The Changing of the Guard

As December draws toward its end and a new calendar year lies just over the horizon and out of sight, there is always a sense of anticipation. It’s a many-layered thing, too, this look forward, carrying my constant consternation at all of the possibly awful unknowns like some sort of a scratchy underlayment to the innocent eagerness to discover great and wonderful things ahead. My own small history has taught me that both will hold true to one degree or another in 2015, just as they have for every day, season, year, and chapter in my life, little speck that it is in the equally fearful and fantastic unseeable future of the whole of existence. Knowing that these things will come to be regardless of any worry or wondering on my part never stops me from either of those things.Graphite drawing + text: Change of Heart

The one very best aspect of all of this is that I find every modification does move me to grow and change. I, along with the days, seasons, years, and chapters of my storyline, can be made better by their passage if I choose to keep my mind and heart engaged. Newness ahead can mean new life ahead. Today is a day when the beautiful potential of the best kinds of change should shine most brightly on the horizon of anyone who longs for it.

Ever Heard of Foodie Thursday?

Well, now you have.

It’s been a busy autumn chez Sparks. No excuses: in the flurry, I flat-out forgot to put up my food post on Tuesday. Sigh. I didn’t stop being food-obsessed, just being on schedule. So here we go, better late than never. I would give you a big silly grin, but yeah, my mouth is full again. Photo: Blue Bouquet

What I meant to say on that long-ago-seeming-day-which-was-Tuesday, was that I do like this time of year in particular for its masses of officially sanctioned excuses for partying. There are of course the big national and international celebrations of things spanning from Halloween/All Saints/Dia de los Muertos to Thanksgiving, Diwali, Christmas, Hanukkah, and the various New Years; in my family, five out of the six of us have winter birthdays as well. It’s not that my family and I are in any way averse to celebrating with a good meal, a party, or any other excuse for eating and drinking good stuff at the drop of a hat, but it’s extra nice when nobody else questions the need for such an occasion either.

My parents upped the ante this winter by both entering the glorious ranks of octogenarian excellence, so since my three sisters and I don’t all live close to them anymore, we’d long since all agreed it made sense to look toward next summer (2015) for a family get-together to mark their ascensions to this great new height. All the same, nobody in our clan has any respect for leaving an excuse for a party just lying there unused. So Sisters 1 and 3, who do live near Mom and Dad in Seattle, helped them plan a big party on Mom’s birthday weekend so that our parents could have their local siblings, nieces and nephews, and a few special friends together. I made up the digital invitations, since I could do that from my remote location, and because I’ve long done such design tidbits for family events as a way to be involved when I couldn’t otherwise be on hand to participate. But our Seattle sisters did the yeoman’s work on the whole thing.

We kids did up the ante a little, though. Sister 4 and her husband sent an email to the other three of us a couple of months ago, announcing that they had bought plane tickets to fly over from Norway for the November party and surprise Mom and Dad. We sisters were surprised, too! My husband, with three concerts and more rehearsals to conduct on either immediate side of the party date, couldn’t get away, but with a batch of saved air miles, I could, so I planned to fly up from Texas and join in the fun. Once all of our tickets were bought and the wheels set in motion, the real challenge was not only to see if there were any small things 4 and I could do from our bases of operation but to see if we and our partners could keep a secret for seven or eight weeks, a dubious probability at the best of times with our talkative bunch.Photo: Pink and Green Bouquet

We did. We let one of Mom’s sisters in on the secret so that she could help get our parents in the right place at the right time when the day arrived, and my spouse’s parents knew, because they were invited too, but despite a couple of close calls, nobody slipped up irrevocably. Part of the larger plan, once we’d decided to add in this surprise element, was that there would be an immediate-family-only lunch on Mom’s actual birthday at Sister 3’s house. Dad, Mom, Auntie and Uncle, and sisters 1 and 3 were to have a nice, low-key luncheon date to mark the day and wrap up any last-minute details for the bigger open house party the next day.

