Petey and I alternate getting up and walking the dog. I know we do. It’s his turn every other day. So why is it that it seems like it’s my sleep-deprived carcass rolling out of bed and pulling on my sneaks every single day? Is it some kind of Jedi mind trick Petey’s working on me?
“Easy Crowley…the UPS man is going around the corner. It’s okay, Buddy.” How does a dog have a super hero-level nemesis? Is it the big brown truck? The knees? Why and how does every person in this neighborhood get five or six packages every single day? If it’s not UPS, it’s FedEx or the Amazon guy.
Do people never actually go into stores? Have they never experienced the joy of eating cold sub-par pizza while sneaking peeks of the cute guy at Orange Julius? How did they fall in love? Where did they work soul-sucking part-time jobs for gas and tennis shoe money?
All of these deflated blow-up Christmas decorations around here. It looks like the last stand of the Santa Village massacre. They might take up a lot of space when they’re all inflated, but they get no credit in my very own Griswald Christmas decoration lunacy scale. They take no work or creativity.
I want holiday decorations that take time, sweat and possess the very real possibility of falling off a ladder and spending Christmas in traction.
When I left the house I was freezing. It’s warmed up so much that if I take off any more layers and tie them around my waist I’ll be arrested for indecent exposure.
“Crowley! That is not a dog. That is a plastic reindeer, it does not want to be your friend, and you’re making us both feel uncomfortable. Knock it off, and get over here!”
How is it so dark at 5:30? It seems like just a few months ago it was light ‘til 8:30 at night.
“Crowley, I am happy to take you to visit your friends. But you need to make up your mind whether or not they actually are friends of yours. I will not stop and visit with somebody so that you can stand six feet away from them and bark for ten minutes. That’s just plain rude.”
That guy’s lights over his garage are listing like a sinking ship. He’s either really unobservant or had imbibed in a bit too much Christmas cheer before he got up there with a stapler gun. I don’t know, maybe it was intentional—it is kind of festive, in an amusing, too much egg nog kind of way.
That “As seen on TV” searchlight, holiday flood light thing is unsettling. I think it’s supposed to be holly and berries sweeping back and forth over the front of their house. But it looks disturbingly like a radioactive swarm of extra-terrestrial termites at an all-you-can-eat wood buffet.
“It’s too dark to play ball right now, Buddy. I’m sorry…ok, we’ll play right here under the street light. Nope. Too dark. I just picked up what I thought was the ball, and it turned out to be a big, slimy, exploding toadstool.”
No way! The crankiest, most anti-social guy in the neighborhood; the man about whom everybody will say “we absolutely saw it coming” when the news shows up; the misanthrope who I only heard laugh once and which scared the heck out of me, has decorated for Christmas and put up lights. This I never, ever saw coming. Crowley my big baby, I think we may be witnessing a Scrooge redemption moment.
When you’re a kid, and somebody gives you an unexpected gift, it’s 100% awesome. Until of course, your mom makes you write a thank you note (but that’s in the future, and what kid worries about the future?).
When you’re an adult, and somebody gives you an unexpected gift, you find yourself in a holiday quandary.
What do you do? What do you do?
You could thank them, and break out the fibs, tell them that of course you have something for them, darn it, you just forgot it back at the house, or office, or the North Pole. You could tell them you’re so shocked, you had no idea you were exchanging gifts this year. You could be honest, and ask them what they thought they were doing, putting you under a holiday reciprocation obligation?
Or, you could tell them to, “Look over there!” and run away like a giftless coward.
No judgment, Gentle Reader. At one time or another, I’ve used all of the afore-mentioned gambits.
But it’s just too hard to fake your own death and start a new life in a new city every single Christmas. So, admit the surprise present phenomena will probably happen every year. Then you can prepare for it.
Gift Cards. Buy a handful of $10 gift cards from a variety of stores. Tuck each one into a holiday card, and when needed you can put their name on the envelope. Then wait until the gifter is distracted or leaves the room, pick out the appropriate gift card, and you’re all set.
Customized nosh boxes. Go to the dollar store and pick up some boxes, baskets, or some other vessels. Then using a theme; movie night, girl’s night, breakfast, spaghetti dinner, etc. Pack the vessels with the appropriate supplies. Shopping at the dollar store or someplace like Home Goods, $10 will be plenty for a really thoughtful food gift.
Cocktail box. Do the same thing, but put in the ingredients for an interesting or delicious mixed drink. The very small mini-bar bottles are the size of one shot. Just don’t forget to include a printed recipe.
