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.

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.

Foodie Tuesday: Season’s Eatings

Up on the roof there arose such a clatter! Nothing like a good dawn thunderstorm to ring in Christmas Day. No, really. Great rain falling here is an excellent present, and the drum rolls and fireworks that introduced it just made its entrance the grander. It’s not exactly the fabled White Christmas for which so many yearn, but I’ll take a good Texas rainstorm as a true gift all the same. Somehow it makes the need for cozy nesting seem all the more apropos and real in a place where I’ve yet to fully adapt to the concept of a two-week-long winter season. So, Merry Christmas to me.

photoIt also heightens and enhances the glow of our seasonal lights–the few white sparklers on the front porch, the reflection off the shiny little red Texas star ornaments I hung from the dining room light fixture, and the candles glowing warmly at table, as well as the flickering fire in the living room fireplace. Whether it’s for Christmas or it’s my gentile substitute for a menorah, or it’s simply a sign of the inner warmth to be cultivated when all of the world’s holidays converge at this time of year, the beauty and comfort and symbolism of both candlelight and firelight is a gift too.

photoThen again, a White Christmas really is an extraordinary thing in Texas–northern or not–and at about 1:45 pm local time our lovely rain actually turned into an even more lovely snowfall. First the smattering of sleet that intermixed with the raindrops began to look ever so slightly whiter, and gradually it transformed into genuine flakes falling, even sticking, on the trees, the roof, the yard, the path. Quite a pretty sight, and one that will continue to water the thirsty ground but also look grand in the meantime.

photoSo I can greet you all with a completely sincere sense of winter, Christmastime, and the holidays in general and wish you the same glorious warmth and sweetness my husband and I are enjoying here, hunkered down in our cozy home with my dear mother and father in law [who road-tripped down here from Seattle for the occasion], and sending thoughts of love and peace and hope and joy to all of our family and friends around the globe. Some of the Norwegian contingent (my youngest sister and her husband and daughter) are with the Washingtonian bunch, celebrating the holidays in the cool and rainy Northwest, while the rest of the Norwegians are back in Scandinavia, some nephews and their families in the Oslo area and the youngest nephew having a quick break with the family but back to the recording studio in Stockholm with his band shortly after the holidays, if I remember right. Loved ones all around the world, whether related by blood or marriage or by the strong bonds of friendship and collegiality and camaraderie are all held especially tightly in our hearts at this time of year, adding to the warmth and glow of the candlelit house battened down cheerily against the light crisp cold of the snow.

photoIn my typical fashion, I celebrated the day by sleeping late, and we all snagged Christmas breakfast in bits and bobs–coffee here, toast there, cereal for another, and so forth–while sitting around the kitchen table chattering about everything and nothing. The later meals in the day are more significant times to set the table a tiny bit more formally, but we’re not much for standing on ceremony in our clan on either side, so the food is unfussy so that we can enjoy the company rather than slaving over the cookery. Lunch was pot roast, made a while ago and frozen and then simply heated in the oven, with roasted potatoes and carrots and some buttery green beans, accompanied with Pinotage for the red wine drinkers and hard apple cider for the others, and for dessert, glasses of eggnog and pieces of my homemade fudge with lots of mixed nuts (previously soaked walnuts, homemade candied/spiced almonds, and salted pecans and macadamia nuts) chopped in it so rampantly as to make it fall apart. Not very decorative, but not too bad to eat all the same. Simplicity trumps presentation nearly every time in my kitchen.photo

Supper will be even less glamorous and perhaps equally quirky for holiday feasting by the popular standards, yet equally edible. We’re having homemade macaroni and cheese with champagne. I think that pairing pretty much says it all for how I operate as a hostess and as an eater, and the tolerance with which family and friends treat me when they spend time in my company. And that, of course, is the acme of celebrating, to my taste: surround yourself with the best and dearest of people who will love you no matter what you do or don’t do, and sit back with them and enjoy it. I wish each and every one of you the same privilege and pleasure, whether you’re celebrating any holidays yourself or not, and to all the world, I send my hopes for peace and comfort and hope for all the days ahead.photo