I am on a retreat – a personal retreat, in fact – this coming week to spend it on quiet reflection at my cabin in the thickly wooded forest, among the fragrant pines, chirping birds, and elusive fauna.
This will bring a week of no newspapers, no radio, no television, no Internet. Quiet, peaceful, detached from the craziness of the world, I will be embracing welcoming calm and sanity among the changing leaves, singing birds, and crisp December weather with pen, paper, laptop, camera, and a perhaps I will crack open a classic book.
I will be scheduling a few posts in my absence this week in the meantime, so I will be here in a odd sort of way.
In the chapter which I will present today, the “future” mostly concerns this month of December 2021.
December becomes a month of parties and get-togethers and quiet evenings and quiet reflection, especially in my part of the countryside. I enjoy both, though I mostly enjoy the serene solitude of low-key festivities.
The diner in my neck of the woods – the one in which I have written much about – is hosting several Holiday functions. There are the Christmas menus and parties in the Great Hall with two seatings on Christmas Eve, and the lighting of the Christmas tree by Santa. Then, at the end of the month, there is the choice of a New Year’s Eve dinner, a New Year’s Eve dinner and celebration, and just the New Year’s Eve champaign celebration.
We, my best friend and I, are attending one of the above-mentioned festivities. To attend all of them would break the bank, as it were. For what the diner is charging, it does bring into question the cost of the catering company the management uses. However, one celebratory event is enough for something close by.
While deciding upon which of these events to attend, my best friend and I decided that we will also go to other places around the town. Mind as well spread the wealth.
We went out two nights ago for dinner. It was a last-minute decision, but sometimes doing something on a whim is most delightful. We found ourselves at a local, in-town Mexican restaurant. One of us had a taco plate (two very small beef tacos with a small amount of frijoles and arroz), and the other had three small enchiladas con mole with the same small amount of frijoles and arroz. Now, bear in mind that the amount of frijoles and arroz was no more than a quarter cup (two ounces) apiece. All that was $14 a plate.
Our clue that the prices jumped as high as they did were the menus. They felt newly laminated and stiff in the spine. And, of course, initially reading the menu revealed that the items were no longer at the prices to which we had been accustomed.
We understand that everything – everything – is rising in price, and most exponentially. While this is going to be impacting everyone’s lives over the next several years, my friend and I decided that we will be adjusting our spending to include more parties and dinners at home.
That makes for lovely, cozy evenings in front of the fireplace.
One of my friends related a story to me the other day about a young woman she recently observed in the ladies’ room.
It appeared that this young woman was agitated and stewing in front of the mirror by the sinks. She kept complaining, muttering to herself that she kept muttering that she was “doing eyebrow pencil wrong” and her eyebrows looked “hideous.”
To look at her, my friend said, there was nothing obviously “wrong.” Everything to the observer looked very right in place: hair, clothing, jewelry, lipstick, including the eyebrows.
Perfect, in fact.
So, what was the fuss and bother about looking so outwardly perfect? Is that where beauty matters?
Where does real beauty remain? Where does it lie, really?
I was sitting in front of the fireplace last night, the flames crackling and flickering, its heat toasting my toes, when I thought of the days of long ago, when The Age of Aquarius promised to appear just over the horizon, and peace and harmony would prevail across the globe.
Now, the Age of Mars seemed to have taken hold. But I digress—
It was a time of seasonal parties not so many years ago during The Age of Aquarius, when the office gatherings, joy and goodwill, and great food prevailed. Those were good times, I thought as I threw another log on the fire.
Most of all, I was musing last night about office parties and the delicacies offered, where Mavis’s cheese ball was de rigueur, and Harold from Accounting tippled a bit too much from the plastic punchbowl.
These daytime office parties began the Monday after Thanksgiving. Every day one could find some office – there were offices on all three floors of our three-winged building – that at least offered Saltine® crackers topped with Cheese Whiz® or that questionable American cheese slices.
As the Holiday season progressed, the food became fancier, more thought-out, and more decadent. Those early-Season crackers and cheese eventually became Ritz® crackers topped with wine-infused cheddar cheese spread.
Ah – but there was more!
Lunchmeat platters, spiked punch with floating scoops of sherbet, homemade cookies, homemade sweet potato pies, dips, appetizers, and more.
As the years progressed, and the HR Department hired more and more people from overseas, the Holiday foods became more interesting. There was hummus, stuffed Medjool dates, Asian foods more complex than the familiar sweet and sour chicken, Burmese spring rolls, falafel, tabouleh, baba ghanouj, and sweet, sweet baklava. And that’s just to give you a rough idea of the new foods we discovered.
But what is most interesting and makes me happy, is that these “new” office party foods were homemade, not mass-produced in some factory and warmed up in the microwave.
No, these were honest-to-goodness homemade delights.
Unfortunately, the powers-that-be put the kibosh on spiked punch and sparkling wine at our office parties, including mandating the banishment of such Holiday greetings as “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Hannukah.” In their place, all we could say was “Happy Holidays” and please pass the 7-Up.
But we all wished everyone, right out in the open, a “Merry Christmas” and whatever holiday a co-worker observed.
Political correctness be damned.
Then we’d go out for a little drinkie-poo at a local lounge after work.
My date and I headed to our local on-site diner for Thanksgiving dinner. It promised to be a classy affair, with doting waitstaff, a sophisticated menu, and atmosphere.
We reserved a table for two days ahead of time. We pulled out our holiday finery from our closets. We polished our shoes. And the day came.