Something homemade. But, first things first—always make something that you and the family enjoy. So that if there are no guerilla gifters to gift, you get to eat them.
I always have a homemade bag of fruit and nuts in the fridge because it’s as versatile as a pair of black pumps. Add a handful to salad, oatmeal, quick breads, ice cream, granola, or put into plastic bags and keep them with you in case you’re out and you (or the kids) get so hungry things get scary. They go with both sweet and savory. I butter toast and salt pecans, they mix them with a combo of dried fruit, like cherries, cranberries, and pineapple. Just put some into cute little jars and tie a piece of ribbon around the top with a gift tag.
This year we’re also making gussied up pretzels. We’re dunking about 2/3 of a pretzel rod into melted chocolate and decorating. We’re doing two versions; dark chocolate drizzled with white chocolate and sprinkled with candy cane pieces and green and red sprinkles. The other one is dipped into milk chocolate, drizzled with dark, then sprinkled with crushed salted caramel hard candies and sprinkled with gold and silver dragees (balls).
A present that comes out of nowhere can be a little frustrating. But look at it this way. There is somebody out there who thinks enough of you to get you a gift. So unless it’s from creepy stalker dude, allow yourself to enjoy the gesture.
I have his long limbs, his chin, and his impulsive, daredevil streak.
Combining the colt-length arms and legs with shared underdeveloped coordination means we frequently require first aid.
When I was four, we lived in Mobile Dad was sent to Connecticut for some type of Coast Guard continuing education school. The rest of us stayed in Alabama.
Mrs. Cotter was a widow in Connecticut who rented rooms in her home for Coast Guardsmen who came from away to attend the school. That’s where Dad stayed.
One afternoon, Mrs. Cotter mentioned a tree that needed to come down. My dad volunteered to chop it down with an ax.
He made pretty good progress until he missed.
As the tibia and fibula are much more fragile than a tree, he came darn close to chopping off his leg. Luckily, he only gave himself a particularly grisly multiple fracture.
After receiving the call, Mom packed all of us kids, luggage, and baby supplies into our very small, very old Opal, and we were on our way to a stately old home in New England—around 1300 miles away.
The house seemed like the largest oldest house I’d ever been in. There were three floors and an attic that probably served as a model for every creepy attic in every TV show and movie ever made.
My mom spent her days at the hospital along with Bud, because he was too young to be away from her. I stayed with Mrs. Cotter and her hired man.
Mrs. Cotter was old. She was the type of widow for which walks were made. She may have had kids, but they might have died in the Civil War or gone looking to make their fortunes in the California gold rush. I don’t think her hired man had ever seen a child.
It was as though a Keds-wearing, fairy tale-loving Martian had been plopped down among them.
They asked what I’d like for lunch each day.
I requested peanut butter & jelly, but what I meant was Goober Grape, the concoction with ingredients swirled together in a jar. But at home, we just called it peanut butter & jelly. The very first lunch Mrs. Cotter began making my sandwich, and I saw that it came from two different jars, and was spread on separate slices of bread.
“I want it mixed!” It was an objection that was only a little about the lunch. It was mainly a cry about being little and missing my dad, and scary hospitals, and awful, long car rides, and mom being gone all day, and staying in a strange, boring, old house, with strange old people who didn’t even know anything about kids.
Mrs. Cotter and her hired man had an intense, whispered consultation, and she scraped the bread clean. A dollop of peanut butter and a spoonful of jelly were feverishly stirred, then the resulting melange was triumphantly transferred back to bread.
They set the sandwich in front of me and stepped back.
It wasn’t what I wanted. It wasn’t even close. I’d lost my appetite. All I wanted was to curl up in my daddy’s lap and have a good, long cry.
I was poised to run out of the room in dramatic fashion, and give in to my sadness, fatigue, and disappointment, when I looked up into their nervous, smiling, hopeful faces. “How is it?”
For the first time in my short life, I thought before I spoke. I realized it was tough for them too, and they were trying.
There is a musical instrument called, literally, jingle bells. It’s a short, thick wooden baton, upon which are fastened bells, each around the size of a kumquat. This time of year, it’s one of the most overworked instruments.
The name though is kind of weird. “Jingle” bells—bells jingle, that’s their sound. That’s like having a toot horn, a pound drum, or a strum guitar.
But nobody asked me, so…
I bring up this onomatopoeia-nstrument, not because of the season, or even the music it makes, but its appearance.
