Holiday Deconstruction

It’s beginning to look a lot like two days after Christmas.  It was WAY more fun to decorate than it will be to take stuff down and put it away, I know.  This year Boo is not-quite-four, and she was very much a part of things this year.  She has a teensy tree of her own which provided endless entertainment (plus the whole “don’t touch the big tree! you can play with your own ornaments on your own tree” strategy…).  She put the little colored birds on the ceramic light-up tree

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Note how all the red birds are together, all the green birds are together, etc. That’s not an accident.

and she totally bought into the whole Santa thing this year.  A good time was had by all

But now it’s time to start taking it all down.  UGH.  Naturally, I have a plan for this.  This morning I pulled all of the bins out of the closet under the stairs.  First up? Candles.  I love me some Christmas flavored candles.  I have one that smells just like peppermint bark and it makes me so happy.  Candles are a big part of the holiday decor, so putting them away first puts a big dent in the whole job.  This is also a good opportunity to throw out any that are done.  You know the ones, right?  They kinda sorta smell like something, but the jar is all sooty and it’s just not nice anymore?  Yeah, that one’s done.  Last year, I threw away all of the heavy glass lids to the candle jars, which was sort of angsty for me,  But they took up space on the counters when the candles were lit, and they made the box too heavy when the candles were put away.  Much better now.

This morning I also took down the stockings and holders, and all of the little Santa doorknob covers and bells and twirly things (what are they called? you light the candles and it makes the windmill thingy spin and it’s lovely?  Yeah, whatever that thing is.).  I washed the Christmas candy dishes and cookie plates and they’ll be ready to put away when they’re dry.

That’s all that’s happened so far.  I’m off this week (and Boo’s at school so let the vacay HAPPEN), so there’s time to do a little every day without being overwhelmed.  I’m cleaning stuff out as I go, too.  Anything that we don’t use or love is OUTTA here.  Some things don’t get put out anymore but they make us happy so they get to stay.  Nothing gets a free ride, though.  We’ve all been through too many drama-filled family holidays, and sometimes just looking at the things that were surrounding us at those times is enough to bring it all back.  As my good friend Sweet Brown says, Ain’t nobody got time for that.

There’s no small amount of relief when the whole holiday season is over, I know.  Yes, it’s fun and full of joy and laughter (or it should be… ) but there’s a lot of pressure to meet expectations.  Christmas cards have to be sent by a certain day or THEY WON’T GET THERE IN TIME!  I ask you this:  in time for what?  Most of my cards were delivered yesterday, and it’s fine,  really.  I didn’t do a lot of baking this year because I don’t really enjoy baking so I leave it to the experts.  The Christmas that we had was the Christmas that we needed, and that’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.

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Guest Post–Skillets and Knives

I asked my very good friend Clay to write a guest post.  He and I are of a mind as far as getting organized/achieving contentedness and such.  I thought I’d introduce him to you.  And as I read this, it’s with no small amount of greedy anticipation that I express my thankfulness that he’s hosting my family for Thanksgiving day, and I can’t wait.

You can read more about Clay at the blog written by his dogs, The Buck-White Boys.  Enjoy!

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My heart skipped a beat the other day when a friend said, “Black Friday is less than a week away!”  The fact that she was more excited about the shopping than the holiday notwithstanding, I realized that Thanksgiving, therefore, is right around the corner.  Which means, at least at our house, it’s time to begin some of our annual traditions.

Every family has holiday traditions, of course – Christmas Eve services, the traditional stuffing recipe, Hanukkah rituals – but there are a whole slew of other annual activities that, for us, really signify the special time of year.  Such as – the annual “pre-Thanksgiving cleaning of the oven.”  Yep, the weekend before the weekend before Thanksgiving, every year, I deep clean the oven from a year’s worth of frozen pizza drips and last-minute casserole spills.

The other big signifier of the impending holidays is the annual sharpening of the knives.  The best culinary advice I ever got – or listened to – was to invest in at least one really good kitchen knife.  Sure you can buy the block sets or cheap ones at a big box store, but a really good quality, well-made kitchen knife is the most important kitchen tool you can have.

And just like any investment, you want to take good care of it.  A well-made knife that is properly cared for will last forever, just about.  After much research I bought the Victorinox (yes, the Swiss Army Knife people) 8-inch chef’s knife.  It has a good balance, a sharp edge and is very well made.  Cook’s Illustrated and several other reviewers named it one of the best knives made.

I also have several other knives – a “junk” set that I use for very general day-to-day stuff, another 10” chef’s knife, an 8” Santoku, etc.  Over time, a knife blade will start to bend and dull.  Regular use of a sharpening steel will help to keep the blade inline but at least once a year, a knife needs to be sharpened.

 

For years I listened to my mother complain about Thanksgiving, “I don’t want to do all that cooking.  Who enjoys that?  It’s never that good. And then you have to clean up.”  I have very few memories of Thanksgiving at home but wonderful memories of the day at friends’ and relative’s houses.  And I loved everything about it – the hustle and bustle, the smells, the mess, the cooking, the noise.  It’s probably my favorite holiday and I love to do all the cooking.  So since I’m going to be doing a lot of chopping and cutting, it just makes sense that this is the time of year to sharpen all the knives.  Kind of like replacing the batteries in a smoke detector at Daylight Saving Time, this way, too, I remember when all the knives were last sharpened.  You can have it professionally done, but good, electric sharpeners that produce great results are not terribly expensive.

