Being Honest About the Holidays

The holidays make normal people crazy.  And the holidays make crazy people worse.  

In my last blog, I posted this really cute, touchy-feely piece with advice for the holidays.  I told folks not to worry too much. I said that holiday meals aren’t a big deal. I said that hosting holiday gatherings can be easy.  It was a very sweet blog.  It was also very bad advice.

My grandmother, Dottie Morasch, was known for her execution of the holidays. She was not known for her patience or her kind demeanor.  She wasn’t known for a great singing voice or for giving great advice.  My grandmother was known for being proper, for being impeccably dressed, and for throwing one hell of a party.  

Dottie Morasch left nothing to chance. She loved to throw a party and she loved to throw a party under one single condition: it had to be perfect. My grandmother loved to host at Christmas time. She had total control over the meal. Everyone had to dress up–the men and boys wore ties and the women and girls wore dresses.

The family had to send my grandmother our Christmas gifts ahead of time so that she could wrap them in the appropriate colors that would match her party’s theme, usually gold, white, and silver.

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The holidays can be a very big challenge, even for balanced, and well-meaning people. I don’t usually think of myself as a perfectionist but I know I’m a bit like my grandmother, especially when it comes to the holidays.  I love throwing one hell of a party.  

I made quince pie filling from scratch last week.  For the recipe, I went to a specialty store and bought cardamom pods and anise stars. It took six hours to boil the filling down to the right color and consistency.  And that was just the beginning.

For Christmas this year, I’m feeding my wife and our shared family.  There will be nine of us.  I have known about the number of guests for at least a month.  And, for at least a month, I have been making notes in a spreadsheet using Google Docs.  I first outlined the dishes I had planned then broke them down by ingredients. After that, I broke the ingredients into a shopping list with stores.  Then I broke the ingredients into store by department.  Then I broke down the dishes by ingredients and then meal prep by day and time.  For the past four days I have been cooking and for the weeks before that, I have been thinking about cooking.

But before all of that, I sent my family a survey about what they might want to eat. (If only my grandmother had access to modern, digital tools.)  You can take the survey here.

My family voted on ham.  I’ve never made a ham before but I wanted to make sure our Christmas ham was grass-fed and humanely-raised. (No factory farms.) Last week, I met a local farmer in the parking lot of a church to buy a grass-fed, humanely-raised, locally-grown ham. And I bought locally-prepared mustard to go with the ham. I’ve watched about two hours of cooking shows and advice about how to cook a ham.  I feel semi-prepared.

My grandmother, before me, browsed cookbooks.  She pulled off every meal perfectly.

Tonight, after prepping and preparing every side-dish and appetizer, chopping garnishes, and preparing sauces for tomorrow, I finally took time to set the table.  It made me miss my Grandma.

My cousins and I joke that, “Our grandmother was Martha Stewart before Martha Stewart existed.”  And she was.  To a fault.  Every Christmas, she directed my grandfather to decorate the house in white lights, all running in the same direction.  Her Christmas tree never had family heirlooms or ornaments made by her grandchildren. It was tediously decorated in matching ribbons and complimenting colors.  She served dinner on fine China with fine silver. The kids always sat at a separate table.

I can’t remember a single gift my grandmother gave me but I can remember what most of the Christmases looked like.  Every year, it was nothing short of gorgeous.

Two nights ago, I laid awake in my bed thinking about whether or not the threading in my Christmas tablecloth was “too silver”.  I thought about and weighed several decor options and planned my set-up.  Finally I decided that I would take my silver candle holders from the mantle and set them on the table to tie the whole thing together.  I fell soundly asleep after that.

When I awoke the next morning, I thought to myself, “WTF? Why did I think any of that was suddenly important?”  I like to decorate and have a festive time but I’m not totally hell-bent on making the table-settings match.  And then I thought about my grandmother and I was thankful for her perfectionism.  

Whether we are visited by those who came before us, or whether we inherit a certain quality of former loved ones, those particular spirits or habits tend to visit us strongly over the holidays, especially when we are expecting other loved ones.  

Tonight, I set the table in honor of my Grandmother, Dottie Morasch.  She wasn’t always my favorite person but she did a lot of things right. She always made Christmas beautiful. She always made the holidays feel special.  She let my grandfather put up with her for more than 60 years. She made my every celebration feel special.  

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Dorothy “Dottie” Ferry Morasch loved a good party and she loved the Christmas season.  I can still hear the sound of her voice singing “Frosty the Snowman” dancing around her house, decorating, and getting ready for guests.  

As I decorated my holiday table this year, I couldn’t get my grandmother out of my head.  

