The Worst Christmas Song – Ever

I had no idea that ranking Christmas songs (from worst to best) is all over the web, so when I saw the ranking by Alexandra Petri in the The Washington Post, I was intrigued. Petri picked “The Little Drummer Boy” as the worst ever. I beg to disagree. IMHO the worst Christmas song ever is John Denver’s “Please Daddy Don’t Get Drunk This Christmas.” What was he thinking?

If only John and I could have a conversation, I’d say…

“Oh, John, you were such an important part of my young life. How I loved “Rocky Mountain High,” “Annie’s Song,” “I Guess He’d Rather Be In Colorado,” “Sunshine on My Shoulders.”

Your lyrics to “Rhymes and Reasons” still resound today – especially during this on-Covid-alert holiday season:

So you speak to me of sadness
And the coming of the winter
Fear that is within you now
It seems to never end

For the children and the flowers
Are my sisters and my brothers
Their laughter and their loveliness
Could clear a cloudy day

And the song that I am singing
Is a prayer to non believers
Come and stand beside us
We can find a better way

And, John, I’m sure we’d all agree that your songs were generally a little schmaltzy, a little philosophical, kinda sweet – and usually uplifting. Yet the song you wrote that will stay with me forever is Leaving on a Jet Plane” (“I’m leaving on a jet plane; don’t know when I’ll be back again”). You recorded it in 1969, and in March of that year Andy and I hugged and kissed and cried and said good-bye to each other at the San Francisco airport; I flew back to Colorado and he flew to Vietnam for the start of his one year of service there. We were practically newlyweds. So I guess it’s not surprising that both Andy and I tear up and get goosebumps when we hear that song – even now more than 50 years later.

Lyrics from Denver’s “Leaving on a Jet Plane

I was getting my holiday music organized the other day (I traditionally begin overwhelming Andy with my Christmas song tracks on the day after Thanksgiving) and was humming this one…and that one…and inadvertently started humming The Worst Christmas Song – Ever. The lyrics are brutal and sad and anything but Christmasy.

Why in god’s name did you record “Please Daddy Don’t Get Drunk This Christmas,” John? We found out after you died in that plane crash that you had a dark side most of us weren’t aware of, so maybe that explains a little. But you first recorded this in 1973, when it seemed you were on top of the world. Didn’t you realize how dreadful that song was – and how wrong for the holiday season?”

I guess we all have dark sides. In today’s Andy’s Corner we get a closer look at the dark bark side of Wynn, our 5-month-old Cardigan Welsh Corgi.

Now – to lift our holiday spirits – and to counter John’s depressing song – I’d like to propose a toast…and hope that a toast is not inappropriate under the circumstances. Here’s to holiday Mocktails!

Fresh Cranberry Mocktail

Fresh Cranberry Mocktail

Rather than using the “Fresh Cranberry Sauce” in this recipe for the drink, you could substitute some of the syrup from our BigLittleMeals Brandied and Baked Cranberries recipe.  Because it’s more intense, use only 1/2 oz of the cranberry syrup and then top with 2 1/2 oz of orange juice and then tonic water. It will still be a mocktail, since most of the alcohol content will have been lost in the long-baking process.

Fresh Cranberry Sauce

  • 10 – 12 oz package of fresh cranberries
  • 1 c sugar
  • 1 c water
In a medium sized saucepan add the cranberries, sugar and water and simmer over medium heat.
After 5 minutes, cover the pan with the lid as the berries begin to burst. Turn off the heat, allow them to cool.
Grind them in a blender and strain it to collect the smooth fresh cranberry sauce. (you’ll need to use a big spoon to press and stir the mixture to force it through the strainer.  The result will be a thick mixture – not syrupy)

For the Holiday Cranberry Mocktail

  • 1 oz strained fresh cranberry sauce (see above)
  • 2 oz fresh orange juice 
  • tonic water – or sparkling water (which will be less sweet)
  • mint leaves – for garnish
  • lemon or lime slices – for garnish
  • fresh cranberries – for garnish

Pour 1 oz of cranberry syrup into each glass, followed by ice cubes.

Pour 2 oz of fresh orange juice and then top it with the desired amount of tonic water.

Garnish with cranberries and mint leaves.

Recipe brought to you by BigLittleMeals.com and Andy and Ann.

