Archives for posts with tag: celebrations

Nature abhors a vacuum.  And of all vacuums, the one that Nature abhors most is an empty shelf.  If she encounters one, she seems to exhort (in her inaudible but distinctly perceptible and imperative way), “Don’t just stand there; store something!”

That’s my experience, anyway.  Every bookshelf in the house is full to overflowing; many shelves carry two or three rows of books.  In the kitchen, our cabinets are always groaning with everything from pantry staples to exotic ingredients.  Upstairs, I never have any shelf space in my closet despite the two or three trips to Goodwill I make each year.

And then there’s the basement.

We have several shelving units down there:  one for tools (and whatnot), one for paint (and the like), yet another for seasonal items (such as Christmas tree decorations and pool furniture cushions).  Whenever a space opens up (e.g., when we put the cushions outside in spring), it is soon filled with something else (e.g., a box of the previous year’s records that was sitting on the floor for lack of shelf space).  It’s a good example of what I might call the “Shelf of Dreams” Law which holds that if you build it (a shelf), they will come (items to be stored).

This law immediately became apparent when we began planning our indoor seed sowing for the coming growing season (believe it or not, we should be starting this month) and I made a trip to the basement to prepare.  Recall that last year, we constructed a simple seed-starting apparatus to facilitate indoor growing (see March 17, 2013, part 2, for details).  And what did we use as the basis of our apparatus?  That’s right, a shelving unit.

Shortly after we assembled the shelves, we filled them with seed trays.   A few weeks later, after we set out the seedlings in spring, the shelves became empty again.  That condition did not last long.

First, I started placing miscellaneous gardening supplies there:  spray bottles, sacks of soil amendments, plastic seedling pots.  Then, in mid-summer, we held a big party for our 25th anniversary.  We needed room elsewhere in the basement (for the caterers) and so anything that did not have anywhere better to live moved to the seed-starting apparatus.  By the end of the summer, the shelves were full.

Which was fine through the fall and into the start of winter.  But now it is time to make space for the seed trays again.  It will take some effort—there’s a lot of stuff to relocate—but I’m sure I can find an open shelf or two somewhere in the house.

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Do you believe in Christmas miracles?

About a week ago, it seemed that we had a lock on a white Christmas.  Two snowstorms each dropped about six inches of snow on the ground.  Our world was robed in a one-foot-thick blanket of pristine white powder, softer than the fluffiest fleece.  By day, we were bathed in the light and warmth of the reflected rays of the sun and by night, we basked in the cool, silvery phosphorescence of amplified moonlight (or would have basked had we ventured outside).

Then, rudely, we were subjected to 24 hours of steady rain accompanied by temperatures reaching into the mid 60s.  The warm shower rinsed away the snow and by yesterday morning, almost all of it had disappeared.  Any clumps that remained—mostly spots where plowed or shoveled snow had piled up—were icy and grimy, dirtied by the splashing of passing cars and covered by windblown debris.  With no snow in the forecast, our hopes for a white Christmas had vanished.

But then, just before sunset last evening, we noticed a slight sparkle in the air just as the last rays of light were streaming through gaps in the clouds.  We did not give it much thought until later, after our Christmas Eve feast, when we spied scattered glints of reflected light coming in through the dining room windows.  We switched on the floodlights that illuminate our back yard and there before us was an expanse of sparkling white.

Unbeknownst to us as we were eating our celebratory meal, just enough snow had fallen to coat every surface with a thin layer, only a fraction of an inch thick, of icy white crystals.  There was not enough of it that I needed to shovel, or even sweep (thank goodness!), but it was more than enough to ensure that Christmas morning would dawn thoroughly and unquestionably white.

The mini-snowstorm might not have been a miracle—the National Weather Service has missed forecasts before and will undoubtedly do so again—but it certainly seemed miraculous, appearing as it did without warning and in just the nick of time (the St. Nick of time?).   The sight of it lifted our moods immeasurably as we headed off to bed to dream of the presents and stockings that would be waiting for us this morning.

No holiday is given shorter shrift than Thanksgiving.  The run-up to it is short—it is practically non-existent, in fact—and the celebration is sandwiched between two holiday grandstanders:  Halloween—one of the flashiest holidays—and Christmas, whose season seems to start earlier and earlier every year.  On the holiday calendar, Thanksgiving does not get much attention.

