Column: A dilemma occurred during Christmas travel

Published 12:00 am Monday, January 1, 2007

Sara Aeikens, Creative Connections

On most any Christmas Day there exists a paradox of two conflicting images in my brain. One is of being at home, gathered around the dining room table sharing family memories and updates with loved ones. Reality often finds us on the road for at least some part of this special holiday.

The truth is, the highways are crawling and crowded with cars on Christmas Day, at least between here and St. Cloud, where we usually spend Christmas Eve with our son. This year we partook of none of his fantastic homemade pop-overs for breakfast the next morning, because it was a working day for him as a St.Cloud Times reporter.

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We decided to find a place to eat somewhere during our three hour plus drive home. As we noticed all the desolate city restaurant and mall parking lots, it was beginning to look like Christmas on the road, without my fantasy special meal. Then with my naive nature, I figured out all those people driving somewhere will want to stop sometime, probably to eat. I just didn&8217;t want to spend this mealtime in a truck-stop gas station getting a quick hamburger and fries.

While I was mulling this over, long past the half-way mark home, my husband pulled into the old Pine Cone Restaurant and gas stop in Faribault. It has been years since I used to work in the town and make visits to eat there.

Now I noticed they actually have a fancier side for dining rather than munching, with formal looking upholstered brocade chairs beckoning us at the entry for waiting in line.

Lots of people were milling around, but we were almost immediately greeted by a talkative and friendly host and no waiting. Reed gave us a choice of tables and then had a Santa-hat waitress seat us. With my idea that a Christmas cozy spot was near impossible while traveling, I was surprised to note some comfort items, down to the large bowl of assorted candy treats on the sweets table, which was covered with plenty of choices of what looked like home-made holiday desserts.

The host assured me that his partner was the chief in charge of the place as well as the creator of atmosphere and also of many recipes which were family ones made from scratch on the premises. I was convinced of the home-made quality, when I went through one of the two buffet lines to find yams with marshmallows roasted for topping, tasting as yummy as my mother used to bake in North Dakota a half-a-century ago. Then I spotted the creamy macaroni and cheese, not from a box. However the meal high point was my first bite of the chili soup. It amazed me I would even bother to try it, let alone make it my first bite of anything, considering all the traditional stuffing, gravy, cranberries, and meats available.

My son, who concocted our delightful Christmas Eve meal topped off with a divine lime meringue pie, shared his wisdom after the dinner about depth of flavor and tasting the different layers of seasonings. He told us he had won second place at the office chili cook-off, which encouraged me to ask about the Pine Cone recipe secret for its many layers of flavors.

The next surprise was to not only talk with Deb, the host&8217;s

partner and maker of the zinger savory chili, but to have her cheerfully tell me she&8217;d send me her recipe. We left for home on Christmas Day, not only with a very satisfying meal, but a taste of Christmas Spirit on the road.

Sara Aeikens lives in Albert Lea.