Archive for November, 2007

Post Thanksgiving Post

Sunday, November 25th, 2007

When my daughters and I were setting the table with the same tablecloth that we’ve used for the past 14 years because it’s the only one that fits the table when it’s extended with the leaves in it, I had a moment of panic. “I didn’t buy something new. The table is going to look exactly the same way it looked last year.” Images of Martha Stewart dusting pumpkins with gold glitter that I had seen during a segment on the Today Show flashed through my head. “I’m sure she doesn’t use the same tablecloth every year.”

“Stop!” I told myself. “Who cares what Martha does? This is my Thanksgiving and I like this tablecloth. It goes nicely with the color of the room. And as much as any of our friends with whom we share Thanksgiving notice, I’m sure they like it too.” Now I was back in reality and I quickly returned to the task at hand ““ smoothing out the wrinkles.

It took this little conversation inside my head to refocus me on what is truly important to our Thanksgiving celebration. It is a time that we spend appreciating that we have friends who have become our family. And the more the day is about just being with them and less about staging an artificial party, the more we all enjoy it.

So what made this Thanksgiving memorable? It won’t be because our centerpiece was crafted out of gilded gourds and pomegranates.

I am going to remember this Thanksgiving because it was the first one that my daughters wanted to participate in the cooking. For several weeks prior, Valerie was comparing recipes. She was torn between making the Caramel Pumpkin Pie or the Sour Cream Pumpkin Tart. In the end, she chose the Caramel Pie that combined caramelized sugar with pumpkin, dark rum, and cream. Even though I was getting a little nervous when she was heating the sugar in the skillet and I glanced over to see smoke rising from the pan, she stood her ground, confident that the sugar had not reached the “deep mahogany” color that the recipe described. Everyone raved over the unusual but very delicious combination of flavors.

Jennifer, our younger daughter, contributed homemade rolls and cookies to the meal. Although her efforts weren’t as showy as her sister’s, our friends are sensitive to making sure she is equally acknowledged. As well as complimenting her on her culinary skills, they spent time in her room, appreciating the progress she has made in learning to play the clarinet. I will remember listening to the strains of “O Come All Ye Faithful” drift from her room while I loaded the dishwasher, knowing that she was basking undivided attention from her loving “aunts.”

I was also thankful that our 19 year old son chose to be with us and be a part of our conversations for most of the day; he only retreated to his computer in his room when he had enough of us old folks discussing our digestive quirks. It may be soon, or it may be years from now, but he won’t always be living at home and he may not be around for future Thanksgivings. So when I think back on this Thanksgiving, I’ll think of him standing at the counter and how his presence and personality contributed to making it a great day.

I think what I’ll remember most from this Thanksgiving is the way we ended the day ““ everybody made themselves comfortable on our puffy reclining couches, we had a roaring fire in the fireplace, and the cats insinuated themselves into cozy places on the laps of various family members and friends while we watched Bruce Willis pulverize bad guys in Live Free or Die Hard. Although it’s not traditional holiday entertainment fare, we enjoyed it so much that Die Hard might become as much a part of our celebration as the pumpkin pie.

Did watching a movie ““ something we do most every night ““ make Thanksgiving a “special” day? Absolutely. Because we celebrated our Thanksgiving day with friends with whom we can just relax and be ourselves.

Who knows? Maybe at Martha’s house they top off her sumptuous Thanksgiving feast by kicking back and watching Ratatouille. I could warm up to someone like that.

A Different Approach to Thanksgiving

Tuesday, November 20th, 2007

There is an issue I deal with every time we have people over ““ which is actually only twice a year on Thanksgiving and Christmas. The situation I struggle with is: how much preparation is necessary for my guests to feel welcome and when have I crossed over the line into compulsiveness?

Certainly, some amount of tidying up and cleaning before having friends over is a good thing, particularly since we don’t have a formal dining room and we’ll be eating in the kitchen area. I think tumbleweeds of dog hair blowing across the kitchen floor, clay crumbs from a recent craft project ground into the chair cushions, and a table polka-dotted with last night’s pasta sauce can distract from enjoying a meal. I know they did for me last night.

But in years past, I have found myself going overboard on the pre-holiday cleaning. I get that gleam in my eye that that tells Steve he had better give me a wide berth because I’m on a mission to make this house presentable and anyone who tries to stand in my way has to drop and give me 20! I attack the baseboards and countertops with the same vengeance as Bruce Willis going after bad guys in Die Hard“¦but with less bad language.

