Yosemite meal goes down in holiday history

It was — potentially — the stuff of Christmas-dinner dreams: the glorious dining room of Yosemite National Park's elegant Ahwahnee Hotel.

Its two-story-high, granite-and-timber walls were trimmed in holiday finery for the coveted Bracebridge Dinner, an annual event started in 1927 that is so popular a lottery system was initiated to select each year's participants.

And there we were, my husband Steve and I, and our two (then) teenage sons, Brandon and Ryan, in the center of it all. We hadn't lucked out in that year's lottery system. No, indeed. What I had was connections.

You see, after graduation from college, I went to work at The Ahwahnee. It was to be for just one summer, I remember telling myself. But one all-too-brief season turned into two glorious years of work and play.

Day in and day out, I pedaled my bike through that enchanted landscape, past flourishing groves of dogwood, pine and oak set against 2,000-foot sheer granite cliffs draped with foaming ribbons of water — images so magnificent that no one ever took them for granted. I realized even then that Yosemite was my Paris, my opportunity as a young adult, when life is fresh and exciting, to intimately know a place of great beauty.

Each Christmas, I reflect on that. At a time of year when I give thanks for all the goodness I've encountered in the world, I bless my parents for (among other things!) my Yosemite experience. They introduced me to it as a baby, brought my brother and me back to it every year and supported my decision to make it my home for a short while.

Eventually I left to begin my career. But the experiences and friendships I acquired during those Yosemite years have stayed with me. I have a deeper understanding of people after meeting and greeting thousands of visitors. And I know, without a doubt, some of the best food stories I eventually came to write began at 10,000 feet above sea level on the trails between Tuolumne Meadows and Yosemite Valley.

Bringing my husband and sons back to this place for one special event would close the circle, I thought. Which brings us to the seven-course Bracebridge Dinner.

Steve appreciated the history surrounding us in the dining room, which had been transformed into the 17th-century Great Hall of Lord and Lady Bracebridge. And our older son, Brandon, was enjoying the antics of the court jester and serving wenches.

But as the meal unfolded, Ryan could barely get beyond his empty stomach. Being what I will kindly refer to as a "selective eater," he was in survival mode, enduring each of the seven courses on a case-by-case basis. Some offerings were eliminated based on their name. Peacock pie, for example, didn't have a chance.

I had hopes for the pork course, though, until the boar's head was paraded in on a gigantic silver platter high overhead by an army of servers. Ryan signaled our waiter to bring a third basket of Ahwahnee bread.

At $240 per person, it remains the most expensive meal Ryan never ate.

Although none of them voiced it at the time — they truly were good sports — what was really missing from that fairy-tale dinner was the rest of the family we were used to gathering with on Christmas: my parents and my brother and his family.

And so even though Bracebridge Dinner will go down in the annals of Christmas celebrations as a charming experiment, it wasn't until we finally gathered with the entire family two days later that our hearts were truly nourished.

Certainly in the next few days you'll be in the market for a robust, heartwarming offering. My suggestion is a grand pot of homemade chili. If you haven't got your own favorite recipe, then consider one of mine, based on a recipe of Timberline Lodge executive chef, Leif Benson. Timberline Mountain-Style Chili would make the perfect accompaniment to your menu between now and New Year's.

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, cookbook author and artist. Readers can contact her by e-mail at janrd@proaxis.com.

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