Friday, December 28, 2007

Our Christmas Eve Dinner

It’s our tradition – dinner between Christmas Eve church services.

What started out as a practical solution has become a feast, its own menu of legendary proportion.

Laurie and I met in October of 1991, when I joined the choir at Rayne Memorial United Methodist Church in New Orleans. She is a sensational singer, a gloriously pure soprano with a killer range, exquisite subtlety and breathtaking sensitivity. I adore listening to Laurie sing – and I get to call her my dear friend.

Our church has two Christmas Eve services, one at 5:30pm that tends to draw families and one at 11pm, quieter and more contemplative, pulling in couples young and old, divorcees and widowers, and especially those for whom the late, candlelight service is more meaningful. It makes for a long night of singing, but it is one of our favorites musically and gastronomically.

Laurie is a sensational cook – that first year, she whipped up a marvelous risotto for four of us. Over the years, we’ve had this and that, but this year was our 12th in a row with principally the same menu. Straying from it now seems like sacrilege.

First Course:
Carrot Zucchini Bisque – it may sound odd at first but oh, is it good! I found this recipe in another form in a cookbook my sister gave me when I was moving out on my own. She thought it was a book of Quick & Easy cooking, when in actuality it was a Lite Cooking guide. This Bisque recipe called for skim milk…I swapped that out for an equal amount of heavy whipping cream. Oooooh. Since it’s not nice to tease, here’s the version I use now:

1 Cup Water
6 large Carrots, peeled and diced
2 or 3 medium Zucchini, peeled and diced
2 cups Heavy Whipping Cream
2 tablespoons Flour
¼ teaspoon freshly ground Black Pepper
¼ teaspoon Cinnamon
3 chicken bouillon cubes or packets

In a medium saucepan, add water and place over high heat. Add carrots, cover saucepan and cook for 10 minutes. Add zucchini, cook for 5 minutes more. Remove saucepan from heat and drain liquid. (Save the liquid to use as a base for stock later, if you’d like.)

Puree vegetables in the same pot with an immersion blender (or hand mixer or whatever works for you. I’ve never owned a food processor.) Add the heavy cream and place over medium heat, uncovered. While stirring constantly with a wire whisk, sprinkle in the flour, black pepper and cinnamon.

Add the bouillon (I swear by the Better Than Bouillon brand – and they make a super Vegetable bouillon in case you need to make this for vegetarians) and continue to stir until it dissolves. Heat for another 5 minutes, stirring frequently so soup does not stick or burn. Serve in shallow flat bowls, garnished with a parsley sprig. 4 servings.

Second Course:
Field Greens with mini Goat Cheese cheesecakes. Oh. My. Gosh. Laurie bakes these tiny Goat Cheese and Chive cakes earlier in the day – they’re still warm on the salad plate. Yum!

Third Course:
Spaghetti Bolognese – Laurie’s mother’s recipe for the sauce, adapted to our taste with some of the incredible hot sausages we get here in Louisiana. Lots of freshly grated Parmesan and warm bread (we let Whole Foods take care of that).

Peppermint Ice Cream with Dove Dark Chocolate sauce. Peppermint Bark (Williams-Sonoma). Lindor Truffles. Some years we never even make it to dessert after all the previous courses.

Oh, and don’t forget – Prosecco, flowing throughout the courses. And, to get us into the proper mood for the second service, selections from the South Park Christmas CD – we can do most of the parts to the Dreidl Song, with counterpoint.

Then, we waddle our behinds back to church for the late Christmas service.

I have family around the world. I have family here in New Orleans.

And now we have our family traditions. Hope you had a great Christmas – ours was one of the best in years.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

A Christmas Memory, 1975

One week before Thanksgiving in November 1975, Northern New York was hit by a freak ice storm. The little hamlets of St. Lawrence County were well prepared to deal with these conditions, but this came up so quickly, there was almost no way to get the sand and salt out in time.

Temperatures plummeted, rain turned to sleet turned to freezing rain, and roads became treacherous. Luckily, all the kids were already in school, and even more fortunately, the weather changed just as quickly – warming up enough to melt the ice in time for the buses to hit the roads and return the students home.

As I did every day, I got on Bus #16 and took up my usually seat, with best buddies of mine, Barry and Greg. Then it happened: my space was invaded by not one, but two of my cousins, Squirrelly (Shirley) and Blabra (Barbara). OK, what in blue blazes were they doing on MY bus route? – they lived in the next town over, another tiny burg which funnels all its kids to the same school as our town (we’re talking small here – one K-12 school for 3 towns, and still only 720 kids total!)

It got even stranger…they got off the bus at our house. And walked in with me. And sat down at the kitchen table.

In my house.

And they didn’t know why. Nor did I.

Too weird. And soooo out of the usual patterns of my well-organized 2nd Grader’s life.

Well, in a magnanimous gesture, I hauled out some of last year’s toys for us to “share” while waiting for an adult to arrive on the scene to make some sense of all this disorderliness. I mean, there had to be some logical explanation, right?


