The story was written with a particular narrator voice in mind. If you've seen the show Pushing Daisies, picture Jim Dale's voice as you read. That is what was in my head as I wrote. If you are unfamiliar, I think Jean Shepherd's voice would work just a well. Plus that one brings a Christmas connection.
So, without further adieu, chapter one of The Tinsletown, Texas Christmas Chronicles - The Year of the Best Christmas Dinner Ever.
Chapter 1. The Valkotukka Family
Vern Valkotukka’s favorite thing about Christmas was the food. In particular, Vern had developed a special affection for preparing Christmas dinner, and there was not a dish yet that he had not been able to master. Beyond variations on the traditional turkey, dressing, cranberry sauce, and fruitcake, Vern had mastered ages old family recipes for roast goose and carp, as well as lebkuchen and christstollen. This love further led him to experiment with fig pudding, trifles, mince pies, and variations on the yule log. From there, he studied traditional Cajun reveillon, the Italian Feast of the Seven Fishes, and Christmas tamales. One year, he even tried his hand at a Chinese dim sum.
Yes, Vern Valkotukka loved Christmas food and he was very good at making it.
It was a love he had developed from childhood. Something his parents had fostered within him and greatly appreciated. Vern fondly remembered the times his mother brought him into the kitchen to assist her in making gingerbread houses and other holiday treats and goodies, a practice she began when he was only three years old. By the age of six, Vern frequently played a vital role in the family’s meal preparation and by the age of thirteen, he was working his way through the kitchen of his family’s restaurant – The Stable: A Unique Dining Experience (SM).
Life, however, did not start with The Stable for the Valkotukka family. The family had lived in Tinsletown since its earliest days. Vern’s father, Vincent Valkotukka, had moved to the community with his wife, Vivian, from New York by way of New Orleans, shortly after the town’s founding, hoping to start farm life befitting the yuletide locale. As the Dooley family had already claimed Christmas trees, the Valkotukka’s chose to focus on foods essential to Christmas meal preparation. In particular, they had hoped to plant a thriving cranberry bog in this little town in East Texas. Needless to say, the cranberry bog was not the valued crop that the Valkotukka’s had hoped for, and the family often struggled to make ends meet. By the time Vern was born, the family had started branching out into other holiday plants such as apple, pumpkin, and chestnuts, none of which ever really took off as they had desired.
Over the next several years, the Valkotukka’s began experimenting with a variety of other business opportunities. They started with the farm tours. Then, there was the ill-fated reindeer stable and petting zoo, which at least added the sizeable structure to the property. The recklessly hazardous woodcarving experiment, despite the lack of experience. This experiment was thankfully brief and free from bodily harm (though the fence posts never looked quite the same afterward). And finally, the poorly conceived Twelve Days of Christmas aviary. No one could have imagined how aggressive those birds would turn out to be.
Through it all, one constant remained in Mrs. Valkotukka’s chicken dinners. Offered originally as an option during the farm tours, the dinners quickly grew in fame and popularity. Guests raved about the lightly fried chicken, mashed potatoes with brown gravy, green beans, and buttermilk biscuits with the special Valkotukka preserves – cranberry, of course. Guests to the Valkotukka home knew of Mrs. Valkotukka’s skill in the kitchen, but these chicken dinners seemed to be of a higher level altogether.
The recipe started as a variation on a family secret. If pressed, Mrs. Valkotukka would confess the variation happened largely by accident. In the first batch, a splash of cranberry juice fell into the batter for the fried chicken. With no time to prepare a fresh batter, Mrs. Valkotukka had little choice to but to leave the accidental ingredient in. Surprisingly, the addition proved quite the sensation. Guests that day could not get enough of the taste, with many coming back for seconds (and some for thirds and fourths). All of them loved that unique flavor, the one they “just couldn’t quite put their finger on.”
Mrs. Valkotukka certainly had to experiment the next day, splitting the dinners between the original recipe and the new variation. People continued to gravitate to the batch with the hint of cranberry. Accordingly, from then on, the accidental variation became the new family tradition.
Within weeks, the chicken dinners began drawing larger crowds than any of the other business experiments, causing the dinners to begin to sell out on a regular basis. After a couple of months, guests started arriving from areas well beyond Tinsletown, some even reporting as much as an hours drive just to come partake in this unique chicken dinner they had heard so much about.
By this time, everyone in the family was involved with the chicken dinners. Vern had started helping his mother in the kitchen, to help meet the increased demand. Vern’s younger sister, Veronica, just two years younger, helped serve and clear plates. Mr. Valkotukka had even shifted his attention to duties as a host, helping seat the patrons and generally engaging them in long conversations. Yes, even Mr. Valkotukka had found his calling – conversationalist.
The success of the chicken dinners had quickly made it the family business. But the leap to The Stable, to the restaurant that would become a Tinsletown icon, would only come after an offbeat inspiration.