In supermarkets (for example), the Thanksgiving items often will occupy only a narrow section of seasonal shelving and then only for a week or two.  During that same period, the canned pumpkin and stuffing mixes will share the space with half-price trick-or-treat candy and a vast selection of Christmas goodies.  The brightly-colored candy canes and foil-wrapped chocolate Santas visually dominate the muted earth tones of Thanksgiving packaging.

And once the turkey has been consumed, the Thanksgiving holiday is almost instantly forgotten.  After all, the next morning sees the dawn of Black Friday, an event which has become almost more spectacular than Christmas itself and which has stretched through the weekend and into the following week to include Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday.  For some retailers, the sales extravaganza begins Thanksgiving night (talk about no respect).  Ads may make brief, comical references to Thanksgiving leftovers but that is usually the extent of it.

Really, it’s a shame.  And not just because Thanksgiving is overshadowed by commercial activities.  It’s too bad mainly because Thanksgiving is such an elemental celebration.  It is observed by essentially everybody, has no religious affiliation and is almost entirely about family.  Yes, food is the central physical component—the equivalent of the presents at Christmas—but the holiday focuses on sharing that bounty, rejoicing in belonging to a social group (not just a traditional family), and expressing our gratitude for everything we have.

 This Thanksgiving, in addition to everything else I am thankful that the holiday has not (yet) been entirely crowded off the calendar.

We spent some time today planning our Thanksgiving meal.  The menu is based on tradition so there are not many choices to make.  Typically, our trusty-dusty recipes dominate although we will usually consider the variety of choices presented in the November food and cooking magazines.  Often, but by no means always, something new can be accommodated.

Not this year, though.  To work around work and travel schedules, we are having the main meal early—the Wednesday before—and taking it on the road.  We’re still the cooks, so everything must be made ahead.  Further—and, hey, no pressure—we’ll be joined by relatives visiting from out of town.  This is no time for experimentation.

We always start with the basics:  roasted turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy and cranberry sauce.  Then we add another starch, some variation of sweet potato casserole or a second stuffing (and probably, I should use the term dressing because we haven’t stuffed a turkey since 2001).  Yesterday’s New York Times Dining section (see “Essential Thanksgiving”) referred to this menu component as “something orange”, a clever characterization that they expanded to include macaroni and cheese.

(Serving mac and cheese on Thanksgiving is an interesting idea; many Italian-Americans I know include pasta as a separate course on Thanksgiving, which has always struck me as a good way to combine—or, dare I say, mash up—culinary traditions.)

We agree with the philosophy that there should be something green on the table to round out the menu both in nutrition and color.  In past years, we have prepared everything from Brussels sprouts, kale, and even an arugula fennel salad (although salads are my least favorite contributor from this group).  Most recently, we have been making green beans with walnuts in a lemon vinaigrette which is a perfect complement to the meal (the dish’s acidity refreshes the palate) and has the added advantage of being relatively easy and quick to prepare.

And then there must be dessert.  Most often, this is pie, pumpkin or pecan.  Some years, we add a second sweet, which may or may not be another pie.  This year, we decided to make a Polka Dot Cheesecake, a recipe developed by Maida Heatter and featured in an early issue of Saveur magazine.  The polka dots in the recipe are chocolate but we’ll make them pumpkin-flavored in honor of the season.  (Maybe we’re experimenting this year after all.)

I like to start the meal (while the turkey rests) with a small glass of Bourbon.  This is not my usual cocktail choice but the Bourbon and its perfect accompaniment of roasted, salted pecans are uniquely American.  Both items seem appropriate for Thanksgiving which, although not uniquely American (Canadians celebrate it in October), is in part a celebration of being American.

The weather has been miserably, exhaustingly hot and humid, with almost no rain.  At seven days and counting, this is the longest heat wave (high temperatures over 90 degrees) that I can remember.  I have been making sure to water the garden daily (and the lettuce twice daily) to keep it as moist as possible.  Luckily, there have been no signs of dehydration or wilting so far.

