I was catching up with family news on Facebook this past week, and it occurred to me that I was reading a new sort of Christmas card.
It made me think how little things have changed in my lifetime about this time of year. You may wonder if I have had a bit too much eggnog, but read on and see if you don’t agree. . . .
In years gone by, I would get a newsy letter this time of year, tucked inside the cards sent by cousins, aunts and old family friends. You could rely on the holiday season to find out how Craig and Bruce were doing in hockey, or if Pat had won the local bonspiel again, or if Myrna or Maxine had a new great recipe to share.
Now I can see that on Facebook, complete with photo albums. As soon as a comment is made, we can all pipe in with our two cents’ worth. If a recipe is needed, everyone can offer their version. Email made the communication instant, and things like Facebook make it communal across the miles. Even though my mantle is mostly bare of cards, I am still rich with the support of my family and friends.
When I was a kid, my mom and I spent numerous evenings at the kitchen table during the holiday season, working on various projects for the house and for gifts. For the record, my mom figured all this stuff out before Martha ever made it to television.
We wrapped branches on wire frames for wreaths, we decorated and wrapped cookies to give, we coloured kraft paper to make our own unique wrapping for packages.
I don’t have children of my own, but my Girl Guide girls have been busy painting and gluing and tying ribbons to create craft projects for the tree, or the door, or to be someone’s gift. They enjoy it just as much as I did, and wouldn't you know, the grown-ups appreciate the hard work and thoughtfulness just as they did in my day. It does my heart good to know that.
This time of year still seems to be the one season when we make the time to stop and enjoy a moment, instead of pressing on. One of my cousins posted an update on Facebook that sums it up:
“. . . almost thought (he) saw the bottom of the laundry bin, found out there was still more and made mincemeat tarts instead.”
The rest of the year we feel we are supposed to stick to our obligations first, but at Christmastime we allow the urge to have fun to take over. My point was proven in another Facebook update that said my cousin needed to make shortbread, as the mince tarts were disappearing. In reply, a bit of holiday wisdom was offered from a friend on that topic:
“Shortbread always trumps laundry too. These trumps are the real truth behind why people have to buy new clothes in the holiday season. It has nothing to do with consumption of treats.”
Perhaps what I am trying to say is that Christmas encourages us to remember the joys children know to be everyday occurrences. We forget these wonderful moments when we grow up and get caught up in the rush of the day-to-day world, but the holiday season is the thing that resets our souls to some kind of balance.
I keep hoping I will be able to improve my ability to switch on the kid in me, and use it all year long. In the meantime, I say keep practicing! Say hi to Santa, attend a Christmas concert and sing along, make mincemeat tarts instead of doing laundry . . . that reminds me, I have to go on Facebook to ask my cousin for his recipe.
I'm writing this column on my 50th birthday. That's a lot of cake and candles!
Have to admit that I feel pretty good, better than I thought I would for a half century on the planet. The food I have consumed might have something to do with that, so here are some of my food memories and musings on how food has changed during my time, if you'll indulge a Birthday Girl this week. . . .
When I was a kid, food was simpler. Breakfast was cereal or toast, and porridge in the winter. Lunch was sandwiches, and dinner was meat and potatoes most nights.
I remember discovering things like mangos and kiwis when they first appeared at the grocery store. Before that fruit was bananas, oranges, grapefruits, apples, pears and grapes - and they were not there all year round.
Pasta was around, but a pasta dinner consisted of either lasagne or spaghetti and meatballs. Fish was available too, but it was more expensive, and the varieties were limited. We had salmon on the barbecue in summer, and halibut once in a while. I used to love a dinner called "finnan haddie" when I was little, which makes my mom laugh - she was ashamed to serve it because she considered it a ‘poor dinner’ (as in we should be eating better). It was canned haddock with a cream sauce, served with toast. I considered it a delicacy!
Once my parents started to travel, our whole family was subjected to their food adventures. A trip to California meant my brother and I learned how to make nachos.
We made homemade salsa with canned tomatoes, as you couldn't find the stuff in jars at the grocery store back then. We grated cheese and built them like a card house (Cheese Whiz was a no-no in our house). We also had savoury crepes, with chicken in cream sauce or even shrimp in curry sauce. That was really cool! I think that was the point when I truly became a foodie.
My mom loved to let me play in the kitchen, and it became my art studio. I made jelly rolls and pies and cookies and squares. I learned how to play with spices and create my own flavour palette.