Sister 4 and her husband and I flew into Seattle on Thursday the 6th. It was wonderful to have a reunion of the four sisters, our first in at least a couple of years, and to convene a few other members of the immediate family—3’s husband and one son, with the other son flying in from college on Friday—that night and to laugh up our collective sleeves over our plot. In keeping with the family tradition of combining food with fun, this first evening was spent at 3’s house, slurping bowls of a beautiful, creamy winter sweet potato, kale, pasta, and sausage soup (based on Martha Stewart’s recipe) while taste-testing a couple of good single-malts the Norwegian contingent had picked up on a duty-free spree en route.

On the 7th, Mom’s birthday, we got lunch ready and in the oven and fridge and then spent a little while nervously skulking past curtained windows to escape any unexpectedly early arrivals’ discovery, and as the parental entourage at last approached, three of us ducked into the back bedroom, where we giggled like little kids and perched on the bed to avoid making the creaky hardwood floor give away our presence. Auntie got Mom settled into her favorite armchair so we wouldn’t have to explain her absence at the next day’s party as the result of an aneurism, and we finally strolled out to say Hello to our startled parents. Their faces remained in virtually the same blankly surprised expressions for a fairly lengthy, attenuated moment.Photo: Mom's 80th Birthday Lunch

Lunch broke that spell. We feasted on marvelously simple steak, lemon-dill oven-roasted salmon, salt-baked potatoes, green salad with a fresh blend of herbs and creamy lemony dressing, green beans, and buttered peasant bread. Classic, delicious, and with a handful of their kids on hand to help, an easy way to feed our parents well on a meaningful day. We worked a bit more on the details of Saturday’s open house event, but 1 and 3 had covered all bases so thoroughly that we were all able to make an early evening of it and rest up for the main event.

Sister 3 had found a wonderful venue, a community center run by the parks service in a beautifully renovated vintage power station right next door to the church where our dad had grown up. All five of Mom’s siblings and Dad’s only sib, his brother, and all of their partners, were on tap to come. So did some of the sibs’ kids, and even a handful of grandkids joined the gang; with the friends who came, we totaled just over fifty in attendance. We saw many relatives we’d not seen in years, many of them as surprised as our parents at seeing us there like long-distance apparitions. I think I can safely say that the party was everything Mom had wanted, that Dad was also happy, and that we all felt pretty chuffed at pulling off a great success, especially at not blowing the surprise.Photo: Birthday Buffet

But again, food was central to the grandness of the day, and once more, that was thanks to the wise planning and [literally] tasteful choices made by our Seattle sisters. The buffet spread’s main dish stars were ginger beef and sweet walnut prawns from our favorite local  Chinese restaurant, accompanied by a wide range of finger foods and sweets, many of them bought ready-made from various shops and stores. We had just about enough food on hand to feed 250 guests. So we kept up that family tradition, too. And we all left the tables full and fulfilled.

Who knows what we’ll get up to next summer. Only sure that it will include much eating and drinking. And probably lots of childish giggling and telling secrets, which I think are a mighty nice lagniappe for the whole meal, whatever it is.

Foodie Tuesday: You Eat What You Like, and I’ll Eat What I Like

Besides being a wise quote from my perennial hero, Yukon Cornelius, the title of today’s post is pretty great advice for eaters at all times, most particularly so during the holidays. If I’m going to go to the expense and effort to do anything special for a Special Occasion, it matters far more to me that I want to eat the results than that they meet anybody else’s standard for tradition, impressiveness, or perfection. You won’t find me dining on dainties of glorious extravagance and beauty on a holiday or birthday or any other notable date if I’m the designated cook, because spending exhausting and exacting hours in the scullery before the blessed event is not my idea of a great way to arrive at it rested and ready to enjoy its importance in my life with good cheer and an even temperament.

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Appetizer parfait: hash browns (I made these with Gouda and smoked paprika), sour cream, hot smoked wild Pacific salmon and capers. Or, in the alternative version I offered on the same day–another easy to prepare ahead topping for the hash browns–smoked sausage pieces simmered in Pinot Noir BBQ sauce. The sauce was a sticky reduction of equal amounts of red wine and homemade bone broth with brown sugar, tomato passata, chili powder, cinnamon, cloves and cayenne to taste. Guests could assemble the tiny dishes with any combination they liked, and I didn’t have to wrestle with the hors-d’oeuvres at all on the day of the party.