One might think that the heat-loving tomatoes would be ahead of schedule and, in fact, all of them are tall and energetic, overshooting their cages by at least a foot.  But some things cannot be rushed.  In spite of weather conducive to accelerated growth, the fruits that have set are not ripening any quicker than they would under normal conditions.  Like it or not, we will have to wait until early August for tomatoes.

Still, two Sungold cherry tomatoes did turn from plain green to golden green, a sign of impending ripeness.  It was just in time for Rachel and me to use them in a ceremony celebrating our Silver Wedding Anniversary.  As noted by our celebrant, tomatoes are referred to as “love apples” in many languages and are said to possess aphrodisiacal powers; seeing them in our dreams signifies domestic harmony.

What better way for us to symbolize our growing together—both literally and figuratively—than to feed each other the first sweet tomatoes of our 25th year as a married couple?

We’ve never done much to celebrate Easter.  Growing up, the focus was on a family get-together with a spotlight on the food:  lots of candy, of course, and ham for dinner.  But now I live on the opposite side of the country from my family and few of my friends observe Easter rituals (or those of Passover, either).  We rarely do a social gathering anymore or anything, in fact, that might be considered traditional.

One year, we spent the afternoon helping friends move furniture.  I don’t recall why they decided to do this chore on a holiday but once we got their vehicle loaded up, they headed off to deliver the cargo (somewhere, presumably, not closed for Easter).  That left us hungry for dinner but too tired to cook.

We decided to swing by one of the restaurants in town and because we didn’t have a reservation, we ordered a couple of pizzas to go.  While waiting for them to bake, we sat at the bar and I had a glass of wine.  The proprietress thought I might like one of the Pinot Noirs that is not usually sold by the glass but opened a bottle for me anyway.  That’s hospitality!  It was a delightful—if unconventional—way to observe the holiday.

Another year, we decided to go to a movie.  When we got to the theater (co-located at a shopping mall), we found it and all of the other stores shuttered.  Unlike Thanksgiving or Christmas, Easter seems to be the holiday when everything closes.  We ended up back home.

So instead of planning a formal gathering or going out, we’ve made Easter weekend a celebration of spring and the rebirth of the garden.

The only leftovers from the holidays are some unfinished thoughts that are still sitting in a container in the icebox of my mind.  I could try to make them last until the next appropriate holiday but they might spoil by then.  Putting them into the freezer might also work, but I’d probably forget about them.

Traditions are important to me.  Whereas Michael Chabon would say that to follow them too closely or rigidly is to deny that things change (see “Michael Chabon Reminds Us That Thanksgiving Is Where the Meal Is” in the November, 2012 issue of Bon Appétit), I would counter that traditions provide grounding, a fixed point of reference.  I agree that change occurs frequently—if not continuously—but having a tradition to come back to can be very reassuring, especially when a change is sudden and unexpected.

In the fall of 2001, things were definitely changing.  We had all just been through the attacks of 9/11 and everything seemed unsettled.  That Thanksgiving was not the time for anything new and I fully embraced the traditional meal and its preparation.  Rachel’s parents were here with us and we spent the first half of the day in the kitchen, slicing, dicing, sautéing and mixing.  By early afternoon, the turkey was roasting aromatically in the oven and all of the side dishes had been prepped.  This is probably the calmest time of the entire Thanksgiving weekend and that year, it was particularly restorative.

But then our oven decided to mix things up.  With at least an hour left before the turkey was done, the oven beeped, displayed an error code, and shut itself off.  We all converged in front of it and, in shock and disbelief, attempted to get it cooking again.  Turning it off and then back on did not work nor did resetting its circuit breaker.  Tenaciously, the oven clung to its error code and would not let it go.

We next tried calling repair services in the hopes that someone could provide emergency troubleshooting.  One repairman actually answered his phone—we were simultaneously impressed by his commitment and sorry to have disturbed his holiday—but he could not help us.  Our other calls were similarly in vain.  If we had needed advice on how to dress the turkey or wanted to know to what internal temperature to cook it, we would have been all set.  But instructions on how to revive our oven?  That would have to wait until the next day at the earliest.