 

 

It’s Not So Cheesy

I think I discovered the poetry of Billy Collins when I saw this TED talk: Two Poems About What Dogs Think (Probably). You have to watch the whole thing, since the 2nd poem is the best – or the worst – depending upon your sense of humor and love of anything acerbic…or your love – or maybe dislike – of dogs.

Billy Collins, who is now 80, was Poet Laureate of the U.S. from 2001-2003. During those years, he created “Poetry 180” through the Library of Congress. Collins picked 180 poems that he felt would appeal to high school students and which, he suggested, could be read or listened to at the beginning of the school day…following announcements.

There are lots of great poems to read on that list, even if you’re not a teenager, but this one especially appealed to me:

At department parties, I eat cheeses
my parents never heard of—gooey 
pale cheeses speaking garbled tongues.
I have acquired a taste, yes, and that's
okay, I tell myself. I grew up in a house
shaded by the factory's clank and clamor.
A house built like a square of sixty-four
American Singles, the ones my mother made lunches
With—for the hungry man who disappeared
into that factory, and five hungry kids.
American Singles. Yellow mustard. Day-old 
Wonder Bread. Not even Swiss, with its mysterious
holes. We were sparrows and starlings
still learning how the blue jay stole our eggs,
our nest eggs. Sixty-four Singles wrapped in wax—
dig your nails in to separate them.

When I come home, I crave—more than any home
cooking—those thin slices in the fridge. I fold
one in half, drop it in my mouth. My mother
can't understand. Doesn't remember me
being a cheese eater, plain like that. 

- Jim Daniels

Cheese is also the topic of today’s Andy’s Corner. Or I should say “fromage” is his focus?

Of course, I remember Kraft American Cheese slices, but cheese nostalgia for me would be Bond-ost. Focusing on her Swedish heritage, my mom would make a special effort to get to Denver to buy Bond-Ost for our holidays. And it had to be the one with caraway seeds. She’d pair it with knäckebröd or limpa, which is a wonderful, slightly-sweet Swedish rye bread (will my Thanksgiving guests ever be surprised when they get that nontraditional pairing for our November 25th dinner!).

I’m guessing American Cheese slices will not be part of many holiday menus. In fact, recent articles bemoan the fact that Millennials are “killing” American cheese, by demanding fancier varieties, though a great quote from this Time (via Bloomberg) article states “American cheese will never die. It has too many preservatives” (my apologies to my cousin-in-law who was a VP at Kraft for years and enthusiastically supported and shared their cheeses).

So, as we – apparently – say good-by to the packs of “Kraft 64 American Cheese Singles,” I’d like to offer up this nostalgic recipe for Easy Mac ‘n Cheese. You can buy several packs of the cheese slices now – before they’re gone from the shelves – and then make the recipe…say within the next 10 years or so, since the cheese should still be good (just kiddin’…sort of!).

In addition to this Mac n’ Cheese, here are some other recommendations for your Thanksgiving dinner:

Spiced Pine Nuts, Pecans, and Pumpkin Seeds
Sweet Potato and Pomegranate Salad
Super Simple Sage-y Roasted Turkey Breast
-Southern Cornbread Dressing
Brandied and Baked Cranberries
Green Beans with Ginger and Garlic
Pumpkin Creme Brûlée

And, of course, follow Thanksgiving day with this fabulous leftover Turkey Bone Gumbo.

Enjoy!

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Νεφελοκοκκυγία

Penguin Books cover for their publication of Aristophanes’ The Birds and Other Plays

Νεφελοκοκκυγία, should you need the title translated, is Ancient Greek for “Cloud Cuckoo Land,” an overly-optimistic, fantasy-like utopia in the sky, first described in Aristophanes’ drama The Birds and now the title of a new novel by Anthony Doerr. If you need help translating this title from Korean – 오징어 게임 (hope I got it right) – it’s Squid Game, the new huge hit on Netflix. Ted Lasso, translated from British English, is American English for Ted Lasso. What do those three very, very diverse works have in common? Well, they’ve been on our To-Watch/To-Read list during these last months of pandemic-related isolation. And because I’m always looking for food tie-ins, I zeroed in on these three possibilities.

First I thought a Ted Lasso Biscuit recipe (“biscuit,” when translated from British English to American English, means cookie) was perfect to blog about, but I’ve already blogged about a fabulous biscuit/cookie/shortbread. Clearly, a squid recipe in honor of The Squid Game would have been spot on, but I’ve never fixed squid – and quite possibly have never eaten it; I could have tried Dalgona candy, but that seems to be usually a store-bought, not homemade, treat.