However, the fact is, that we’ve lived in this house for 14 years and the current head count is five people, three cats, a large dog, and a home-based business, so trying to achieve some kind of pristine perfection ““ let alone vacuum up all the pet hair ““ just isn’t possible. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t tried”¦

This past week, I was lamenting some of the logistical difficulties of hosting Thanksgiving in a cramped kitchen when Steve reminded me that the kind of entertaining that I see in my mind is really only possible when it’s staged by art directors and food stylists on the Food Network. Then he went on to remind me what actually is important to our friends with whom we celebrate Thanksgiving.

My level of stress is important to them. As Steve pointed out, they could care less about of couple of spots on the carpet; they care about me. And because they care about me, they want to see me enjoying myself, not running myself ragged, obsessing over inconsequential housekeeping details.

Plus, the folks coming to our house on Thanksgiving are two families we have known for almost 25 years who have become our family. They have seen me at my worst, best, and everything in between. Obviously, they haven’t been my friends for that long because I’m perfect. And they certainly don’t expect ““ or even want ““ my house to be immaculate.

So this year, I’m going to try something different. Of course, I’m still going clear the piles of magazines off the coffee table and make sure the bathroom is presentable. But I’m going to leave it at that. And when we’re eating, if I happen to notice a foot-long cobweb hanging from the ceiling, I’m not going to let it detract from what has always been a wonderful day. I’m going to turn my attention back to enjoying a delicious meal with the people in my life who mean the most to me.

Authentic Holiday

Monday, November 19th, 2007

Thanksgiving is the best holiday of the year. Christmas and Easter are the most meaningful holidays, but Thanksgiving is the most straightforward. There is no question about what the day is for: eating and spending time with family and friends ““ and that makes it a predictably fulfilling day.

One reason to be thankful is because so far the retail world hasn’t chosen to exploit Thanksgiving as a major gift giving and home decor sales opportunity. While giving and receiving gifts at Christmas has real meaning, selecting presents also involves angst. Have I spent enough or too much? Will they like it? Will it fit?

But Thanksgiving doesn’t carry any of the gift giving baggage. The shopping is simple: go to the store and pick out a big turkey. And it’s reassuring to know that if I’ve forgotten an ingredient for the Apple Crisp, I could go out on Thanksgiving Day and buy what I need at six different stores all within 10 miles of home.

But if Thanksgiving involved gifts, I’d be worrying if I had placed my turkey order at Amazon early enough to choose the free shipping option and still have it arrive in time. Did I choose the right color? At Thanksgiving, everyone wants their potatoes to be white. Did I get the right size? I’ve found that an 18 pound turkey will pretty much fit everyone.

When it comes to decorating, I got worried when I started seeing houses festooned with pumpkin lights at Halloween. I figured that turkey lights and cornstalk garlands for Thanksgiving couldn’t be far behind. I’m so glad that so far, the market for inflatable lawn characters goes right from ghosts and mummies to Santa and snowmen and skips over Pilgrims rotating around a giant pumpkin pie.

One of the things I like best about Thanksgiving is that it is universally celebrated ““ at least in this part of the world. In the days prior to Thanksgiving, I really enjoy that anywhere I go ““ the gym, the bank, or a business meeting ““ I always overhear people discussing how they will be celebrating the day and what they will be cooking. So far, the holiday has managed to escape political correctness; I have no fear of offending someone if I wish them a Happy Thanksgiving. I rue the day that someone uncovers the conspiracy behind the holiday and instead wishes me “Harvest Greetings” or “Happy Fourth Thursday of November.”

Every year the media tries to complicate the Thanksgiving meal by devising new ways to cook a turkey. And I’ve succumbed to trying my share of turkey techniques in the hopes of improving it, by brining it, flipping it, or icing it. But the great thing is that no matter what I do, it always turns out pretty darn near perfect and it always comes out tasting like turkey. And no one has ever been disappointed by that. 

So my challenge is to keep the focus of the holiday on sharing scrumptious food with my family and friends and ignore the articles in the  women’s magazines ““ the ones that show me how to handcraft a festive fall wreath out of shredded credit card statements followed by an article on how to simplify my Thanksgiving celebration.

Home Cooking

Sunday, November 18th, 2007

As I wrote about last week, the restorative power of making French Onion Soup turned a day that otherwise would have been a real downer into day that I will always remember for the warmth and comfort we all felt eating that yummy soup as a family.

In fact, that experience has given me a new motto to live by: If life gives you onions, make French Onion Soup”¦or Ratatouille or Arroz con Pollo or Stroganoff or Soba Noodles.