One year my brother and I made chocolate mousse for Mother's Day, complete with coffee to enrich the flavour. Granted, it was coffee grounds we used . . . how was I to know, at the grand old age of 10, that ‘strong coffee’ meant the brewed stuff, not just heaping tablespoons?
Both of us kids cooked meals too. My specialty was broiled pork chops with applesauce and fried rice, while Justin made awesome spaghetti Bolognese with garlic toast. Even building sandwiches was fun once we developed our palates. I remember one summer perfecting the ‘Dagwood’ (remember the Blondie cartoon character known for his huge sandwiches?). Bologna, thinly sliced red onion, cheddar cheese, tomato, homemade mayo, Dijon mustard, garden lettuce and, of course, a sliced dill pickle. Delicious!
By the time I moved out on my own, I had a book of my mom's favourite recipes all copied out. I added to it over the years, including the recipe for Hasenpfeffer that I made for my dad on Father's Day one year, and the recipe for Key Lime Pie I found after searching around (before the Internet) after discovering key limes at the market. Amidst a bookcase that is now five shelves full of favourites, that dog-eared notebook is still a treasured friend.
Half a lifetime ago, I spent a year in Nancy, France, which completely corrupted me into a passionate food & wine evangelist. I'll share another column devoted to my wonderful time there, but suffice to say, it was there that I confirmed what I knew in my heart: Sharing time around a table with good friends and good company is much of what makes a life full of happy memories.
The second half of my life has been much devoted to that pursuit. Fortunately I met and married a chef as passionate as I, and we have enjoyed countless times with friends and family in the kitchen and at the table. I have had the honour of being a part of my stepdaughter's passion and talent for food and cooking. I got to see my dad go from a meat and potatoes guy to a metrosexual foodie. :) And, thanks to my workout regime, I am still able to indulge in all kinds of delectable meals at home and abroad, despite being over the hill.
So, as a way to share my celebratory day I'd like to share one of my all time favourite recipes with you - Butter Tarts. I'm posting it on my Happy Gourmand Facebook page as well, if you'd like to try it out. Feel free to leave your comments.
Las Vegas Foodie Heaven
In case you're wondering, this is not another article about National Doughnut Day, or the anniversary of the first hotdog, or celebrating the peanut butter sandwich. Rather, I want to offer a few tips for anyone, like me, who loves to enjoy food wherever they go.
How do you take a holiday that offers amazing food memories?
Whether those memories are about a world-class doughnut (yup, I've had one) or a world-class meal at a restaurant (not to be missed), they can provide your tastebuds with stories for a lifetime.
We’ve just come back from a few days in Vegas, and since neither one of us is very interested in gambling, we focused on other entertainment. Having married a chef, both of us highly value a great meal. I know that for some, spending hundreds of dollars on dinner is an astronomical amount that could never be justified, but never fear, I can offer a few suggestions that are more about comfort food, and straightforward flavours.
When Martin and I prepare for a holiday that has good food potential, we start researching far in advance. We keep notes of places we want to visit, or items we want to try, and ideas can come from recommendations, a Food Network TV show, or a magazine article. We also make a Google map of restaurants, markets, even doughnut shops :) Then I check Trip Advisor, as the amount of information from reviews can help me pick what fits our taste. Their City Guides are also a fantastic travelling tool, and don't even require WiFi, as they work on GPS to post map information.
Once we start planning a specific trip, we have to think about allocating days for rich delicacies and lighter fare. It's important to make sure there is some activity between meals too, or by the end of the trip we simply couldn't eat any more. What often works is to do lots of walking. Sometimes we stumble upon other cool spots that way, too.
For our Vegas trip, we really did hit the jackpot. It was especially nice to travel with foodie friends. We had a meal at a restaurant owned by a chef that Martin has followed his whole career - Joel Robuchon. We also enjoyed a dinner on a patio opposite the Bellagio fountains, thanks to a friend's recommendation. And our notes told us about a breakfast place that had awesome chicken and waffles and BLT Bloody Marys. We sampled Guy Fieri's food, and our travel companions booked lunch at Todd English's original restaurant as well. I can't post all the beautiful pictures here, but I will be posting many on my Happy Gourmand blog.
I will add that we are eating salad this week for dinner, and getting back to full workouts. As I do my push-ups in the morning and dish up some yogurt, I smile, and remember all the wonderful flavours and the quality time with friends.
