Next Thing I Know…

I have never lived for any great length of time without wondering what would happen the next year, the next day, or the next hour in my life. It’s a deeply inherent part of my existence, and I suspect, of most other people’s as well. But I’m experienced and grown-up enough by now to recognize that I should jolly well limit my mulling over that mystery enough to spend the majority of my energies on getting the most out of the present—and putting the most that I can into it.

Call it whatever you please, devotion to making myself better in the here and now seems to me far more useful, meaningful, and simply enjoyable than mooning and swooning over what might be, may be, could be, or should be. I try, and I hope to try better. I mean to try better.

But really—what is coming? I can’t quite let that alone, either. Too tantalizing….

Meanwhile, in the here and now, I am tremendously grateful for many wonderful things. I am rich with love and friendship, with food and shelter and opportunity. And I have one of the greatest treasures of all, the knowledge and experience of peace. It may be a slightly rare commodity in the unknown, unplanned chaos of everyday life, never mind in the wider world’s daily struggles. But I have known peace and am gifted with times of deep and comforting peace through those riches I have just enumerated for you. And through no deserts of mine—I am glad beyond imagining that whatever lies ahead, I expect to keep looking for, and finding, Peace.

Happy Thanksgiving, and I wish all of you the opportunities to experience peace, and to share it with all of those whose life paths your own intersects. Peace among us all.Photo: Thankful for Peace

Be Very Afraid. If You Really Like that Sort of Thing.

I have neither the knowhow nor the tangible resources for filmmaking, but if I did, I think my concept of the perfect horror movie subject would be the infamous occasion of Black Friday. As we Americans approach the national holiday I like the most of them all, Thanksgiving, I think with a shudder that Black Friday’s grim shadow lurks just behind it.
For if I have a tender feeling for the holiday that not only marks the anniversary of my first date with my soon-thereafter life partner and makes me immensely thankful for that gift but also marks the national celebration of gratitude in general, I have an almost antithetical feeling about the retail frenzy that follows it. The former only throws the latter into higher, less flattering relief.

I love shopping, don’t get me wrong, but I hate being told how and when to do it, and what or whom for, and to what magnificent extents. I dislike being so easily manipulated by commercial ploys and plugs as it is, and the stink of desperation mixed with hyperbolic greed on Black Friday becomes overwhelmingly off-putting to me.

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What makes us turn into beasts when we get a whiff of the hunt? When a crazy sale is advertised, do I become predator or prey? Or should I just pray?!

There are obviously large numbers of people who are not only comfortable with the event but energized and entertained by the spectacle and Olympian scaled enthusiasm packed into the post-Thanksgiving shopping extravaganza. I wish them all happiness and success in it. For myself, the greatest pleasure will derive from managing as successfully as I can to not even know it’s happening and staying immersed in the afterglow of my most overtly grateful time of year. Accomplishing that will be yet another reason for me to give thanks.
If I need any diversions during my quiet hideout from Black Friday, I can always work on a script for a rollicking thriller film with plenty of retail rowdiness and gruesome greed. Coming soon to a theatre near you!

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: After-Math

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Just for starters…don’t forget that previous meals’ leftovers can be reconstructed into the appetizers for the next meal, like what happened with the remaining bone broth ingredients that lived on after soup-making and made such a nice beef pate for Thanksgiving.

A signature of holiday cooking and eating is, logically, a host of holiday leftovers. After all, we tend to cook and eat more of everything in the first place, when holidays happen, so there’s bound to be more food around, and since most of us do fix more of our favorites on and for celebratory occasions, we’re a bit more likely to want to be careful not to waste them. Holiday leftovers are tastier than everyday ones, aren’t they.

So it is that remnants of glorious sweets will continue to lure us into the ever-so-aptly named larder and the refrigerator will, after Thanksgiving, still have some turkey lurking in it too. While a great turkey sandwich is far from restricted seasonally, the grand whole bird in its pure roasted form is less commonly perched on dinner tables outside of the Big Day, making it anything but boring to have the leftover turkey and its trimmings served without tremendous alteration at least once or twice after the party has passed.

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Red relishes are such a nice touch on holidays that when a friend said she was bringing whole cranberry sauce, I decided to add the jellied kind *and* some home-pickled beets for the trifecta.

This year, Thanksgiving at our house was both traditional and extended. Ten of us sat around the table: our musical friends from Germany (why did I write Austria, then?), Hungary, Canada, Puerto Rico, Estonia and the Netherlands as well as the US gathered with our plates of roasted turkey and a fair assortment of other treats and sweets, and though we had our feast the day before most others’, the ingredients of food, drink, and conviviality were the same, and the leftovers equally profuse. My prepped appetizers, turkey, mashed potatoes, wine/stock gravy, creamed sausage, and buttermilk cornbread (the latter two, parts of the planned southern cornbread dressing, remained separate at my husband’s request) were joined by dishes the others brought–Greek salad, squash puree, homemade whole cranberry sauce, and carrot cake and handmade Hungarian biscuits for dessert. My own dessert offerings were the apple pie and Tarte au Sucre.