My knives live in a very organized drawer because, once sharpened, I want to protect them as much as possible.  My pots and pans, not so much.  Every Thanksgiving there is always at least one day of my sitting on the floor by the cabinet, banging pans together trying to find all the right ones.  There’s usually a dismantling, too, of whatever organizational system I tried last year – I’m still throwing out wadded up coffee filters from the year I thought using those to protect the pans would be a good idea.

There’s one pan I really only use once a year – my great grandmother’s cast iron skillet.  This thing is a treasure.  I’ve said it’s the first thing I’d grab in case of a fire (after the dogs) but it would probably be the last man standing should the house burn down.  Grandma Buck’s cast-iron skillet has been used by generations of Bucks and it just makes me tremendously happy to use it every Thanksgiving.

As a Yankee, however, she would probably shudder to know that I’m using it to make Southern cornbread, but it’s how I honor both sides of the family.  My paternal great grandmother’s pan making my maternal grandmother’s cornbread.

Now, here’s the trick.  Monday or Tuesday before Thanksgiving, make the cornbread for the stuffing.  It’s a very simple recipe – corn meal, flour, milk, eggs, baking soda (this is not the time to use a mix).  But the first thing to do is to make the sausage for the stuffing, too.  So, in Grandma Buck’s skillet I brown a pound of sausage – full fat, full flavor, don’t skimp here.  Sometimes I use the sage-flavored sausage, but just a good quality sausage will work fine.

While the sausage is browning, mix together the cornbread batter and pre-heat the oven.  Line a Tupperware container with a paper towel and when the sausage is done, remove it from the pan with a slotted spoon or strainer.  Yes, you’re trying to leave as much rendered fat in the pan as possible.  DO NOT turn off the burner – you want that iron skillet screaming hot.  And, if you do it right, once you’ve removed the sausage and pour the batter into the skillet it will “seize” and essentially cook the edges of the cornbread.

Oh, and when that cornbread comes out of the oven . . . I can’t tell you how many pre-Thanksgiving mornings I’ve spent over the sink eating that hot cornbread with butter dripping down my fingers and chin.  And that’s the moment, for me, the holidays begin.  The oven is clean, the knives sharpened, we’re ready for the holiday stretch from Thanksgiving to New Year’s and that taste, that smell, that moment of tasting that fresh cornbread with my grandmother’s traditions combined with our new ones is a time I look forward to all year.

The Craft Gene

Ugh.

I am not crafty.  I do not make stuff.  I do not create.  My home is not festooned with things that I have made.  I walk into Michael’s or JoAnn and I wander around like a zombie for twenty minutes and then I just give up and do the DIY Walk Of Shame back to my car, empty handed.  I have no interest in becoming a crafter, either, and I tend to make fun of those who are really into it.  The words “country crap-fest” are a part of my lexicon.

Growing up, this was a source of scorn in my family.  My mom was a serious crafter.  I have three crocheted afghans, an Amish quilt, and countless things she painted  in my home.  Seriously, there was a period of time in the late ’70s when no flat surface went unadorned by yellow glossy paint and orange rick-rack trim.  She put a lot of energy into cultivating this hobby with my sister and me.  Latchhook (omg do you remember latchhook?) rugs and pillows were our summer projects.  She would give me a size K crochet hook (I just had to google the sizing system, and K was the Big Fat one for noobs) and a remnant of yarn (usually in some brown/yellow/orange combination) and patiently sit with me while I painstakingly made three feet of awkward single or, in one blaze of glory, double chain stitches (again, googled to confirm terminology).  My entire body would clench up.  The yarn would be so tight around my hands that the end product appeared to be felted.  Hated. every. minute.

To make matters worse, my sister became a champion crafter.  Her medium was counted cross-stitch, and she became quite a skilled cross-stitcher (is that what it’s called?  I’d ask her but, um, we’re not close…).  When I last crossed the threshold of her home, the decor consisted mainly of her intricately stitched masterpieces (and brass and glass, but it was the 90s and I assume she’s redecorated by now, because really?) and I firmly believe that our coming down on opposite sides of the crafting divide predicated our current distance.  I digress.

Crafting was a big deal going back generations in the family.  When my mom’s grandmother passed away, the embroidery she was working on at the time was lovingly placed, unfinished and with the threaded needle still where she put it last, in the cedar chest.  I have a quilt that my own grandmother and her sister in law sat down and made together.  Stuff like this was how the women in my family expressed themselves.

So every summer, my mom would come across a craft thing (pattern? idea? template? whatever.) and she would make dozens of them and those would be Christmas gifts for everyone we knew.  One year, everybody got these amazing Christmas tree angels that still take my breath away.  And this time of year when I’m starting to put our gifting lists together, I spend at least an hour or so wishing I was crafty so that I could fill my own stupid Pinterest board with my Wonderful Handmade Gifts and ideas.