Those are a few of the dishes that my daughters and I have made in the last couple of months ““ along with carrot cake, apple galette, cream puffs, and orange chiffon cake for dessert.

But I have to back up, lest you think that my kids have been raised on recipes from Saveur and that I’m whipping up “Tuna with Moroccan Spices” in between driving to gymnastics and clarinet lessons.

The truth is that prior to a couple of months ago, my repertoire for what to make for dinner had gone stale. Although I used to enjoy cooking, it had just become another chore that I approached with about as much creativity and enthusiasm as cleaning the toilet.

Our standard fare boiled down to: chicken, pasta, frozen processed food-like-substances from Costco and bags of leafy green stuff from Trader Joe’s. Although I still subscribed to Gourmet and Cook’s Illustrated, when a new issue arrived I would flip through it and then toss it aside. “Who has time to shop for the ingredients, let alone make it?” In fact, just being asked “What’s for dinner?” was really starting to annoy me. At times I was tempted to answer, “There’s a box of Triscuits in the cupboard ““ help yourself.”

Oftentimes at around 5:00, I would come to grips with the fact that I didn’t have any provisions for dinner, so I would make a trip to Petaluma Market, my phone in hand, so I could call, give each family member the options du jour from the hot food, sushi counter, or deli, and take orders for what to bring home.

I really wasn’t happy with this haphazard system for dinner but I felt that it was fruitless to change. “After all,” I would think to myself, “Have you seen how kids eat? What’s the point of spending time making something that is inhaled in less than five minutes?”

So what motivated our menu makeover that took our meals from mundane to mouthwatering?

It was our teenage daughter, Valerie, who brought about the change. She’s always been a person who goes after what she wants, and in this case, she wanted more flavorful and interesting food so she started looking at recipes on the internet and old issues of my food magazines. The she would suggest what we could make for dinner and dessert ““ usually for Saturday night when we’re all home and we have more time.

I was delighted to have her chose the menu ““ it would get me out of my rut and renew my interest in cooking. But more importantly, the preparation and the meal was something that we could do together. A teenager who wants to spend time with their parents? I was on it like white on rice.

And from I practical point of view, I was happy that she was going to be learning how to cook. I had been afraid that she would move out not knowing how to make anything more complicated than toast.

It has surprised me how much more satisfying the experience of eating together is when it’s food that we’ve spent time preparing together instead of just putting some cartons from Panda Express on the table. We actually have conversations ““ with the usual sniping among the siblings ““ but even our 19 year old son lingers at the table for another five minutes. And it’s obvious that these times together have become very important to Valerie; she schedules her social life around being home on Saturday to make dinner together. They certainly are precious times for Steve and me.

Valerie has kept a list of our dinners, and to date over the last three months or so, we’ve had 10. And every one of those nights has been like a mini-Thanksgiving for the same reasons that Thanksgiving such a great holiday; we had fun choosing the recipes, thinking about if they would be hard or easy to make, we shared in the preparation, and then we all enjoyed eating the fruits of our labor with people we love. Amen.

French Onion Soup for the Soul

Sunday, November 11th, 2007

Last Wednesday was one of those mornings when I looked in the mirror and saw a tired face looking back at me. Even after several attempts, my under-eye concealer didn’t do the job. The circles looked so dark that I started thinking latex paint might be a good option. I wondered if Sherwin Williams made a nice ivory-beige shade.

And I’m about two weeks overdue for coloring my hair so when I put on the gray sweater that I’m considering wearing, all I see is how it brings out the color of my roots. Best not too spent much time agonizing about that now. We’ve got a client meeting that morning so I opt for my “go to meetin” uniform of brown pants and teal sweater and we hit the road.

Once we’re there, Steve begins presenting the research that I have spent the last two weeks preparing; numerous Excel spread sheets with neat little columns of costs that I’ve diligently checked and rechecked. Steve is about one minute into explaining the numbers, when I stop the meeting cold by interjecting that what he just told the client is wrong. “That is not the gross cost, it’s the net.” I can feel my face getting flushed, because darn it, I know I’m right!

Well, what Steve was saying was right too, he just approached it in an unexpected way. But for a few awkward seconds, the client looked on while we had a spat over semantics. Did it ruin the meeting and our chances for future work from this client? Probably not. Was it embarrassing? Yes.

We get home to a phone message that a poster that we designed has been printed with the wrong dates on it even though the client approved it. While nobody has ever died from a typo (at least outside the medical profession), in our world of marketing communication, a typo on a printed piece always puts a knot in my stomach.