Sadly there was. The Ice Storm.

Not long after, Mom walked in the door – with ANOTHER cousin! Squirrelly and Blabra’s little brother (or little Bother, as I liked to call him), Wesley.

OK, enough already. Would someone like to explain this to me?

And she did. Mom took me upstairs to my room, sat me down on my bed and sank down wearily next to me. Most of what I remember that followed was her asking me to be patient and understanding, that we all were going to make some adjustments and then a lot of other things that didn’t quite register…but what I did understand was this: Shirley and Barbara and Wesley would be staying with us for a while because their parents, John and Paula had been in a terrible car accident in the ice storm...John had been killed and Paula had been badly injured and the doctors wouldn’t say one way or the other if they thought she’d make it.

And now Mom had to go break this news to the kids.

I was grateful that I didn’t have to be in the room when Mom took all three of them to her lap in the big rocking chair – I peaked around the banister, just to know where not to be. It was the quietest I’d ever heard our house – usually full of the five of us kids, terrorizing each other, practicing the clarinet/piano/flute/drums/trumpet, playing records, yelling from one end to the other.

Utter quiet.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Mom and Paula were about the same age and had been pregnant with me and Shirley around the same time – there was no question where the kids would go when the call came to the school that morning. Paula’s parents were too old to take that many young kids and John’s parents were too far away.

Paula was one of 8 kids, and her siblings rallied to help: it was a whirlwind of visiting relations and food and preparations for the funeral. I was given the choice of whether or not to attend the service for John’s funeral – I declined, and went to spend the day with my favorite neighbor, Marian. (She and her husband Kermit had 5 daughters and so I was her special little boy – and I LOVED it!!)

The flurry of activity continued through Thanksgiving (we served about 35 for a sit-down dinner) and then suddenly quieted down again as we headed back to school. I was now sharing my room with Wesley, and Dad was quickly finishing up the back room for Barbara and Shirley. It was now apparent that Paula was going to live, but it would mean many months of recovery in the hospital, with several surgeries to rebuild her pelvis, hip and right leg.

Now, we were a farming family. We had the space for 3 extra kids, both in the house and out in the 90 acres we all knew intimately. I never would have thought of us as poor, as we always had food to eat, a roof over our heads, beds to sleep in – all the amenities. I did not know at the time how little there was to spare, or how we would have been categorized as poor compared to many other families throughout the US.

But. Add three more kids to the mix, and it was tough. At the time, I certainly didn’t understand quite why or how it was tough. None of us ever went hungry and I don’t really comprehend how Mom and Dad did it, but I could sense their tension as Christmas raced toward us.

We went through all the usual movements – put the tree up and got it decorated, assembled the cardboard fireplace (uh-huh, you know that one I’m talking about), and for us kids, started behaving like Big Brother was just around every corner. The strain for my parents took its toll on me and my siblings, but they were so careful not to speak too harshly Wesley, Barbara or Shirley. The sisters would spend hours off on their own, talking themselves nearly into hysterics, recreating the accident despite not actually being there. It was a long, strange time.

And then. Oh, then. One evening, less than a week before Christmas, there came a loud knock on the door. Mom still hadn’t returned from her bus route and Dad was in the barn, getting ready for milking. My sister Jo Ann went to the door and peaked out – two of our favorite teachers were standing there, arms laden with, well, stuff.

Jo Ann flung the door open and almost instantly burst into tears. We all came running to see what the commotion was – these beautiful women had spread the word through the school that they were planning on doing something for our extended family for Christmas and to say the least, it snowballed. There was a massive laundry basket (how big? Later, when it was empty, we fit a 1st grader and 2 2nd graders in it!), filled to overflowing with small gifts for everyone, but more importantly, oranges and grapefruits and all kinds of food supplies and fun things and it was so unexpected and so marvelous and so kind. And there were bags and boxes and boxes and bags of more stuff and goodies and food and decorations and stuff and so much that it was almost incomprehensible.

My brother Brad raced down to the barn to get Dad – of course, the teachers tried to duck out before he got to the house, but my sisters wouldn’t let them out the door. Both my sisters were talking to the teachers at a mile a minute, how cool this was, who’s idea had it been, how long had it taken to pull it all together – with my sisters, the devil’s in the details.

Dad arrived – flustered that he’d been pulled away from his work and sputtering that Brad hadn’t told him what the crisis was. He walked into the kitchen to see this mound of generosity – and all the steam went out of him. Not often a physically affectionate man, he flew across the room, grabbed the teachers into a bone crushing hug, held them at arms length, muttered some thanks, and then dashed back out the door, still muttering something about needing to get back to the barn and ordering my brothers to stay in the house to guard all the stuff so the “kids don’t wreck it before your mother gets home.”