As you may have guessed from the title, this week’s food is Brussel’s sprouts. Many people have only seen them as loose little cabbages in a bag or the produce bin. But, they are sometimes sold on the stalk, which keeps them fresher longer.
On the stalk, Brussels sprouts look exactly like jingle bells, only Brussels sprout-colored.
I love them. I love them so much, I still love them when they’re overcooked and “aromatic”. The aroma, mushy texture, and extra bitterness that overcooking imparts is the main reason these poor, maligned veggies are so disliked by so many people.
If you’re not a fan, Gentle Reader, this week I’d like to give you a few reasons to try them one more time.
When you get them home from the store, that’s a good time to prep them. Then when you want to cook them, almost all of your work is done.
First, though, how does one pick out good sprouts?
Their color should range from sage green to white. They should be tight, and neither wilted nor slimy. The cut end should not have any dark dots. The leaves should be tight, and they should feel solid in the hand.
So, run out to the store, and pick out a couple pounds of beautiful sprouts.
Go ahead, I’ll wait…
Brussels Sprouts Prep Procedure
Start by rinsing off each sprout, then cutting off the bottom, and peeling any leaves that are no longer attached. If you plan on cooking them whole, You’re ready. But I always cut them in half vertically, so the cut side can get some nice browning.
Then get a very heavily salted pot of water on to boil. Also, prepare a large bowl of salted ice water. We’re going to blanch them (quickly boil) and shock (instantly stop the cooking, cool them, and set the color).
When the water boils, put in the sprouts and cook until the color brightens, and you can just start to smell a vegetal aroma (3-5 minutes). Remove with a slotted spoon and place in ice water until they are cool through, then drain well.
Either go to the next step of cooking, or store in a zip-top bag in fridge for 3 days or freeze for a month.
There is a third option; slice or shred the veg. You can do this quickly and easily with the cutting disk on a food processor. You can also use a mandolin or a very sharp knife. You can then cook them without blanching and shocking.
Braised and Caramelized Brussel Sprouts
1 ½ pounds cleaned sprouts
1/3 cup white wine
1/3 cup water
4 tablespoons butter, divided
Salt & pepper
Place veg, wine, water, 3 tablespoons butter and a pinch each of salt and pepper into skillet. Cover and cook on medium until sprouts are tender, but not mushy (6-8 minutes).
Uncover and cook until liquid’s cooked out and sprouts are starting to color. Flip and let other side brown.
Stir in the other tablespoon of butter to pick up any browning on skillet and give Brussel Sprouts a nice, buttery gloss. Check for seasoning.
We’ve got most of last year’s participants and some new ones, including comic actress and arts and crafts goddess, Amy Sedaris. Each recipe shared is included, and Durham Distillery invented two cocktails for us, one is take on a martini using their Conniption Gin, and a sweet creamy punch using their chocolate and coffee Damn Fine Liqueurs.
This project was tons of fun, and I hope you enjoy the results. Plus the Indy called it “a Tradition”, so you know what that means…
It’s time, once again, to share a semi-shameful secret with you, Gentle Reader.
I’ve been listening to holiday music since the first week of November.
I just love it. On my MP3 player are roughly 218 Christmas songs organized in nine albums. But the Johnny Mathis classic, Merry Christmas is as much a part of me as my eyeglasses, the tiny gold hoop earrings I never remove, and colossal love of frosting. Recorded in 1958, it has been the holiday soundtrack for my entire life (Mom was a big Johnny fan).
For me, Christmas time doesn’t begin until I hear that celesta (a percussion instrument that looks like a piano and sounds like bells) play the opening of “Winter Wonderland”.
After lo, these many years listening to holiday-specific music, shockingly, I have some opinions and questions.
Listening to the 1952 ditty, “I saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”stresses me terribly. So, who exactly is this Santa? Is it the actual Santa? Because in that case, is Mommy married to another, and cheating with the jolly fat man? Is it another person in a costume? Then, same question.
Is the singer, who I can only assume is a child, completely innocent, and finds it funny that Mommy is kissing Santa? Or is this kid much more sophisticated? In that case, the lyrics, “Oh, what a laugh it would have been If Daddy had only seen…” are much more sinister. Is the little spy working up a little “quid pro quo”? “Gee, Santa, it sure would be a shame if my emotionally unstable father, with access to weapons, were to somehow find out about what’s going on here…I think a bicycle might make me forget all about the events that took place tonight.”
It makes me very uneasy.