So while I adore Dungeness crab, I will not likely be preparing one fresh and mucking about with the tedious chore of meticulously picking the meat out of the shell–if I can find fresh Dungeness already picked and packed in a neat little carton, it’ll be on the menu; otherwise, not. My fondness for elaborate baked goods will likely be fed by an outstanding bakery, not by my slavish efforts right before a party. I’ll happily dine on a perfectly frenched rack of lamb or a miraculously flaky and tender kulebiaka or bistilla, but only if someone else is going to all of the effort it takes to prepare it.

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Homemade macaroni and cheese can be just as easy to fix as pre-packaged. Here, I blended shredded Gouda, cheddar and Parmesan cheeses in about equal amounts and added melted butter, eggs, smoked paprika, powdered mustard, a little grated nutmeg, and a tiny dash of liquid smoke (no additives, please) before stirring the cooked pasta in with a bit of cream and baking it to melt and meld it all together.

That’s how, when Christmas dining is at home, it may go so far as to be a roast beef that can be cooked sous vide and requires only a quick browning in the oven before carving, but it might also be a made-ahead, very down-to-earth macaroni and cheese. Or even a tuna salad sandwich, a perpetual favorite that, while it’s hardly what anyone I know would consider Fancy, is gladly eaten with a handful of good potato chips and a juicy apple on nearly any occasion chez nous. I want to eat delicious food on Christmas, but it doesn’t have to be unusual or expensive or showy in any way to be delicious, and if its simplicity of preparation means that it’s eaten in a very comfortably relaxed state, that makes it all the more appealing and enhances its flavor remarkably.

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Homemade mac-&-cheese is, in fact, also easy to customize for any number of tastes and occasions, as when I change out the elbow macaroni with some fresh fettuccine and toss in a batch of Langostino tails. Voila! ‘Poor man’s’ lobster fettuccine.

I hope that everyone who is celebrating around now–whether it’s Christmas, the Dongzhi festival, Hanukkah, the Winter Solstice, the New Year, Kwanzaa, a birthday, or something entirely different–has the wealth and freedom to take the same approach. It’s satisfying to arrive at happy events relaxed and, well, happy. And eating what you love to eat is always better than eating what you think you should eat, only because you think you should. I wish you all great food, simply prepared, great company when you want it and quiet time away when you need it. That’ll make the food taste all the better when it comes. Cheers! Bon appetit! Joy!

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Who says plain salt-and-pepper roasted chicken isn’t fancy enough for a special occasion? If you enjoy it, indulge. Even with the most common of accompaniments, it can be satisfying and tasteful (clockwise from the ruby-colored jellied cranberry sauce at left): pickles (here, okra, green tomatoes and green beans); sweet corn; coleslaw; apple sauce (freshly made brandied maple sauce); mashed baked potatoes with beurre noisette, fried sage leaves and optional red wine/broth reduction sauce; and a spoonful of tiny, tasty green peas. And if you’re a vegetarian, you can always eat the whole rest of the meal and be content. Peas to all the earth, I say!

Even desserts–maybe especially desserts, come to think of it–can get treated like such elaborate Fabergé egg-like constructions that they are too precious for ordinary mortals to eat and far too tiring for me to slave over preparing. I’ve hardly ever seen anyone turn up his nose at store-bought ice cream or refuse if I offered her a nice piece of chocolate straight out of the wrapper. A bowl of perfect fresh strawberries, a moist pound cake made the other day, and a quick batch of whipped cream with vanilla give instant summer cachet to the end of a meal. Banana pudding needn’t even be a fuss, and doesn’t look really like much (hence the lack of a photo), but it’s unpretentious and tasty enough that everyone right down to the toddlers will happily eat that old comfort favorite.

