A Christmas Caper: Pumpkin Bars

 Henry Mancini, Pink Panther

Dennis gave me a key to Stratton’s back door so I could go in early to prep for Sunday brunch—I hated brunch. You would be hard-pressed to find a restaurant cook who doesn’t hate brunch: the crowds, the waffle irons, toast, the endless choices, the annoying substitutions, the hollandaise, the cheap Champagne, the poached eggs, the families, toast, the hungover servers, the hungover customers.

Anyways, I had a key to the back door. It was our first LA Christmas away from home and we didn’t have plans. Foster and Cass were out of town, Tom and Ali were at Lompoc, Dennis and Bea were at Sandy’s, and Nikki was driving North for the holidays, so we invited Eddie, our own “waiter-with-a-screenplay” next-door-neighbor, to join us for an early afternoon Christmas dinner.

I decided to go traditional: turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberries, green beans, etc. I bought the essentials a few days ahead at Westward Ho (my go-to grocery store when there was a place to park), borrowed some chicken stock from the kitchen, and made everything but the turkey, cranberries, and the mashed potatoes the night before. Christmas morning: turkey in the oven at 9:00, fresh cranberries popping in the saucepan, dressing and green beans ready to go—now for the mashed potatoes. No potatoes, forgot to buy potatoes.

How could I forget potatoes? Out into a 72° Southern California Christmas Day to buy potatoes, the trace of a Santa Ana ruffling the palm trees, eucalyptus leaves crunching under foot, frat boys struggling up the hill to bed. Westward Ho…closed, on to brown Von’s…closed, Gelsons? Closed. Quick Mart? No potatoes.

I’ll just borrow a few potatoes from Stratton’s, what’s the harm? I pull into the restaurant’s back alley entrance and park in Gene’s spot. I hurry down the stairs into the dark storeroom, turn on the light, and rummage around for a few russets. I grab a leftover baguette and head, arms full, into the light where I bump, literally, into Gene, the owner, as he is coming down the stairs. 


“Gene.” I muttered something about closed stores, no potatoes, Christmas dinner, guests, and kept going. 

“Merry Christmas,” he called as I ran up the stairs.

I would so be fired—abusing my key privilege, breaking and entering, rustling potatoes and bread, fleeing the scene. Now don’t get all judgey, I felt bad, really bad, and dreaded going to work the next day. Lennart, the manager, was spending the holidays in Sweden with his family and Gene would be filling in for him at the front desk.

We were slammed for lunch, in the weeds most of the time, both Pam and I rusty after a day off. When the kitchen was clean, dinner prep done, and family meal served, I went around to count the tickets in front of the pass. 

Gene walked in from the dining room to order his lunch. I avoided looking at him until he said, “Marla.”

Here it comes. He said, “So how did those potatoes turn out?” and winked.

I was so relieved that I gave him a big, sweaty hug. Gene did not hug. 

He stiffened, pulled back, and said, “Good lunch service.”

I wasn’t fired, I lived to work New Year’s Eve, and realized you just never know who this year’s Santa will be. 

Lara’s Pumpkin Bars

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar  
  • 2 tsp. cinnamon
  • 2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 tsp. ground cloves
  • 4 beaten eggs
  • 1 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 16 oz. can pumpkin

Combine dry ingredients. Stir beaten eggs and oil into pumpkin. 

Add dry ingredients by thirds into pumpkin/egg mixture. 

Spread batter into a greased, 1/2″ deep cookie sheet and bake in a 350° oven for 15-18 minutes.  

Frost with cream cheese frosting when cool. 

Cream cheese frosting 

  • 1/2 cup softened butter
  • 8 oz. softened cream cheese
  • 1# box powdered sugar
  • 1 tsp. vanilla  

Beat butter and cream cheese together until well mixed. Add powdered sugar and vanilla. Beat until smooth. 

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