Mom. I wish our teachers had been able to stay - they had families of their own to get home to - because Mom’s reaction was what you’d expect, to the third or fourth power. Tears, squeals, disbelief, blustering, hugging, shaking her head, speechlessness. And then she settled into a good solid cry, just to get it all out. I think that was the night that I first understood the difference between good cries and ugly cries. And, then Mom realized that not one of us kids (and oh, had this been tough) had touched a single thing in any one of the boxes or bags or the laundry basket – and the crying started all over again.

Over the Christmas break, Mom had all of us sit down and make some really cool thank you cards – we drew pictures of all the different stuff and things and goodies and wrote corny things and signed it “Love, …” and it was all so wonderful.

Christmas Day was another kind of dog and pony show, with all of our clan and all of Paula and John’s kin from both sides going so far out of their way to make it not just a happy day, but a Good Day. A really Good Day for everyone.

It was April of the following year that Paula was finally released from the hospital and returned home – the kids left our home a few days later. The transition back into our routine was much quicker than we expected, but it was time for spring plantings and there was so much to do.

Shirley and I have been very close since then, and whenever we speak of this time, it is with great warmth and affection – and Shirley cannot speak of my mother without getting misty eyed. Every four or five years, when Mom and Shirley actually meet up again face to face – the tears flow and the stories come out again and all the same love is there.

It was a terrible time in which some really extraordinary people made the best of the situation, shared a lot of themselves and loved unconditionally. When I falter and lose some of the beauty of Christmas, I revisit this time and place and it all comes back to me again.

Merry Christmas – and Peace to Y’all.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

December in New Orleans...

Looks like this...

And this...

And this too...

It was 47 degrees last week, and 83 this week.

Caroling in T-shirts & shorts.

Running the A/C while you trim the tree.

And Flowers that bloom all damn year.

Oh, and no hurricanes came our way.

Thanks for all the good thoughts this year.


Thursday, December 06, 2007

Fear No Book

OK, so that's not really the correct admonition here, because as we all know there are a lot of really bad books out there. It seems publishers will publish, well, anything.

Here it is: with all the controversy surrounding the release of the movie The Golden Compass this weekend - the claims that it is atheist or anti-Catholic Church - I knew I had to post. (And the guilt from not jumping on Allison's Reading Bandwagon at Soccer Mom was crushing me.)

The Golden Compass, the first part of the Philip Pullman trilogy His Dark Materials, is a stunningly beautiful book. Marketed originally as Young Adult fiction, this was never intended for an audience of 7 or 8 year olds. The themes are increasingly mature through the progression of the books - and yes, it's a thrilling fantasy whose central character is a 10 year old girl - but every not-yet-adult whom I've talked to who'd read the book(s) was thrilled by the story. AND they knew it was FICTION!! And none of them suddenly "became atheists".


How many of these "protests" do we have to suffer, theses dire warnings to The Unwashed Masses about movies or books that are destroying The Fabric Of Society? Did the Catholic Church really fall after the release of The Da Vinci Code? (I will say, the book and movie both worked wonders on curing my insomnia.)

Were millions of little boys shaped into chauvinist pigs after bedtime readings of The Giving Tree? (Remember that one? The Great State of California banned this sweet, touching Shel Silverstein book as sexist and demeaning to women - the Tree is feminine and Gives and Gives and Gives and the Boy Takes and Takes and Takes and NEVER Gives. I still don't know any Little Misogynists who can trace their origins to this book.) Double Errrrggggghhhh...

BUT, the creepy book Love You Forever is OK? I know I will likely catch Hell from some/many moms on that one, but She climbs in her adult son's bedroom window to rock him in his sleep. Does no one else have a problem with this??

OK, refocus: The Golden Compass.

People, lighten up. It's a book. It's a movie. Kids of this millennium actually get the difference between what they read or see on the screen and Real Life - at least the ones I know do - especially the ones whose parents actually converse with their kids about said difference. Despite the authors "intent".

What is odd about these books is that despite Pullman's publicly declaimed atheism and his "greatest difficulty in understanding what is meant by the words 'spiritual' or 'spirituality'", you come away with this wonderful, heartbreaking sense of deep spirituality - that there is good and there is grace and there is love and beauty and trust and honor and life and joy.

I had the great fortune of reading and falling in love with The Golden Compass when I was managing a wonderful children's book store on Magazine Street in Uptown New Orleans. Later, a galley proof of the second book, The Subtle Knife arrived - and I got to review it for several national trade publications before it was released. (Random House actually blurbed my review when the book went to paperback!!) All three books are beautiful - and thought-provoking - and heartbreaking - and sad and lovely and earnest and joyful and brave -

And should not be feared.

If I see one more comment or email from someone who's only skimmed a synopsis of the movie, I think I'll scream.

Jump in - Read. Enjoy.

Read in Joy.

I bet you get hooked on them too.

(And then let me know what you think of the movie!! Can't wait to see it - I bet I won't skip church on Sunday after seeing it, despite all its subversiveness...)

Palace Pride

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