When I pick up Valerie from the high school, I find her in the “my life sucks” frame of mind: too much homework, too many demands, no appreciation for her efforts, and not enough time for anything fun.

However, there was one bright spot in her future; she was looking forward to the French onion soup we planned to make for dinner. But it was already 4:30, Steve and I were still waiting for an email so we could approve a mailing that was supposed to go out the next day, I hadn’t gotten to the store to buy any of the ingredients, and we needed to leave by 6:15 if she was going to the youth group at church.

I was getting stressed and cranky, “Forget making the soup, I’ll just find something in the freezer.”

I guess the prospect of eating six month old frozen potstickers from Costco for dinner instead of homemade, warm soup with gooey melted cheese on top was enough to push Valerie over the edge. I glanced up from my computer to see her head drooping and big tear drops hitting the counter.

At that point, I knew we needed to regroup. “OK, neither of us are having a great day. Why don’t you skip going to church tonight so we’re not under any time pressure to make dinner by a certain time. I know I could use a break from chauffeuring. Let’s go to the store together to get the soup ingredients.” She immediately perked up.

With help from Valerie and her little sister, we all sat down for dinner at 7:00. The broth was wonderfully flavorful and just before we served it, we put on a slice of toasted Il Fornaio bread and ran it under the broiler so the Swiss cheese and Asiago cheese bubbled. Steve, the only member of the family who has had authentic French onion soup in France, said ours was better than any he had ever tasted.

We finished off the evening watching the DVD equivalent of comfort food: Melody Time, a 1948 anthology of Disney animated shorts. I’m sure our collective blood pressure was lowered a few points listening to Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers soothingly sing “Blue Shadows on the Trail.”

Over the last few days, Valerie has mentioned several times how good the French Onion Soup was. I know she’s not just remembering how it tasted, but how satisfied we felt eating it together.

Last Wednesday wasn’t an easy day, but it was a good day.

It’s Protest Time

Tuesday, November 6th, 2007

I’ve been looking forward to the first weekend in November since April because that is when Daylight Saving Time (DST) ends. When it’s 11:30 on Saturday night and I’m enjoying watching Haunted Halloween Gingerbread House Challenge on the Food Network with my teenage kids but feeling guilty about it because I have to get up the next morning for church, when I realize that it is actually only 10:30, I feel like I’ve gotten a “Get Out of Jail Free” card. At least for that night, I’m off the hook for the consequences of my late night TV binge.

But there’s another reason I look forward to the end of DST; it is because that’s when we go back to “real” time and end the artificial time shift. DST always feels like things are out of synch. Not to get too Zen with this, but when the clocks get moved back, the world is back in its proper groove as it should be. I can stop readjusting the time back to non-DST to figure out what time it really is.

For instance, when the kids go swimming on a summer afternoon at 4:00, I go through the process to figure out that it’s really 3:00 and they still should put sunscreen on. Shouldn’t the time and the sun match up?

It bothers me that Congress took something as personal and precious as time and messed around with it. I wondered if I was the only one who felt this way so I did some quick research on DST and I found that there has been very little opposition to DST since it was first tried in WW I. I was also surprised to find that DST is observed throughout the world. Russia is on DST for the entire year and in the summer, they switch to Double Daylight Saving Time which means the clocks are set two hours ahead. I’m not sure that Triple Daylight Saving Time would improve a summer in Russia.

I’m a mild-mannered mom who has never ever considered staging a protest against any government action, but I could really get my teeth into a protest against DST. The whole concept of DST bothers me so much because it seems to be the government saying that “If we say it is so, then it is so.” They are changing reality. Never mind that the sun is straight up in the sky and it should be noon, Congress has decided that it is 1:00, so it’s 1:00.

If Congress can do this for one hour, why can’t they do something really useful for all of us middle age types and set the birth date on our driver’s licenses back a year?

I know that DST was put into place for the greater good of saving energy. So if time can be adjusted with a law, why don’t they take it a step further and do it with motion? Think of the savings in fuel and emissions if Congress enacted a law that reset speedometers in cars so that when the speedometer said you were going 60 mph, you are actually going 50 mph.

In fact, now that I’ve built up a head of steam on this issue, I’m considering organizing an anti-Daylight Saving Time coalition: “People for the Ethical Treatment of Time.” Or maybe I should just move to Phoenix where they don’t observe DST and join my fellow rebels. Power to the people!