Ode To A Christmas Cracker
By Lady Elyse
Cracker thou art not to blame
I was misled by your name
Not festive fun that pops and splits
‘Cause I mistook you for a Ritz….
It was the late 1980’s and I was the enormous-haired floor manager for a very trendy London restaurant in Soho. We were coming up on a very busy holiday season and fully booked every night with parties from office gatherings to casts from the surrounding theatres wanting to make merry for Christmas time. While struggling with the coming week’s “Can’t you squeeze us in? There are only seventeen of us” requests for tables, a call came through from a man asking if we’d like to order Christmas crackers.
Gentle reader, please understand that I am from Milwaukee.
Crackers? Okay. I transferred the call down to the kitchen. Who transferred it back to me at the front desk…who sent it back down to the chef…who sent it back to me. The man on the phone explained not very patiently that they were CRACKERS to put on the holiday party tables. I hadn’t heard a tone that condescending since I asked Lord Albemarle, who was calling for a reservation, if he could spell his name, please.
Crackers decorating holiday tables? All I could picture was a single, pale saltine alone on an even paler plate and the entire notion depressed me. The stories I heard of wartime privations came to mind, and considered that maybe it was some sort of tradition in memory of the Blitz victims or something. Or maybe they were crackers shaped like Christmas trees? Grudgingly, I took the man’s number and told him I would give the information to the owner. By this time the chef was trudging up the steps and he didn’t look happy. I explained that I didn’t mean to bother him, but the call was about crackers, which, in my mind still went nicely with soup. Of course I would send queries about crackers to the kitchen. I was certain he’d want make his own and not buy them ready made. He looked at me as if I had sprouted antennae. We went back and forth in a classic“who’s on first” kind of encounter.
“Why?!?” he shouted. “Because he wanted to know if we needed crackers!” I replied. “EXACTLY!” he boomed. Finally, in a moment of mutual misunderstanding, silence reigned. I had decided Chef was a moron and Chef had decided I was an idiot. We could see it in each other’s eyes. He turned on his heels and muttered something I am certain was not terribly kind.
Moments later, the general manager was heading purposefully toward my desk. At least Chef decided to eschew violence and sent the man in the pink tuxedo to deal with me. It didn’t take long before we came to see there was a cross-cultural misunderstanding. I still couldn’t quite get my mind around the notion that an item wrapped like a gift that two people pulled and snapped, contained a hat, a toy (like Crackerjack—could it be connected?) and a lame joke would be a welcome table favor for our too-cool clientele. They would actually wear these crazy hats?
Of course they would and when they did, it was a sight to behold! I learned a lesson that day. I learned more than one because after our discussion the manager picked up my phone and called down to the kitchen to soothe the raging temper below. He made excuses for me to Chef. “Darling, you simply must remember that she is American. She didn’t know what a cracker is. Americans don’t do crackers. They don’t even how to use a knife and fork properly!” or something to that effect.
I was humbled by the cracker and realized I still had a lot to learn about my adopted home.
Very recently, however, I heard a story from the other side. A young British man who had only come to America months earlier to work in the US told me how all his young, cool office mates were talking about the upcoming holiday party to which they were all expected to bring something. He knew we didn’t have the aforementioned tradition in America, and he wanted to bring something special and different to make a good impression, so he spoke up and volunteered to bring the crackers. An uncomfortable hush went around the office. Later a co-worker told him that wasn’t an appropriate term to use at work. Everyone thought it meant he would bring white people.
Lady Elyse Ashton