worth it,” she said.
She’s constantly on the lookout for new recipes, and tries them out during the year to see if they’ll make the cut onto her holiday roster of treats, to share a platter with the marshmallow fudge recipe she had to beg off her sister-in-law, and the wafer-thin, anise-flavored, Italian pizzelle cookies that were a staple of her childhood Christmases.
“I can’t remember a Christmas without pizzelle,” she said. “When John-Mark was a little guy he asked me one summer, ‘Momma can you only make them for Christmas or can you have them anytime?’ So I made them in July one time and the kids just thought that was the coolest thing — Christmas in July.”
She genuinely enjoys cooking now, and feels much more adept at it.
“Baked goods, as long as it’s not too fancy-schmancy, I can do it. I feel confident I can manage a cookie,” she said.
Pothast especially likes that her kids, Hannah and John-Mark, are into cooking, too. With the kids’ school, sports, music and other activity schedules becoming more hectic as they get older, she often does all the baking herself, whipping up batches with Christmas carols playing on the stereo, whisking around the kitchen under a sign painted in Spanish that says “Mi casa es su casa” — My house is your house.
No matter how hectic her house gets, she tries to share a product of it with those she appreciates.
“Some years we don’t do nearly as much, if I’ve got a sick kid or a sick self or life is just crazy. But assuming everything goes well, we try to get everybody covered and hopefully they’ll have a treat and know we’re thinking about them and appreciate them, merry Christmas, happy holidays, whatever you want to say and whatever works for you,” she said.
Those treated to these holiday demonstrations of gratitude say it is nice to feel appreciated, though consuming too much of the sweet messages can leave one feeling sour if they’re trying to watch their diet.
Dr. James Julien’s dental office in Kenai accumulates six to eight goodie trays between Thanksgiving and Christmas, consisting of cookies, candy and other sugary treats a dentist should, technically, frown upon.
“It’s mostly unhealthy. I would say it’s probably — oh, gosh, 75 percent anyway is unhealthy treats,” Julien said.
“But there’s peanut butter in these cookies. That’s healthy, right?” said Pat Walton, office manager and a dental assistant.
Some treats come from patients, while most others come from the offices of professional colleagues.
“It’s mostly the specialists we refer patients to throughout the year, to the orthodontist, oral surgeons or whoever, and they send us little treats at the end of the year to thank us,” Julien said.
The thanks often gets spread out to patients, staff and their families.
“It doesn’t all get consumed at the office here. We take things home, it gets given to the grandkids or whatever,” Julien said. “I figure it’s better to spread it out amongst 100 or some people than four or five people.”
“We pass them out to patients, too,” Walton said. “We’re pretty bad — here’s your toothbrush, some candy, and floss.”
Julien said the office has gotten used to the occasional raised eyebrows or good-natured “tssking” they get when trafficking in sugar. It’s a lot worse at Halloween than Christmas.
“We’ve tried it all. We’ve tried sugar-free candy, nobody liked it,” he said.
“Especially us,” Walton said.
“We tried toothbrushes, but everybody’s long faces about that, so it was a big bust,” Julien said. “Then we tried regular candy and people gave us a hard time about that because we’re a dental office. So we’ve just thrown our hands up, we don’t know what to do. We got the fewest complaints about Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups (since people really like them). ‘You’re a dentist office and you’re putting out candy — Ooh, Reese’s.’”
It’s not that the office doesn’t appreciate receiving goodies or that staff doesn’t want to eat them. It definitely sets the holiday mood and it’s something the office looks forward to every year, Julien said.
But it is challenging not to overindulge.
“Come about three o’clock, that’s when you really want something,” Walton said. “I don’t have real good willpower when I know it’s back here. I won’t buy (sweets), but when I know it’s back here I usually eat it.”
“My worst time is about 10 in the morning,” Julien said. “My breakfast has worn off and it’s still several hours until lunch. You just kind of come back here and start grazing.”
Julien’s advice for maintaining dental health in the holiday season is to avoid anything super sticky — like caramel. Not only does it stick to teeth and stay in contact with tooth enamel longer, but it can loosen or even pull out crowns and other dental work.
Eat sweets in moderation, or at least do it all at once.
“If you’re going to eat it, just sit down and eat it all at once. Don’t be snacking on it throughout the day. The longer you spread those carbs out throughout the day the worse it is on your teeth. It’s better to just get in there, get that acid peak and get it over with, and brush your teeth when you’re done.”
Occasionally a patient will bring in something health-conscious, like muffins, or one of the specialists will give a smoked turkey or something else nonsugar laden. Pothast said she could consider revamping her trays to be healthier, but she prefers to dole out her appreciation in the form of sweet treats.
“I guess I could take somebody a veggie platter, but I don’t know that it’d have the same kind of warmth or would convey the whole holiday spirit as much,” Pothast said.
It’s nice to have healthy options, Julien said, but he did concede that there’s just something special about sweet treats around the holidays,
“They’re nice to have, and it’s the thought that counts. If all they sent was a card, that would be fine, but we do like the goodies, as long as they don’t start doing it all the time. We wouldn’t fit through the doorways.”