Posted by Guest Blogger Kate Flora
One of the challenging things about growing up and going out on my own was deciding which family traditions I would keep, and what new traditions I would choose for myself. By the time I had children, there was annual Fourth of July picnic at the family farm, a visit to the Union Fair, a family visit over Labor Day. Family Thanksgiving. We had a year punctuated by pleasant annual events.
Now that I’m nearing that point in life where I’m solidly into middle age, even, some might argue, close to leaving it for that next stage (as someone once said—do we seriously expect to live much beyond 90?) I’m happily settled into most of my traditions. This time of year is especially heavy with ritual events. There is the annual neighborhood Christmas party, inspired (I almost hate to admit) by the great recipes and pictures in the first Martha Stewart cookbook. I do a dozen different delicious appetizers and my guests bring the desserts.
Every year, beginning right after Thanksgiving, I scour my cookbooks and cooking magazines for new recipes. I usually choose two to add to my old standards. Years ago, I used to make at least ten dozen phyllo triangles stuffed with spinach and feta and another ten dozen stuffed with curried walnut chicken. My recipe for mahogany chicken wings, a long slow ritual that takes nearly three hours and produces incredible results, came from the prosecutor of the case I write about in Finding Amy: A True Story of Murder in Maine. Pedro’s Secret, the giant taco that is so much fun to make, comes from my wise friend, Diane, who has for years helped me sort out the psychology of my bad guys. By this time in life, cooking for this party is so rich with memories that even when I’m alone, it is like being with my good friends in the kitchen.
This party has gone on so long we joke each December that if we didn’t give the party, our guests would come anyway. One December, as I was doing the last minute cooking and my husband was doing a last sweep for unsightly junk, the power went off. At twenty minutes to arrival time, we couldn’t call it off. Instead, we put sterno in the ovens to keep things warm, lit every candle we could find, and called our neighbors to borrow a camping lantern so we could see to put out the food. The house looked gorgeous and romantic and no one knew we didn’t have power until around nine p.m., when the lights suddenly came back on. Our guests insisted we turn them off, so we finished the party by candle light.
New Year’s Eve is another ritual. For more than twenty-five years, it has been mostly the same people around the table. We’ve gone through the births of our first babies, nights around the festive table when there were small babies nestled into several shoulders. Baby spit on our glamor, invisible in the candle light, and seeming to go just fine with the white linen and the gleaming silver. Babies graduated to a gaggle of small children running around excitedly, small ones who were put to bed before we brought out the feast. Over the years, just as we had our rituals, our children had theirs. It was sad when that broke up and they decided to hang out with their friends instead. There has been one divorce around the table. One New Year’s Eve when a guest had to call in from a hospital bed. But for over a quarter of a century, my New Year begins in the company of these dear friends.
Despite the planning and the schlepping and the cooking, I love all my holiday rituals and I love to hear people talk about theirs. Over the years, reading magazines and newspapers and talking to other people, I’ve discovered there is one holiday ritual I’ve never gotten to participate in—the Holiday Cookie Exchange. According to what I am told, at this event, everyone bakes a large batch of favorite or signature holiday cookies. Then all the ladies (and in my lore—the participants are female. I would love hear about how the guys do their cookies exchanges) have a nice lunch or tea and everyone goes home with some of each type of cookie, thus providing both a social occasion and a variety of cookies for the family cookie plate.
But I have never been to a cookie exchange. Recently, I was driving through my neighborhood and stopped to talk to of my neighbors who were out walking. We discussed the Christmas party, and their lost e-mail invitations, and I realized that I had to give up on my idea of being green and send out hard copy. It seemed that people’s filters had snagged my invitations.
The question of whether or not we were actually giving our party having been laid to rest, I ventured to mention to these two ladies—some of the best cooks in the neighborhood—that I hoped one year we would have a cookie exchange because I had never been to one. Eyes glowing and chins nodding, they agreed that it was a very good idea. “We’ll organize it,” they said.
Two days later I got a call that the Cookie Exchange Luncheon was on. Next week, I’m exploring a new tradition. I won’t tell them, but I’m secretly hoping that it can be added to the list of the fun things we get to do at this hectic season. I will call my mother-in-law, another great cook, for her Russian Tea Cookies. I will come home from this event with a plate full of elegant edibles. I plan, for next five weeks, to bid Dr. Atkins a fond farewell and enjoy myself.
In the midst of the chaos of shopping and hauling and wrapping and labeling and mailing and everyone getting into nasty, impatient states, I am looking forward to my rituals. My husband has a catchall term for all these gatherings that center around food. He calls them Foodevents. Someone once said that cooking for people you care about is an act of love. I believe that’s true, and I’m going to have the lovingest, most wonderful food filled season possible.
Happy Holidays, and may your Foodevents be as fun as mine.
-------------------------- Leann Sweeney returns to Writers Plot next Friday. Thanks for blogging with us, Kate!