I have other skills, yes, but when people ask what my hobbies are, I’m kind of stumped.  I love to read.  I watch movies.  I…. um….. I’m actually sitting here trying to come up with more “hobbies”.  I don’t have them.  I don’t have time, and I don’t say that in an attempt to convey how Very Busy I am, because I’m really not so much busier than anybody else, but I’d rather fritter my time away in a quiet corner with a trashy romance novel than making or collecting or whatever it is that hobbyists do.

My daughter is now of the age where she wants to make stuff.  She wants to draw and paint and glue and string beads.

Exhibit A:

Boo and Auntie Shae make a bracelet.

Of note, this picture was taken yesterday at my friend Shae’s fabulous bead shop, Sweet Beads.  Go check it out!  We’ve added this activity to our rotation of Things to Do because Boo sat there for a good thirty minutes, quietly yet enthusiastically stringing beads.  Awesome.

I wish I could teach Boo how to make stuff.  I wish I’d had the patience/interest/ wherewithal to pay better attention when Mom was teaching me how to do this stuff.  In the years since my mom passed, people have given me the things she gave to them (not in a “OH GET THIS OUT OF MY HOUSE” kind of way, either) and that’s why I have 3 Christmas angels and two magazine racks and a crocheted Ernie doll, among other things.  Her summer projects became her legacy.  When I see them, I remember exactly what was going on in the rest of the world when they were being made.  I want to give that sort of memory to Boo.  She helps me bake bread (she can stir like a champ) and we do puzzles but that’s really as far as we’ve gotten.

There’s more to come on this topic.  What do you do with your kids?  Are you crafty (and not in a Beastie Boys way…)?   What are some easy starter projects that maybe we could learn to do together?

Navigating the Holidays

I tend to dwell on things.  I’m a dweller.  I dwell, and I endlessly plan for all potential outcomes.  It’s exhausting.  Part of my getting a grip is about learning when to let the outcomes just happen.  Because that’s OK, when stuff just happens.

Thanksgiving can’t just happen, though. I just can’t let it HAPPEN.  Even if it’s not at our house (it was this year, we’ll get to that in a minute) I spend way too much energy on it.  What if whatever I’m bringing is weird for some reason (because, you know, pumpkin pie can be weird…?)?  What if … I can’t even describe some of the What Ifs I’ve dealt with in the past.  It’s too soon in my blog to let you in on my weirdness to that level.

So this year, Thanksgiving was at our house.  RED ALERT.  RED ALERT.  ALL HANDS ON DECK.  Historically, this would be reason enough for me to lose my mind.  Both sets of grandparents, plus the aunt who has hosted the past 4 years and her family AND her daughter’s friend?  Oh good heavens.

I did what any person who was aware of the potential for meltdown would do:  I went into Spreadsheet Mode.  We all need our Survival Kits, right?  Mine is the spreadsheet.  I like Google Docs, because I can access them from my phone, which proved to be invaluable this year when I needed to double-check a recipe during my final pre-feast grocery trip.  A couple of months ago (because as you know by now, I’m like that…) I started setting up my spreadsheet.  The columns were for each dish I hoped to have for the meal.  You know, like “turkey”.  “Stuffing”.  Easy stuff like that.

The first row underneath the column header?  Who was making that dish.  Some things were easy enough to determine.  The turkey can’t be transported, so it should be cooked here.  My name goes in that column.  I left things blank, or with question marks, until anything that was to be delegated (like pies…) was confirmed.

The next row was a link to the recipe.  I’m a big believer in The Interwebs, so anything I didn’t know how to do off the top of my head was Googled (ahhhhh Google you make me so happy…) and linked.

Next row was titled “Prep”.  When does stuff start to happen?  Some things can be built in advance (like a fantastic cheesy butternut squash casserole), and that saves a scramble on The Big Day.  Cranberry sauce (easier than you’d think to make from scratch…)?  Sunday.  Chopping vegetables for the stuffing?  Monday.  Pasta salad?  Tuesday.  You get the idea.  Doing the prep in advance (the French call it “mise en place” which I just love) meant that on Thursday, the turkey had my full attention.

Also on my spreadsheet was my shopping list.  I went through the recipes a couple weeks ahead of time, and anything that wasn’t already in my kitchen went on the list.

Entertaining makes me angsty even when it’s just a few friends coming over.  Thanksgiving had the potential to make me a lunatic.  Simply planning in advance made it easier.  Knowing I was organized and had a plan of attack helped me keep it together.  Instead of spending Thanksgiving day running around like a crazy person, trying to do everything all at once, I was able to talk with my family, watch some football, and enjoy the day.  Sure, there was a bit of a hubbub when it was all ready to go on the table, but since I wasn’t worn out from the morning, it was all right.

What’s your best method of keeping a big event organized?  Spreadsheets don’t work for everyone, I know.  For some, it’s a calendar that is never too far out of reach.  Others live and die by the post-it note.  Any system that works is a good system.  The important thing is to know what your system is, and to use it.

I hope your Thanksgiving was a happy one!