ImageDorothea Benton Frank is as comfortable in front of a stove as she is a keyboard, and as adept. In her new book, The Christmas Pearl, Frank weaves a delectable holiday tale that's as hard to resist as Mamaw's pecan pie.

Frank will debut her book during a one-week tour of the Lowcountry and fund-raising lunch at the Francis Marion Hotel, with proceeds designated to the Preservation Society of Charleston. Between packing her bags, Frank visited with author Karen Spears Zacharias about The Christmas Pearl:


Q: Where did the idea for The Christmas Pearl originate?

A: It actually came from a family holiday argument. It was New Year's Day night, we were all tired and probably suffering from over exposure to each other. An argument broke out and I thought, If Ella Wright - the woman descended from slavery who raised me - could see this bunch of knuckleheads, she would get out of her grave and give them all the devil.


Q: Was there a holiday story that was particularly captivating to you as a girl growing up in South Carolina?

A: Yes, The Christmas Carol by Dickens. My stepfather read it to me every year.


Q: The Christmas Pearl gives a reverent nod to the traditions of the holiday season. What traditions did your family practice when you were a child that remain a part of your holiday season?

A: There was always great excitement leading up to Christmas that began with shelling pecans to bake in to cakes and cookies. It was always my job to stud an orange with cloves that my mother put on the back of the stove. Every time she cooked, the kitchen smelled so good.

Right after Thanksgiving, we put up lights, greens, a manger scene and a huge tree, always with a lot of oversight on how to hang tinsel. Every ornament had a story, a memory and each year we relived them all. My stepfather always had Perry Como or someone of that generation playing on the stereo. It was quite the family affair.

Even as a very young girl, I did little chores to earn money to buy my mother and stepfather a gift. Usually I waxed furniture with Johnson's paste wax - I can still smell it, or polished silver. I imagine I must have been eight or ten. My earliest memory of working for Christmas gift money was polishing fruit for my mother's epergne.

My family always went to Midnight Mass, where the soloist always sang O Holy Night off key, we giggled and our mother pinched the insides of our arms to make us behave. The men slept and snored very loudly so it was hard not to laugh the whole way through Mass. And it was always cold, which added a lot to the atmosphere.


Q: Theodora, the family matriarch, is disheartened about the passing of the old ways. She recalls rubbing magnolia leaves with corn oil, to make them shine, and fashioning garland from water-soaked rope and fresh pine branches. Did you actually do some of these activities as a child? If not, how did you learn about the old ways?


A: Of course we did! Every family on Sullivans Island made their decorations to the best of my knowledge. We bought our trees from an old warehouse that I think was in the market downtown. Tying it to the car and crossing all the bridges back to the beach was pretty exciting, wondering if it would fly off the car into the Cooper River. I learned all these traditions from my mother who learned them from hers.


Q: There are some wonderful photographs of historic Charleston in The Christmas Pearl. Can you tell us about these photographs? And the one of you and Cousin Jim on the back of the book? Are those really poinsettia-themed drapes hanging in a family home? Where's Jim now? Do you all still don your pjs and hold hands at Christmas?


A: The pictures were a gift to William Morrow from The South Carolina Historical Society and they are photographs of Charleston from the turn of the twentieth century. Yes, my mother had poinsettia curtains, because they play an important role in South Carolina history. The first seedlings were brought to South Carolina by Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first US Ambassador to Mexico.

My cousin Jim Blanchard lives near Miami with his lovely wife, Barbara and he works for Publix. Alas, we outgrew our pajamas, no longer hold hands but we still seem to have our baby fat.


Q: The character of Pearl reminded me of a cross between Mary Poppins and Samantha from Bewitched. I guess if this were a legal thriller, Pearl would be the firm's fixer. Has there been a person in your life who has helped you put things into perspective, the way Pearl helps Theodora?


A: I have my own theory about the Pearls of the world. My father, who was renowned for his temper and poor behavior, would NEVER have said or done the things he did in front of Ella Wright - see above. These stalwart women of the Gullah culture saved white families from a lot of things such as domestic violence. But they also gave us values and a larger view of the spiritual world and taught us many things about how to be happy in life.


Q: Speaking of food, The Christmas Pearl is the only story I can recall that successfully romanticizes the much-maligned fruitcake. C'mon now, do you have some subversive plot here to try and get Starbucks to replace butter scones with raisin-laden cakes? Why the exaltation for fruitcake?


A: Okay, no one, except my sister, may want to go to the trouble to actually make fruitcakes anymore. But I swear on my children that the smells of that fruitcake baking - recipe in the back of THE CHRISTMAS PEARL - is a drug. And it tastes like no other.


Q: I have it on good authority -- your friend and mine, Cassandra King-- that you are a fabulous cook. Sandra said you once stayed the night with her and husband Pat Conroy when you had a booksigning in Beaufort.

Sandra recalled, "Dot cooked dinner for us (lamb chops, best I remember). How many guests of a cookbook author fix the evening meal? Honey, can she cook!"

I've read Pat's cookbook, and I'd be dadgum if I'd go into his home and offer to cook someone with Pat's culinary skills a meal. How did you gain such confidence in the kitchen?



A: Sandra is a very generous gal! I love to cook and Pat was tired and I just thought making them dinner was the most natural thing in the world. He's not all fussy about things like that and neither is Sandra - they are extremely good eaters and flexible about who's chef.


Q: You've included some wonderful recipes in The Christmas Pearl, which you say are from your mama's own kitchen. What's the one dish that your mama made that you miss the most throughout the year? And, what do you miss most about having your mama gone?


A: My mother could bake but she could not cook. I had salmonella for most of my childhood from eating bad eggs. When Momma found out about Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup, she poured it over everything and baked it at 350 for an hour - pork chops, chicken - didn't matter. And I ate a lot of potpies and fish sticks. I learned to cook in self defense. But I miss her every day and wish she could see how wonderful my children are.


Q: The magic of Clean Slate Punch and Reconciliation Eggnog aside, what gifts do you hope will remain with William and Victoria long after the season fades and the fruitcake has passed?


A: That the holidays are a time for counting your blessings and for giving of yourself. And they are a time to honor your family's traditions, especially the ones that bring us together. My hope for THE CHRISTMAS PEARL is that families will read it together and enjoy it. I wrote this story for everyone who loves the south, to remember how fortunate we are to know it and claim a piece of it for ourselves. And also to resurrect fruitcakes!