Dottie Morasch died the day after Christmas on December 26th, 2010.  By anyone’s account, she was an incredible pain in the ass.  For those that loved her, they would say that she was certainly a pain in the ass. They would also say she was elegant, interesting, artistic, and delightful.  I miss her very much.

Love the people around you.  That’s all you can do for now.  (The alternative is worse.)

Hosting for the Holidays

I love trying new recipes during the holidays.  It’s the only time of year I look up recipe suggestions or watch cooking how-to videos.  (I’m generally an independent cook who likes to do my own thing.)

I recently tried a fun new recipe via Pinterest. It didn’t turn out as planned.

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There are several reasons why there are so many successful blogs on the web dedicated to “Pinterest Fails.”  Pinterest is where good ideas, thoughtful recipes, and practiced crafts go to be destroyed.

I’m making Christmas dinner this year. It will be my 20th or so major holiday meal. If I have any quick wisdom to share with other people from hosting several holiday gatherings in the past, I offer these two gems. One: Never try a new recipe for the first time in front of a crowd. Two: If you plan to have a crowd, don’t count on your modern plumbing to work reliably on any major holiday—have several gallons of water on standby just in case.

I’m not sure why I have had several plumbing mishaps on holidays—pipes bursting, pipes freezing, toilets clogging—but it has taught me the value of water during the holidays.  (Think dish-washing, meal prep, showers, and extra people using the toilet.)  It’s a smart idea to always keep a few extra gallons of water on hand during the holidays, just in case.  Maybe it gets used for your cousin’s truck’s leaky radiator.  Maybe your pipes freeze and you need it to boil potatoes or have it for drinking water.  Whatever the reason, having extra water, rather than no water, is always the better scenario.

As for the recipe thing?  Let me demonstrate using visuals.

Tonight I attempted a quaint recipe that I thought might be fun as a little extra treat for dessert.  It was supposed to look like this:

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If you are interested in attempting this recipe, you can find the recipe here.

Here’s what my version looked like:

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I was so close.  Luckily we had some vanilla ice cream in the house and I could lie to myself.  I pretended that this was an ice cream topping, that I had meant for the cookie to crumble.

I said in my last post that the holidays can be stressful.  I meant it.  To go further, the holidays are particularly difficult for the crazy people who love their family enough to have all of them over and make an attempt to serve a meal.

These are my tips:

Don’t make dinner a big deal.  If you are hosting, read a few cooking suggestions and “turkey tips” or “ham tips” but don’t set yourself up for failure by trying to overdo it.  If you are cooking a turkey, a ham, or a roast for the first time, just go for it.  You’ll figure it out. Watch a couple of Food Network Episodes or google some advice and then do your best.  After the main dish, use standby recipes for the side dishes. Macaroni and mashed potatoes are fine. I’m planning to make StoveTop Stuffing to serve at my Christmas Dinner. Christmas Dinner is not the event at which to attempt “Toasted Sweet Potato Meringue” or “Mushroom Encrusted Fois Gras“.  Those dishes are hard enough to spell.  No one should have to make them for their family during the holidays.

Ask the people arriving to bring either an appetizer, a dessert, a drink, or all of the above.  You agreed to make dinner on Christmas Day but we all know such a promise can lead to lunch before and dessert after.  Don’t fall into that trap.  If guests plan to arrive during the lunch hour for dinner, they should brings snacks.  Further, if folks want sweets after you present them with your culinary masterpiece, they should provide them.  You are dealing with the main event.  If someone wants pie after, they can provide the pie.  If your family isn’t known for pot lucking it, have a gallon of vanilla ice cream on hand and make no apologies when you set it on the table with a few bowls and spoons.

Give your guests enough to do that they are not sitting in your kitchen while you are trying to cook.  Arrange an outdoor activity or set out a puzzle.  You will have your hands full.  Keep your guests distracted.

Provide drinks.  If you have several soda drinkers in the family, have soda on hand.  If your uncles drink beer, grab a 12-pack.  Have wine for the wine drinkers and sparkling cider for the kids.  If possible, put out a pitcher of water or iced tea.  It’s a small touch but it makes people feel at ease and festive. And hopefully they won’t bother you about hydration.

Above all, enjoy every single moment.  If you are hosting this year, your place is the Grand Central Station of holiday activity.  Think of the new and wonderful.  Maybe there’s a baby celebrating a first or second holiday.  Also, think of the old and cherished.  What if this is someone’s last Christmas?  Behold every moment.