I wholeheartedly recommend everyone try a foodie holiday - or at least some foodie time during your next trip. You never know when you could find a world-class doughnut (in case you want my recommendation, try The Doughnut Plant in New York City).
The title sounds so simple, doesn't it? We talk about the spiritual ideal of enjoying life’s moments to their utmost, being true to ourselves so that we can make the most of every moment . . . yet I have found it's not nearly as simple as it sounds. I need a reminder to stop and ‘smell the flowers’ as they say.
The best reminder I have found is my dog, Ella.
You're thinking I'm just a crazy dog person, aren't you? I love my dog, and I'm projecting a guru identity on her to justify my lavish attentions? While that wouldn't be hard to do, I'm pragmatic enough to know my chocolate Lab is motivated more by her tummy than her love for me. :) However, her keen sense of pleasure also makes her an expert in living life to its fullest.
Let me illustrate this concept:
Our day starts by getting up early. I get ready in my sweats and workout gear so that we can walk. and I can work out. While I stretch into my gear, she weaves her way between my legs so she can get a full body massage. She steals my socks and runs down the hall with them, shaking them in her mouth as though they are some kind of vicious enemy meant to be defeated. If I tarry in the bathroom too long, she comes back to remind me that the day is advancing and we had better get moving.
We head out for our walk in the orchard, and if her old pal Simon is joining us she will wait at the door to bite his tail as he comes out, just to show him she loves his company. He is 12 now, and doesn't walk every day. His life has all been in overdrive, and even now his walk is still more of a run. This requires a recovery day when you're the equivalent of almost 90 human years old.
Ella and I walk together, with her ahead a bit but always checking back to make sure I'm still coming. She stops if the breeze is blowing strong, and I'm reminded to stop too, to enjoy the scene and the smells. Walking through the orchard means we see the pace of the garden as well. We have gleaned fruits all summer that have fallen from the trees as they ripen. Ella likes pears best, and I must say the taste of pears straight from the orchard is a special treat. Each variety has a different perfume, a unique exotic floral component that makes them all taste magical. Standing between the trees, watching the sun rise, and hearing the wind blow in the trees while we nibble on our pears, I have a glimpse of how Ella experiences life. I cherish every morning walk in that moment, even if the wind is biting cold. Then we both lick our lips and carry on home.
After our walk, Ella has breakfast. Every morning she and Simon eat the same kibble, and yet every morning she jumps in the air, excited for the meal. How can I not smile at such enthusiasm? Then I go downstairs for my workout, and Ella is always there to cheer me on. If I have a really hard workout, she will come up close as I lay there panting and stretching, and lick my arm. She likes the fact that I'm salty, and I like that she is there to share my achievement.
When I leave the house, Ella sits by the door and sees me off. And when I return she is always at the door, happy to see me no matter how long I've been gone or what time of day or night it might be.
It's a great thing to be unconditionally loved.
If I've had a hard day she sticks with me until I stop to give her pat or a nuzzle. If the evening advances too far and I haven't sat down with my cup of tea after dinner, she nudges me to get my attention. Once I do take a moment to relax, she snuggles in at my feet as if to reinforce my decision. And when we finally head off to bed, she tucks me in and lets out a gentle sigh as she drifts off to sleep without a worry in the world.
Ella's insistence on being in the moment makes me take the time, often when I need it the most.
Her enthusiastic enjoyment of food also inspires me; I came up with a great salad recipe this fall with pears, yellow zucchini and hazelnuts over arugula - all things Ella likes to nibble on.
Most of all, her constant desire to make the most of life makes me smile. I figure trading pats and biscuits for smiles is a pretty good deal all around.
If you don't have a dog, try meeting one who looks to be in a good mood. I bet it will make you smile in a heartbeat. And if you're not a dog person, well how about taking a moment to sit back and fully enjoy your coffee, or ice cream, or walk or yoga pose?
Just see if you don't smile a little.
More Happy Gourmand articles
- Seventh inning stretch Oct 17
- The light within Oct 10
- Turning leaves, new and old Oct 3
- Finish on a good note Sep 26
- An apple a day... Sep 12
- Shifting gears Sep 5
- Feeding the horde Aug 29
- The Okanagan at its finest! Aug 22
- Times they are a-changing Aug 15
- I am...happy Aug 8
- Gad-zukes! Aug 1
- What makes it all go round Jul 25