My kind of squid

Maybe some food from Cloud Cuckoo Land? In the first chapter we’re introduced to Konstance, a 14-year-old, who is on a space ship fleeing the earth – which has been ravaged by climate change. The mother-like character on the ship frets that Konstance isn’t eating enough and offers her a “nice risotto.” You’ll have to read the book to find out how you do risotto on a space ship – but that line made the final decision about our blog recipe quite easy. We’d do risotto!

Besides, as it turns out, we watched about 10 minutes of Squid Game before I covered my eyes and screamed to Andy to “TURN IT OFF!” And Ted Lasso – after adoring Season 1 – mostly disappointed us with Season 2. But I just finished Anthony Doerr’s Cloud Cuckoo Land and loved it.

Anthony Doerr

An NPR review of the book comments that “the greatest joy in it comes from watching the pieces snap into place. It is an epic of the quietest kind, whispering across 600 years in a voice no louder than a librarian’s. It is a book about books, a story about stories. It is tragedy and comedy and myth and fable and a warning and a comfort all at the same time. It says, Life is hard. Everyone believes the world is ending all the time. But so far, all of them have been wrong.”

Anthony Doerr’s own website has an interview with him in which he is asked what he hopes readers will take away from Cloud Cuckoo Land. I love Doerr’s response:

I hope readers are reminded of our myriad interconnections: with our ancestors, with our neighbors, with other species, with all the kids yet to be born. I believe that the more we can remember how much we’re all in the same boat—the more we can train ourselves to imagine, recognize, and remember our connections—with the bacteria in our guts, the birds outside our windows, the meals on our plates, and the children in our futures—the better off we’ll be.

With Thanksgiving coming up soon, I think we should all give thanks for such gifted, introspective, and thoughtful writers in our midst.

Before I move on to our risotto recipe and a couple of Thanksgiving suggestions, I should point out that today’s Andy’s Corner also acknowledges that life is hard…perhaps not as eloquently as Anthony Doerr, but maybe with more humor.

Now for Thanksgiving: my family is hotly debating the menu, which is not surprising given that we’re a bunch of foodies. Turkey is the main talking point, since it’s so difficult – if not impossible – to roast the perfect turkey. This year I’m buying ours from Sonoma’s Slow Food Heritage Turkey Project. As an old (in so many ways) 4-H-er and as a believer in avoiding mass-produced meat if financially possible, I’m looking forward to that part of our meal and will be using a dry-brined technique on it.

Though we’ve voted to stick with a traditional menu this year, I’d encourage you to get wild and crazy and break away from the fixation on mashed potatoes and stuffing and gravy and yams. And I’d encourage you to simplify the menu as much as possible. What about doing this super-simple risotto, using it to replace the labor intensive mashed potatoes and ubiquitous green beans? You can still make gravy to enhance the probably-dry turkey :). In all honesty, if you believe you can serve a perfect Thanksgiving meal with perfect food and perfect guests, I believe you’re in Cloud Cuckoo Land!

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Are You Missing Collective Effervescence?

Ono, Choco, Oakley, and Wynn – our cats and dogs – have been our only dinner companions of late.

We recently had a group of human friends to dinner here in Glen Ellen. There were 7 of us, 2 from Madrid, Spain, 2 from Medford, Oregon, and 1 from Los Altos, California – and Andy and me. Getting ready for this dinner seemed unusually stressful for me. It’s not that the guests were unfamiliar. I’ve known the women for 59 years. It’s not that I never give dinner parties (see our blog about Dining In). Rather it’s that I haven’t given a real dinner party for almost 2 years!

There’s been so much in the news lately about what I just experienced. Getting back “in the groove” and meeting up with folks after our long Covid isolation doesn’t necessarily come easily but it’s so necessary. This NYTimes Opinion piece helps explain it all: “Post-Covid Happiness Comes in Groups.”

This NYTimes essay also caught my attention because I thought I could one-up Andy, the Sociologist, with this blog and refer to one of the most famous sociologists of all time, Émile Durkheim. Durkheim was the one who coined the term referred to in the article – “collective effervescence.” Instead of being in awe of my sociological awareness, Andy in today’s Andy’s Corner, ignores sociology and focuses on cinematography.