Our turkey, on the other hand, could not wait.  Even if we had decided to postpone our meal, there would be no way to get a half-baked bird back into the refrigerator.  So, we decided to pack everything into the car and drive two hours south to Rachel’s parents’ house.  Almost all of the dishes were already containerized—waiting for their turn in the now non-working oven—and the turkey, wrapped in several layers of aluminum foil, retained much of its heat.  Traffic on the roads was light (who would be crazy enough to be traveling at dinnertime on Thanksgiving?) and we made the trip in good time.  Our meal was back on track by late afternoon.

We had more than our fair share of change that year but in the end, we had a Thanksgiving dinner that was as successful—and otherwise traditional—as any other.  In spite of the turmoil, both locally and globally, it felt good to have something that seemed permanent and enduring to fall back on.

Every year in my household, we say “Best Thanksgiving ever!” or, like today, “Best Christmas ever!”  We say it sincerely but with some amusement because regardless of how this particular holiday may stack up to the celebrations of years past, we always say the same thing.  The oven may have broken down while the turkey was roasting (this actually happened to us a few years ago) or the tree may have fallen over and crushed all of the presents (I’ve heard stories but so far we have avoided this) but even so, it is the best ever!

And, of course, it is true.  Because the holiday we are celebrating today is the current one, the one in the immediate present, the one being actively experienced.  Last Christmas is now only a memory and next Thanksgiving a future possibility but today is happening now, and that is truly the best, whatever the details.

I hope everyone had the best Christmas (or whatever holiday you celebrate this time of year) ever.

Each year, I am amused (and sometimes panicked) by how quickly my holiday schedule turns from “Plenty of time” (my assessment in the week after Thanksgiving) to “Holy moly!  Where did the time go?” (a not uncommon exclamation when only a few shopping days remain).  Thank goodness for the internet and next-day shipping.

As I noted previously (see December 22, 2012), in past years I have been up late completing my preparations for our holiday celebrations.  In fact, there have been Christmas Eves when I have not gotten to bed until well after one o’clock (which is very late, for me).  More recently, I have made some effort to get more organized and to do less (where possible without sacrificing anyone’s enjoyment) and consequently, have been able to get to bed earlier.

But as exhausting as it is to stay up that late, I wonder if it wasn’t a good thing in at least one way.  At Christmas, I’m still a kid at heart and in my excited state, often find it difficult to get to sleep on Christmas Eve (the opposite problem of Sniffles in the 1940s Warner Bros. cartoon).  Staying up late and being so tired meant that I had much less trouble falling asleep.

Now, I’m in bed sooner but do not necessarily get any more rest.  And as late as I have been awake, I have yet to see Santa’s arrival.

While engaged in elf duty these last few days, I realized that wrapping gifts is a good example of when accepting a less-than-perfect level of “good enough” can be a good thing.  Regardless of the choice of paper and ribbon, the crispness of the folds and the precision of the taping and bow-tying, the wrappings will be torn off and discarded by the gift’s recipient.  Often, in the case of an excited child for example, the opening will be done in a frenzy with little notice paid to anything except, maybe, the gift tag.

This is especially true of stocking stuffers, which in my house are numerous.  If I tried to precisely wrap and ribbon all of the candy, toys, novelties and other tchotchkes that go into our oversized socks, I’d be up all night for a week.  I know because for many years this is exactly what I did and exactly how long it took.  A few Christmases ago, however, I discovered the efficacy of tissue paper.  It is easy to cut and fit around small and often oddly-shaped items and with its soft and crinkly appearance can hide a multitude of taping sins.  Since then, I’ve been getting to bed a bit earlier this time of year.

In some ways, the wrapping and subsequent unwrapping of holiday gifts is similar to the mandala sand paintings created by Buddhist monks.  Packages are assembled (starting with the Black Friday ritual), decorated (albeit with varying levels of care and precision) and arranged under a tree, within stockings or on a table (or some other centralized location) to create an elaborate tableau, a detailed picture of generosity and love.  Then, on Christmas morning (or whatever holiday is being celebrated), the scene is ritually deconstructed as paper and ribbons are torn away and discarded (and aren’t we all excited children in this context?).

But there the similarity ends.  In the Buddhist tradition, the sand would be returned to nature (usually a river or other body of water) to symbolize the impermanence of life.  In our more materialistic culture, the wrappings are discarded (without ceremony) but the goodies remain.