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  • A Merry Varied Christmas in the Foreign Service

    My family served in the U.S. Foreign Service for thirty odd years, so Christmas had to be reinvented every time we moved. Much depended on the availability of ingredients or decorative material. Before the Internet, we depended on what we could find locally or legally bring in the diplomatic pouch.

    We lived for two years in a Francophone African country, and flights from Paris every week brought cheeses and seafood to the local shops. Christmas dinner was a feast. Our tours in South Asia were a bit more challenging, but only in the menu department. The household almost always included a chef who was thrilled to whip up some “exotic” American delicacies. The only problem we had was figuring out what was American. We tended to think of huevos rancheros for breakfast, while the cook envisioned classic English cuisine.

    In former Soviet Central Asia, our first year featured imported American frozen chicken wings (called Bush Wings) from the local bazaar. The next year we raised our own turkeys in the garden of the ambassador’s residence. Unfortunately, the ones who sacrificed their lives for Christmas dinner were extremely tough. The survivors were given to Tajik friends.

    Now that we are retired, we finally have steady foodways traditions. We start with oyster stew on Christmas Eve, proceed to strong coffee and delicious pastries Christmas morning, and a whole stuffed fish with whatever vegetables are in season for Christmas dinner. Dessert is baked Bosc pears stuffed with mincemeat, plus gingerbread creatures and bourbon balls.

    Bourbon balls
    Bourbon balls
    Photo by Renny Smith

    Bourbon Balls


    1 12-oz package vanilla wafers, finely crushed
    1 cup pecans, chopped and toasted
    3/4 cup powdered sugar
    2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa
    1/2 cup bourbon
    2 1/2 tbsp light corn syrup
    Powdered sugar for dusting


    1. Mix wafers, pecans, 3/4 cup of powdered sugar, and cocoa until well blended (I use a blender).

    2. Stir together bourbon and corn syrup. Add the wafer mixture and stir well.

    3. Shape into one-inch balls, then roll in powdered sugar. Save in a sealed tin for up to two weeks.

    Renny Smith is a former U.S. Department of State consular officer and current front desk volunteer at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.

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