Rudolph, OMG, that poor little congenitally challenged guy. This song normalizes and defends bullying. And not just bullying, but it justifies the objectification and exploitation of Rudolph. Oh yeah, he’s a freak nobody wants anything to do with; until they need him. Then he’s everybody’s best friend and a big hero.
And what happens on the 26th, when they don’t need him anymore? I’ll tell you what. It’s, “Get away from us weirdo. Why don’t you go dance on thin ice? Your beak blinks like a blinkin’ beacon!”
Those ungrateful buttheads don’t even deserve him. I would’ve bailed out of that sleigh over the Swiss Alps and let ‘em find their own way home.
The only good thing about the song is that it sings the names of all the reindeer which helps me remember them.
Oh, Mariah Carey. She truly is a legend. First, can we talk about those notes she hits and her singing range? As Petey would say, “What the what?”
But her song, “All I Want For Christmas Is You”, is a marvel. It took 15 minutes to write and compose in 1994. This song is now the number one selling holiday song by a woman. It has broken records for Christmas music all over the world. It’s made, in fifteen years, $60 million. It’s been covered by artists such as Miley Cyrus, My Chemical Romance, and Michael Buble.
The song itself, despite the money it’s generated, is anti-commercial. When other songs ask Santa for all types of commercial goods (Can you say, “Santa Baby”?), all the singer wants is the “You”, the object of the song.
And if you’re like The Kid, who reacts to Christmas music the way Anna Wintour reacts to the sight of a bedazzled Walmart sweatshirt, I have two things to say to you:
My mom’s cookies look like normal, boring, everybody’s-had-one frosted sugar cookies.
Then you take a bite.
And fall off your chair.
The Kid and I discuss them each time we’re lucky enough to get our mitts on some. We can’t figure them out. How is it that this little, regulation baked good can pack such an extraordinary punch? We joke that maybe she puts crack in them, or fairy dust.
When Kid was in college, Gramma baked a batch freshman year and shipped them up to our little scholar in Vermont.
Those NECI people had no idea what they were in for.
There were probably four dozen cookies in the box. The Kid ate some and then decided to share with a few lucky souls.
Nobody was very enthused to be offered boring baked goods from some random grandmother in North Carolina. My child didn’t try to talk anyone into a sample. If they didn’t want one, it was just more for The Kid.
Then one person took one. Eyes lit up, and word got around. People came out of the woodwork wanting these miraculous confections. Chef-instructors approached The Kid to ask when Gramma would send more.
When making them, I’ve tried to gentrify the ingredients.
Something about the synthesis of these particular components is the secret of the amazing results. Don’t substitute butter, or cake flour, or speak with a French accent while making them (unless you legitimately speak with a French accent).
When icing the cookies; more is better. A fifty/fifty ratio of frosting to cookie is just about right. Sprinkle each one right after frosting it, so the decoration sticks.
These are not the gorgeous showstoppers of the cookie platter. In fact, they kind of look like near-sighted kindergarteners put them together. But, that’s part of the charm. The astonishing deliciousness is all the more special for their, shall we say…rustic countenance?
About two weeks before Christmas, Mom has a frosting party. Everyone shows up and decorates hundreds of cookies. We have lunch, and then negotiate how many cookies we can take home.
There is one rule: you break it, you eat it.
You’d think, awesome! You’d think we break as many as we can, and gorge on frosting cloaked shards.
Yeah, not so much.
Mom’s no dummy, and she can tell when cookies are intentionally broken. And that woman has a mom-eye glare that can chill your very soul.
So, we usually only scarf about two per session.
Thanks for your time.
Contact debbie at email@example.com.
Mom’s Christmas Cookies
Preheat oven to 400°.
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup sugar
½ cup butter-flavored
milk (whole or 2%)
ingredients into bowl. With mixer, cut
in shortening until it resembles coarse meal.
Blend in egg, milk, and vanilla.
Roll out to 1/8-inch
and cut into shapes.
parchment-lined cookie sheet for 6-8 minutes or until golden. Remove to cooling rack.
when they’re completely cooled. Makes
about 1 ½ dozen.
½ teaspoon salt
teaspoon cream of tartar
1 egg white
¼ cup of water
fresh lemon juice
For decorating: gel food coloring & holiday sprinkles
Dump all ingredients, except water, into mixer. Beat ingredients at low until it starts to come together. Put water in at this point, so you can judge just how much to use. Beat until it’s creamy and fluffy. Dye in festive colors. Let the cookies sit out overnight to set the frosting.