Banana Pudding to Make You Go Ape

Don’t bother with cheap, phony tasting artificially flavored instant banana pudding, either, despite a short timeline for the treat (unless you get all nostalgic over it for some reason). All you actually need is some really ripe bananas and a handful of other ingredients, and away you go…

Blend together until smooth (I use the stick blender for this): 5 overripe bananas (too mushy for eating plain), a pinch of salt, the juice and grated rind of 1 large lemon, a generous teaspoon of vanilla, a couple of tablespoons each of raw honey and butter, and about a cup of heavy cream. Chill until thickened. What do you taste? Bananas. What will you do? Go bananas over it. Why work harder than that for your food and fun? Enjoy your holidays and happy days instead!

Oh, and I must add (since what goes without saying may not entirely go without saying for everybody!) that this kind of banana pudding will, of course, oxidize–unlike the aforementioned imitation stuff–so it’s best eaten right when you’ve made it unless you’re like me and don’t care if it’s a little beige in color. And it’s not super thick, so if you like it thicker, I recommend whipping the cream separately and then folding it into the blended banana mash, to which you’ve already added the other ingredients. No matter how you choose to make it, it’s still pretty tasty. And, as Marie has suggested in the comments and I’ve already tested, it makes a dandy breakfast!

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Happy New Year!

Watching the World as It Passes

The day after Christmas has a long history in the western world as a day of strangely battle-weary living for many. All of the wildness and extravagance people can conjure has been devoted to getting to and through the 25th of December, and little thought or energy or resources remain for anything that follows, least of all the day immediately on the heels of the Christmas holiday. That’s okay. Everyone has his or her way of celebrating, or avoiding what they see as the excesses of others’ celebrations, no matter what the holiday and Christmas, with its western prevalence and pervasiveness culturally, has expanded into something astonishingly complicated even for those who have no connection to the origins of Christmas at all.

I have experienced Christmas in a multitude of ways myself. I grew up in the Christmas tradition of church and family, gift-giving and observance intermingling and filling all of the days around the date, but as an adult no longer living in my parents’ home, and especially as the spouse of a professional musician, I have spent many subsequent Christmastides attending concerts and services not in the same place and with the same people, some of the occasions entirely secular and some fastidiously and formally religious, and often have felt myself simultaneously immersed and somewhat removed–an observer of this strange phenomenon that is Christmas in the modern world.

What I feel now also changes and flickers like a candle flame. Part of me is moved and absorbed to the degree that I hardly notice my immersion, and part remains surprised, mortified, mystified and/or delighted at the lengths, depths and heights to which people go in pursuit of their own understanding and expectations of the holidays. As I grow older I am also more aware of the plethora of significant events and holidays meaningful in so many other religions, cultures and personal realms, and these often change my view of the practices related to Christmas in and around my life, too. Even the most hermit-like must be so affected in this day and age, it seems, and that’s not entirely a bad thing. If we live in the context of all of this, we should certainly be conscious of how these differences and nuances and variations inform and even influence our experiences in this life.

All of that aside, one of the least spiritually driven aspects of the winter’s holidays that gives me a certain amount of real pleasure is knowing that on the 26th of December a fairly large percentage of people in the western world are frantically rushing around in the pursuit of shopping exchanges and returns, after-Christmas sale bargains and last-minute, end of the year party preparations, and another portion of the population is collapsed in utter exhaustion from the foregoing revelry–and I am in that most enviable state of being and doing neither of those. Preferring as I do a quieter, less frenetic and far less shopping-oriented way of celebrating important occasions in my life, I find the rebound from them equally reduced in intensity and stress. That, to me, is the gift that does keep on giving.

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As you were! You feel free to go about your business and do your celebrating as you like, and I’ll happily wait right here for you in my royal lassitude. Happy holidays to all!