The Tarte was not only a good excuse for ingesting vast quantities of fabulous dark maple syrup but, as I discovered, when it’s accompanied by salty roasted pecans it becomes a perfect inversion or deconstruction of pecan pie, another very traditional Thanksgiving treat in many homes. I made my Tarte with a crumb crust of mixed pecans and walnuts, so it was perhaps already a variation on a nut pie before the garnishing pecans even arrived on the scene. In any event, it pleased my maple-fiendish heart.

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Lightly spicy sausage in cream makes a good alternative to gravy for the turkey and potatoes, if you don’t end up putting the sausage into the cornbread dressing as you’d thought you were going to do…

The idea of creating a meal of any sort, let alone a holiday meal, for a group of ten people and coming out with everyone perfectly sated but without a jot of leftovers is, of course, more mythical than mathematical. It’s in fact ludicrously unlikely to happen, even if the ten are all people one knows intimately and whose preferences and appetites never vary–also, to be fair, a virtual impossibility–so the question of how to manage the leftovers with the best grace remains. In our house, that problem is never terribly difficult. First visitation of this year’s re-Thanksgiving was a smaller and simpler version of the original, turkey and mashed potatoes, cornbread and cranberry sauce, with a side of buttered green beans and bacon. Meanwhile, I’d already started a slow cooker full of vegetables and giblets while the turkey was roasting, and added the bones and bits afterward, so there will surely be turkey-noodle soup soon to follow.

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Thanksgiving, Round 2–and only the second of many, perhaps.

What comes after? Probably a little turkey curry or a sandwich or two, but not much more, because having grad students and young, single faculty members at table on the holiday also meant that it was rather important to see that they left with some leftovers of their own to carry them forward. Leftovers, truth be told, are really just a new beginning in their own way. Hospitality, you know, isn’t a solo; it requires participation. One person doing it all, no matter how perfectly, is not a party but a lonely and self-centered business and misses the point of the whole thing.

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Ah, do not let the focus on the main meal eclipse all of the good that can follow: a mere creamy turkey soup is a heartwarming way to honor the memory of the great meal that started it all.

Let others partake, help, contribute. And yes, do give to them: share the feast, both in the party’s environs and in the sharing of all that surpasses what was needed for the moment. And share, first and foremost, your time and attention, your companionship and humor and warmth and love. Then there should be plenty of those for leftovers, too, or all the turkey and potatoes in the world will not be enough. Much better, more filling and fulfilling, to be so hospitable that it spills over everywhere.

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The only thing better than a delicious dessert is just a little too much of it.

Abundance and Gratitude

graphite drawingAmong the essentials for a happy life, I consider the above named items some of the most meaningful. But I am often, rightly, reminded that these are as much matters of attitude as anything. Much easier, both of them, to qualify than to quantify.

Abundance, as experienced and demonstrated by many people I’ve known and seen who would be considered below a desirable economic level, is seen as having enough to survive, and just a touch to bring a guest to the table as well. That this means the main family’s subsistence is so much the sparser while a guest is on hand means little, except that the gift is commensurately so much the more generous.

For those of us with more considerable resources, I think the same attitude is worth the attempt. I should think through the difference between my actual needs and my wants, live within my means, and delight in the ability to share what I have with others. I’m not always nearly as good at this as I’d like, but think it a practice worth pursuing and improving over a lifetime.

Gratitude needn’t be limited to feeling I’m in the center of abundance, anyway. There’s no reason I shouldn’t be thankful for any and every good thing in my existence, even when the tenor of the times is set in a sparer and more trying mode. This, too, is simply a survival tactic on my part, as giving in to my dark instincts at bad times has no logical outcome but that I’d lie down and die. By choosing to actively and attentively seek out and recognize whatever kernels there are of goodness and light, I take away my focus from what lessens me and give myself a chance of relief. Better, I may see the glint of otherwise forgotten abundance, and that always makes me more grateful.digital illustration

Foodie Tuesday: Pie Eyed

photoSince we don’t always make a big deal out of holidays, my husband and I, and even when we do get the urge to celebrate we’re not huge sticklers for partying on the officially designated day or with the popularly traditional foods and events. This year we’re being a little more predictable, perhaps, by having a Thanksgiving gathering with eight musician friends. We’re doing our dinner on Wednesday rather than Thursday to accommodate schedules, but otherwise we’re being more predictable than not. There’s a big pastured turkey, spatchcocked and dry-brining, in the fridge and it’ll be accompanied by plenty of at least somewhat traditional sides and garnish treats, and most fittingly of all for this particular American holiday, we’ll have US-dwelling friends from the Netherlands, Estonia, Austria, Hungary, Puerto Rico, Canada and yes, stateside gracing our celebration with their presence. A great way to remember part of what’s best about this country and what I’m most thankful for–and not just on this holiday.

