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Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.

The First Christmas Bonus

December 18, 2019

Last night we held our 32nd annual manager’s Christmas dinner. There were 30 people seated at the table for our once-a-year steak and ribs dinner. We’ve held the dinner at Donanelle’s for the past 15 years. It’s my favorite dive bar/steakhouse. It’s my management team’s favorite dive bar/steakhouse, too. We all agree that Donanelle’s is the perfect place for our manager Christmas dinner and that they serve the best pork ribs we have ever eaten.

The first manager’s Christmas dinner was held at my home. There were only five of us. I cooked dinner. There were no bonuses to hand out, just a hearty thank-you from me and the hopes that the coming year would bring some profits to the bottom line.

These days we host the dinner for all of our managers, supervisors, and their plus-one two hours before the full company Christmas party. It’s my chance to thank each manager in person and to hand out Christmas bonus checks for a job well done. The management team gets cash and the 150-member staff (plus their guests) get one helluva party later that night with an open bar, djs, and food.

I started my first “real job” at 15-years old. I worked full-time all through high school as a radio station disc jockey. I loved that job. Radio was in its heyday in the late 1970s and I had a blast. I didn’t make much money, but the dirty secret is that— had I had any money— I would have worked for free just for the opportunity to play music over the airwaves.

I started that job in September, and had been employed several months when the Christmas season came around. At 15-years old, I considered myself a newly initiated member into the corporate world, and knew from television shows I had seen, that corporations always handed out a Christmas bonus for their employees at that time of year. I spent two weeks dreaming about my upcoming Christmas bonus and all of the things I would be able to buy once I received the cash. I even made a list and ranked the items I would soon purchase with my holiday windfall.

There were items on the list such as a used car, a new stereo, a new cassette deck for the car I didn’t own yet, and all manner of clothing. The fact that I made $2.30 per hour (minimum wage at the time) had no bearing on corporate Christmas bonuses, as all of the tv show characters— namely Darrin Stevens on Bewitched who always seemed to pull in a big hall in his bonus arrangement at McMann and Tate— raked it in during the holidays.

I can remember asking my fellow disc jockeys about the company Christmas bonus, and how much it would be, so I could start planning my purchases, and maybe even start contributing to some type of retirement plan with the funds left over. They just looked at me and chuckled. “You’ll find out at the Christmas party,” they said. It must be even more than I could imagine, I thought to myself.

The Christmas party was always held at the station owner’s home. I wore a coat and tie— an outfit befitting a junior executive about to receive a major financial bonanza— there were light hors d’oeuvres and booze for those old enough to partake (which was everyone who worked at the radio station except me). I kept waiting for a moment when the owner would roll in a wheelbarrow full of money and start handing it out to the staff, but that moment never came.

Finally, as the party began to wind down and everyone began to leave, the station owner said, “Don’t forget to pick up your Christmas bonus on the dining room table on your way out. Ah, that’s it, I thought. It’s a gift that’s so special it’s kept in the formal dining room. I was the first in line to exit the party. I entered the dining room in search of the cash bonus. I had finally decided on just spending the money on a used car and banking the rest. That would be the most prudent and responsible thing for a young junior executive such as myself.

There was no money in the room, just a few dozen small boxes on the dining room table. Wow! I thought. There’s so much cash, they’ve had to put it in boxes. I grabbed my box, yelled, “Thank you,” over my shoulder and headed to my mom’s car (she let me borrow it for the night, but this would probably be the last time, as I was about to have enough dough to purchase my own car). The box was heavy. OK, so maybe the car AND the cassette deck, with a little left over for savings.

I sat in the front seat of her car and exhaled a long, deep breath. This was an important moment in my professional career. I wanted to always remember it because it was the first of what would surely be many more cash windfalls I would receive over the course of a long professional career. I was 15-years old and about to get rich. I opened the box and there it was, my very first Christmas bonus.

It wasn’t cash. It wasn’t a check. It wasn’t even a roll of coins.

It was a fruitcake.

That’s it.

A fruitcake.

What 15-year old wants a fruitcake for Christmas? It’s an easy answer: None. For that matter what person at any age wants a fruitcake for Christmas? No one, that’s who. I was dispirited, disheartened, and dismayed. I threw the fruitcake out of the car window halfway to my mom’s house. It’s probably still intact and in a lying in a ditch on the side of the road on 37th Avenue in Hattiesburg.

I worked at the station for two more years, but never went back to one of the company Christmas parties. From the accounts of my fellow disc jockeys, the Christmas bonus was always the same, a fruitcake.

I don’t know if I have ever taken a bite of fruitcake in my life. That early trauma probably scarred me for that particular food item forever. Though I do love Italian panettone.

Panettone is an Italian sweet bread loaf that originated in Milan, but is now popular all over the country. It is the ultimate Christmas bread. The proofing process takes a few days to create the dome shaped loaf which is filled with candied orange, lemon peel, and raisins. Unlike its denser, heavier cousin— the fruitcake— panettone is light, airy, not too sweet, and a lot like panbrioche.

The two best panettone I have ever eaten came from two competing centuries-old bakeries in Milan— Cova and Marchesi. The Cova version is probably my favorite, and I have had it shipped to the states several times for Christmas gifts. But the local grocery stores in Tuscany carry them around this time of year at a fraction of the price of the boutique varieties.

Panettone is delicate and is served in wedges and is usually consumed at breakfast with coffee or as a light dessert. I love it, but as much as I love it, I still wouldn’t want it as a Christmas bonus.

To all of my column readers: I hope you have a Merry Christmas. I wish you all the best in the New Year. But most of all, I hope your boss doesn’t like fruitcake.


This week’s recipe: Italian Cream Cake

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