We were seated on the tavern side, for it appeared that the fireplace dining room was filled. The tables were covered with black tablecloths, salt and pepper shakers, and a small bowls of canned cranberries. Hanging on the corners were television sets playing an endless loop of snowfalls. Christmas carols played over the speakers.
Our first course was a starter of a shrimp and spinach stuffed portobello mushroom topped with a questionable white clump of what looked like cheese. I think.
Next came the Tossed Thanksgiving Salad, a concoction of arugala and what looked like dandelion leaves. On the side was a plastic container filled with Apple Cider Viniagrette, and a once-frozen baked bread roll.
My date and I decided to order an Old Fashioned cocktail. After all, it was Thanksgiving, and a cocktail would fit the bill.
Then came what the diner touted as the accoutrements: Traditional Stuffing, Sweet Potato Casserole, Green Bean Casserole, and Garlic Mashed Potatoes. Each to me was overly salted, as if the cook was hiding something. I did not eat the Sweet Potato Casserole because of the (bleh) marshmallows in it, and the obviously ton of brown sugar mixed in.
On the same plate was what was called “The Feast.” Roasted Free Range Turkey, and Brown Sugar and Bourbon Glazed Ham. Again, both meats were heavily salted, and the turkey definitely was processed, pressed meat.
Dessert was Homemade Apple Cobbler, super sugary and topped with a squirt of canned whipped cream. I ate a few of the apple slices that I could find under the whipped dairy product and sugar-flour crumb topping.
The funniest part of this event is that the diner touts a chef – a real live, honest-to-goodness chef who brings out all the guns on his menu-planning and originality. I am convinced the diner uses a catering company and short order cook to warm it up, as I wrote about in “Chez Erstatz.”/
I do believe that next year we will either dine at a better restaurant, or just cook at home, which will give us a less processed, less salty, and less sugary dining encounter.
Fourteen people. One turkey, two ducks, and all the accompaniments, desserts, and Mogen David wine. Add five dogs and an elusive cat (who all thankfully get along), and my friends’ home was alive and merry. Thank goodness for their outside kitchen and grill to help with the cooking. And somehow, in all the organized chaos and merry making, we managed to fit all fourteen of us in the dining room!
What fun it was to catch up with each other’s lives, reminisce about the Old Neighborhood (for some of us) and relate stories of new neighborhoods, our jobs, hobbies, travels, books, this year’s movies, and almost unbelievable current events.
After dinner, a few of the fellas watched the Bears-Lions game or compared car engines in the driveway, while the rest of us either played backgammon, Scrabble, or just floated in the pool and kibitzed. One interesting thing I noticed was that no one was glued to their devices, just an occasional FaceTime hello or an answer to a text or two. Otherwise, everyone was engaged without that distraction.
As evening approached, out came the card tables, poolside, and all the leftovers were available for us grazers. This is when we all exchanged our Christmas grab bag gifts. Entertaining! (Can you blame me for being overly excited to get that vintage edition of the Ben Hecht book I’ve eyed for months?) Next door neighbors walked over to say hello just as the sun set.
It’s back to the party now; Gene’s 3-Piece Jazz Combo is getting ready to play (Gene on bass, Willie Cole on drums, and Sebastian Stuart (a.k.a. Stuart Sebastian) on keyboard. Yeah, I forgot to bring my mandolin (there’s always *something* I forget, you know!) The colorful electric Chinese lanterns are lit, and we’re reveling in the starlit sky and gentile undulating sounds of the water.
There’s a Yiddish saying that one good friend is better than ten relatives. Sometimes, that is truer than not. Though I wouldn’t give up on a few of my relatives, my friends are my precious choices.
One finds it amusing that the local diner touts a “chef.”
The powers-that-be promote that “chef” as working hard at developing menus and special holiday dinners, intimating that he is pouring over his collected notes and recipes from Le Cordon Bleu. One gets the idea that “Chef” hand cuts his own sides of beef, pulls fresh green beans from the back garden, and uses his mandolin to prepare Potatoes Charlotte.
It is further amusing that when one discovers that other comparable restaurants and country clubs in the area have very similar everyday and holiday menus.
Is it really more of the truth that the “chef” at the diner is no more than a short order cook who orders from caterers and warms up most foods?
Hence, when “Chef” is swooned over and bragged about by the Saturday night diehard patrons, do those patrons know that they are really complimenting the food service company? I further opine that Cookie Jowls at Camp Swampy is more of a chef than that diner’s kitchen.
Upon further ponderings, I then chuckle at the drooling going on for “Chef” by the Saturday Night Crowd. I suppose with some people it doesn’t take much to fool them into thinking they moved up from a mundane, average existence to such a weak imitation of a lofty and pseudo sophisticated Camelot.
It was early evening, and the sun was just starting to set, its rays shining weakly through my library windows. I was sitting in my grandfather’s leather wing chair, and a crackling fire on the hearth quickly took the chill out of the air. Me and my friend, The Cat, were talking about this and that. I took a sip from my Kentucky bourbon, then mentioned to The Cat that the country loses money every year, and she replied, “Well, what utter nonsense”, as she licked her front paw and paused a moment. “The politicians shouldn’t get paid then, unless the country makes money.”
(With a nod to Loudon Wainwright III and Jackie Mason; thanks for the inspiration.)
We were talking the other evening, my best friend and I, and our philosophical conversation on life and its meaning brought us to the topic of cats and their supposed nine lives.
My best friend asked, “As cats have ostentatiously boast of having nine lives, what if people had the same luxury? Would we be able to fix the wrongs and mistakes along the way? Or would we be required to repeat the hell we created in our first life, over and over again, eight more times?”