I’m going with pies for dessert. That’s the real reason for today’s post title, not that I’m planning on getting plastered to celebrate, if that’s what you were wondering. Ahem!

Apple pie, as any of you who’ve been around here for any length of time know, is not just a supremely suitable dish for the season but my spouse’s first choice for dessert any time there’s the slightest possibility of having it. Easy choice, clearly. Another thing that’s wonderfully fitting for the season and my tastebuds is maple syrup, and since we have a jug of gorgeous dark Grade-B-heaven maple syrup, a gift from another friend, just beaming at us with its heavenly come-hither look from the pantry, I deemed it a sign that I should get around to trying my hand at another pie I’ve long wanted to make, Tarte au Sucre. Here goes!

Meanwhile, there’s other stuff to get ready. Spiced apple cider is in a big pot, infusing at room temperature overnight until I heat it tomorrow. Potatoes are [literally] half-baked and will get finished on the day as well, smashed with cream and butter and a little salt before going to table next to the chicken-white wine gravy I put up last week and am storing. The appetizers of Gouda, homemade beef pate and crackers, nuts (including some Marcona almonds I set a-swim in olive oil a couple of weeks ago) and pickles–homemade beetroot pickles along with southern style pickled okra, green beans and green tomatoes–are all ready to set out as we sip some bubbly and cider for a start. Since the turkey’s ready to roast all I have to do is take that big, handsome bird out of the fridge and bring it up to room temperature right in the pan it’s in now and roast it on the rack of celery, carrots, apple chunks, cinnamon sticks and lemon pieces it’s been resting on overnight.photo

I’m using store-bought bread but will hope to have time to make our friend Jim’s southern corn bread and sausage dressing, so ridiculously tasty that when he made it for me the first time we two ate most of the batch which I later learned from the written recipe is meant to serve twelve. Not kidding you.

I’m keeping the vegetable sides exceedingly simple, serving steamed green beans with bacon I crisped up and froze earlier, plus sweet coleslaw, so those will practically make themselves, being so easy and quick. What the others bring, if anything, will be entirely a surprise, with the exception of one person saying she was likely to bring some pureed squash and cranberry sauce, either or both of which would be deliciously appropriate. All of this, regardless of whether anyone does bring more, means that we will very likely have heaps of leftovers, one of the true treasures of the occasion and certainly one of the reasons we give thanks!

I will share pictures after the fact–not much to show for the process that will thrill or impress you for now–but first I would like to share with you my wish that whether you are planning to celebrate this American holiday this week or not, you will all be blessed with immeasurable reasons yourselves to be thankful. As I am, indeed, thankful not only for my many other privileges and joys, but most of all for the wonderful people filling every corner of my life, including you, my friends in Bloglandia. Thank You!photo montage

Life is a Many-Layered thing

Maybe it’s the arrival of the cooler weather that gets me thinking such thoughts again, or maybe it’s just getting older that does the trick–either way, I’m reminded of how many good things come in layers. I’m not, of course, opposed to the idea that every layer should be happy and delicious, like some sort of mythic and epic cake with ridiculously tasty fillings of many kinds sandwiched between the already insanely delicious cake layers, and then whipped cream on top and ice cream at the side, and probably some chocolate fudge topping and salted nuts . . . but I know, too, that the plain and simple, and even sometimes the sorrowful or melancholy, can give added piquancy and sweetness to the layers of joy.

Today I am mindful of how fortunate I’ve been to have had so little of the bitter stirred in with my sweet life. I am thinking of the great gifts I’ve enjoyed in this favored existence of mine and of how many of those are directly from the generous and loving and fun and gracious people who surround me on an everyday basis, whether by being physically near to me or simply carried in my heart as they go about their ways in other parts of the world. Birthdays are, for me, another and more personal form of Thanksgiving Day, because I can’t help but be awed and delighted when I think of all of the rich and beautiful things that have been given me in my lovely life.

In this, I am layering on garments of gratitude and pleasure and happiness and adorning myself with the regal accessories of the truly blessed, because I have you, and people like you, in a great wave of support and spirited companionship that buoys me up every year, and every day, of my life.graphite drawing