Steaming along Toward the Holidays

I’m sure anyone can easily analyze me to bits for it, but my message today is simple. I made a wreath and I hung it up on the front door to send the message to you, one and all. It’s a holiday message that I think is worth decorating for, regardless of which is your own particular holiday or what the specific date on which it falls.photoThe medium for my message may be a little offbeat. Not everybody puts up a holiday wreath made under a hint of Steampunk influence, but that was my angle at the moment, mostly because I really like all the typical mad-scientist found-object quirky-mechanical fantasy junk that fills the Steampunk world. And I made a wreath because it was fun to do.photo montageAnd I did it all to say, in my own funny-yet-utterly-serious little way, that holidays of a great multitude of kinds please me. More than that, I wanted to say that I wish such sweet happiness to all of you who more properly ‘own’ these holidays. And today, what with the 25th of December being the biggest holiday I grew up knowing in my modest corner of the universe, I think it’s exactly the right time to wish all of you as much joy, contentment, hope and peace as you can possibly contain. Well, more–so there will be plenty to spill out onto all the others around you.

I Made a Wreath

I did make a wreath, really–well, two. And as usual, they got a little more complicated and veered from the original plans all along the way, and the wreaths sort of made themselves, with a little elbow grease from me. That does seem to be my modus operandi most of the time, doesn’t it. I like to think of myself as an artist and the chief inventor in my colorful little universe, but when I’m being honest with myself, it’s more like I’m the cheap labor. Once the particular puzzles announce themselves to me, I may be able to offer the valuable skill of problem solving to make them possible (or as nearly so as I can), along with the effort required to bring them into existence, but in truth I’m often as surprised by the end product as anybody.P&IThat’s not entirely what I meant to say in this little post, of course. What I intended was to say that my time among you makes me think wreath-making a particularly purposeful thing to do, regardless of its utility or lack thereof as an object. Because to me, they represent all of the good and cheerful things contained in holidays and celebrations, and bring fine and flexible attractions to the decoration of home and garden. But further, and more significant in this difference to me, a wreath is a way to publicly express personal happiness through a small creative act. I make no claim that this is deep stuff. It’s a small pleasure and a minor artistic outlet, a rather insignificant creation even among the doings of a humbly insignificant artist. But as a token of well-being, contentment and hope, and no less, a mark of my understanding that I am privileged to feel all of those and know that I do so in large part thanks to the fine company I keep, this is enough cheering reason for me to make such playful little artworks, and even make artworks about making the artworks. Odd, I know, but in that alone, well suited to represent me too.digital illustrationI confess, silly as it is, it kind of leaves me wreathed in smiles just thinking about it.

Seasonal Allergies

Can political correctness kill a holiday spirit? Oh, yes, it can. We’ve all seen it. There are times and places when and where we have to tread so lightly around people’s tender feelings regarding their special holiday or occasion–or someone else’s–that it’s hard to believe that any of us retain those passions and beliefs after a while. It’s as though we’re allergic to each other’s seasonal happiness. All the same, I do understand that we ought to show reasonable forbearance regarding others’ dearly held views, no matter how far from our own they may be, so long as those views aren’t harming anyone else. And so very, very few of them are, to be fair.

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Remember to tread lightly on others’ ground!

But if others want to celebrate things I’m not so attached or attracted to myself, who am I to stand in the way?  I like holidays, parties and celebrations very well. I may have even occasionally co-opted others’ holidays just because I think they’re wonderful excuses for enjoying the great things about life and history and happiness. Whether I do or not, I am happy to see my own holiday leanings in any odd spot that inspires me at any moment.

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Ho-ho-ho, happy people, whoever you are!

I’m from a pretty common kind of American, Protestant, middle class background myself, so it won’t surprise anyone that I grew up surrounded by the trappings of the middle class, Protestant American version of Christmas. Won’t even shock anyone that after my decades of being surrounded by it, I grew more than a little jaded at the horrendously fat, greedy, commercialized version it morphed into in the public eye and felt shy of celebrating Christmas in that atmosphere. But there’s that sense of tradition and family tied into it as well, and the knowledge that the origins of the holiday and the celebration of it are worlds removed from those crass retail versions of it that irritate me so. So when I see the famed color combination so associated with Christmas in this my home culture, I think I am in a more forgiving mood toward the genuinely human and sometimes very foolish ways that others spend their celebratory energies, and maybe even toward my own.

I wish you all a happy holiday season, whether you celebrate any particular occasion or just enjoy seeing others revel in theirs. There should be plenty of pleasure to go around!