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Nothing is going to be perfect.  Maybe your brother brings a new girlfriend and she’s a vegan and refuses everything except salad.  Or maybe the kids in the family hate everything green, red, and orange and only eat mashed potatoes.  Maybe you’re hosting because you know that no one else in the family can afford it.  And maybe there aren’t a lot of gifts this year.  Or maybe there are a few gifts but they aren’t what anybody wanted.

There are a lot of ways to approach a holiday. Most of us expect too much. Or hope too deeply. We expect too much from ourselves and we expect too much from those around us.

If nothing else, be with your family and friends.  Burn the dinner, forget the dessert, forego the wine, and buy no presents.  If you are hosting and you completely screw up everything about hosting for the holidays no one will remember that you screwed up.  They will only remember that they were together and that you made it happen.

Hold onto that as you burn a batch of cookies.

 

How To Be A Terrible House Guest

The holidays aren’t easy.  This season is filled with chasms of disappointment and stress.  If you are taking up quarters with a friend or loved one, there is really no point in trying to make this time of year easier. Don’t bother picking up after yourself or offering to help with household chores.  If you are staying with a friend or family member any time soon, just make yourself comfortable and let your hostess deal with everything.

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Here is a list of things you can incorporate as a part of your stay in order to make your stay as excruciating as possible for everyone around you:

  1. In the planning process for your stay, try to be as vague as possible. Don’t bother to consider the hostess and her schedule.  Suggest no definite dates and instead give an approximate time frame about when you might show up and when you might leave.  Plan to stay for at least a week.  When you finally report on an approximate arrival date, arrive two days early so that whatever the hostess had planned for those two days has to be cancelled.
  2. Bring far more bags than you need for your stay. When you arrive, bring one or two bags into the house on your own but then demand help after that.  After the hostess has shown you where you will stay, express exasperation and the need for help with the rest of your baggage.  When the hostess begins to help, direct her as to where you wish your stuff to go.
  3. Once your ample bags have been removed from the car, strew them all over the room you are staying in so that it is impossible to access any closets. If the hostess offers cubbies or a dresser for you to put your stuff away, ignore her wholeheartedly and leave your stuff in bags on the floor for the duration of your stay. While you are at it, go ahead and leave stuff in the kitchen and in other rooms of the house as well.  As an added insult, bring extra boxes from your car that you won’t need during your stay and add them to your mess.  Further, if you are related to the person and will see them in the future, bring extra boxes of miscellany and ask the hostess to store them for you for an indeterminate amount of time.
  4. Bring your dog or other family pet. To really foster misery, bring a cat if the household you are visiting has a dog, or bring a dog if the household has cats. Set the pet’s bed in the kitchen or dining room, somewhere very intrusive.  When other guests wonder about your pet, ask if they knit and then demand that they make little sweaters for your animal.
  5. When things start to settle and people seem to accept your rudeness for idiosyncratic eccentricities, set up elaborate and messy art projects in common areas of the house. If possible, choose an art project that requires many colors of paint or glitter.  To be particularly awful, set up your art supplies at the kitchen table just before dinner.
  6. For the entire duration of your stay, do not do any dishes. Don’t do any chores at all.  If the hostess asks you to please excuse her as she tries to take out the garbage or completes another household chore in front of you, shoot her a dirty look for interrupting you (and your art project).
  7. Ask the hostess to do your laundry for you. When she makes your bed every day for the entirety of your stay, neglect to thank her.
  8. Never ever offer to contribute to a household meal. Snack while the hostess is clearly slaving away in the kitchen.  Complain about the food when it is served.
  9. Ignore most of the conversations provided by the other people in the house. While other members of the household sit at the table talking jovially, bring out a board game, set it up, and commence playing by yourself. Don’t ask if anyone wants to play.  Set up the game as if everyone at the table volunteered to play.  When they show no interest, roll for each person until they finally give in and start playing.
  10. When bored, rearrange the household décor. Take tchotchkes from one shelf and move them across the room.  Hide mementos and family heirlooms without saying anything so that when you finally leave the hostess wonders if you stole them.
  11. Disengage from the normal household conversation. Don’t bother to try and contribute to on-going conversations.  Instead, take out your iPad or phone and ignore everyone until you shout about various things you’ve seen on Facebook. Shout things like, “This cat is on a goat!” or, “I love the new Pope.”  Interrupt everyone.  When things seem calm and quiet, start directing everyone about what they should be doing but never get up from the table.
  12. If the hostess expresses frustration with some of your inconsideration, remind the hostess about something you paid for in order to shut her up.

 

The holidays are hard.  Why bother trying to make them easier with goodwill or manners?  Go big or go home.