The essay’s writer, Adam Grant, a psychologist teaching at Wharton, summarizes it this way: We find our greatest bliss in moments of collective effervescence. It’s a concept coined in the early 20th century by the pioneering sociologist Émile Durkheim to describe the sense of energy and harmony people feel when they come together in a group around a shared purpose. Collective effervescence is the synchrony you feel when you slide into rhythm with strangers on a dance floor, colleagues in a brainstorming session, cousins at a religious service or teammates on a soccer field. And during this pandemic, it’s been largely absent from our lives.

Lots of collective effervescence at our friend’s recent Boulder, Colorado, 50th birthday party!

Even if we need the energy and harmony that being with others provides, getting back to socializing seems to be causing anxiety for lots of us – not just dinner-party-givers but also dinner-party-guests. There’s lots in the news about this phenomena.

These wedding guests don’t appear to be experiencing post-Covid anxiety as they enjoy their collective effervescence. Which makes me wonder: do women possibly experience collective effervescence more than men? You can get a glimpse of our grandson Moss – in a long-sleeved white shirt – toward the back of the dancers at this recent Oregon wedding reception.

Though the article references singing in choruses, running in races, or participating in yoga classes as activities that bring about collective effervescence, I have no doubt that dinner parties do the same thing. After our recent dinner party, my Madrid friend emailed a sweet thank-you with the comment, “I haven’t laughed so much for quite some time.”

So here’s my recommendation for getting your dinner-party groove back. Make everything ahead of time and keep it all simple. SIMPLE. Then when the evening and guests arrive, you can kick back and laugh and enjoy every bit of the long-absent collective effervescence. And your being relaxed will relax your guests. It’s a win win situation.

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Random Acts of Kindness

A pathetic plant (a choisya?) at our house. Should I plant it? Give it away? Or throw it away?

I consider myself a “plant person,” and, admittedly, we have more plants around here than normal people need. Some plants are in the ground, some are in pretty decorative pots, some are in their nursery pots, still waiting to be planted, and, sadly, some are near death AND still in their nursery pots because I’ve had them so long. But I do occasionally get on a Marie Kondo kick and want to get rid of unnecessary things. When that happens we put our unwanted plants out on our little dirt street with a “FREE!” sign.

Today I heard someone walking up our front, creaky, wooden steps and then walking back down, without ever having knocked. I went to the front window, a little puzzled, and caught a glimpse of our neighbor from down the street, walking away from our house. When I opened the front door, there was a thank-you card and a bag of Lindt Lindor Chocolate Truffles.

Our neighbor’s oh-so-sweet and random act of kindness was a little “thank-you” for all the plants she’s acquired from our “FREE” spot. And for being good neighbors (I’m humming Mister Rogers’ “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” as I type this).

If you haven’t figured this out yet, I’m a pretty cynical person. So when I looked up “random acts of kindness” and was bombarded with list after list after list of icky sweet things we might do, I almost lost my enthusiasm for the concept.

Chalk encouraging words to runners and bikers on their path.”

Give your husband a coupon for ‘You Get To Pick the Movie Night!'”

Pay for the car behind you in a drive-thru.”

Draw a picture for a friend.”

“Return a grocery cart.” (really – does this qualify as an act of kindness?!)

This may be the silliest: “Hide money in random places for strangers to find.”

So, I decided to turn to friends and family for better examples or ideas of what random, special things they’ve done or received. Here’s what I got back:

Dropped off loaves of homemade sourdough bread for a bunch of Brooklyn friends

Posted a glowing Yelp review for a favorite massage spot in SF which has struggled during the pandemic – and whose owner is older and “tiny but so strong and sweet and lovely and good.”

Received some Magnolia cupcakes (for those of you who aren’t in NYCthat’s a yummy bakery) as a surprise for me and my workers – from co-workers in another store.

Wrote and mailed a little note, remembering the one-year-anniversary of a special get-together

The best thing I can take credit for is recently retrieving a can of tomatoes off a very high shelf at the Sonoma Market for a short lady. I was especially pleased with myself, because it usually works the other way around. This was a short lady helping a very short lady. I felt empowered and kind at the same time.

NYC’s Magnolia Bakery’s Red Velvet Cupcakes (to make your own Red Velvet Cupcakes to give away, try our recipe)
This list from the UK’s Mental Health Foundation isn’t all bad – even for us cynics.

Our recipes for today offer two possibilities: you can make the candy – pralines or halvah, package them prettily, and offer them up to someone special as a random act of kindness (highly recommended) – or you can make them and eat them yourself for fear that someone might take your kind gesture wrong. See today’s Andy’s Corner for more on that.

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