Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Confessions of a Christmas Tree Nut --The Sequel

(Too much still to do, too little time, so I'm re-posting this five-year-old essay about my Christmas trees.  It  still applies--I've got those four trees up now.   But this year I expanded my tree collection, adding two more trees, just as I threatened in the original post.  In the living room, near the large real tree, is a small white one with some of the handmade ornaments I bought in Mexico and India.  And in the family room, a small green tree has appeared decorated with the forest creatures I've collected, mostly made out of twigs and straw and wood.  I couldn't resist giving them a tree of their own.  And I keep thinking of new tree themes for next year.  As for the Christmas cards, about half or them are in the mail and the other half will be late--as usual.)

Right now I should be addressing Christmas cards but I'm in the grip of my seasonal craziness which involves decorating...lots...of...trees.  Each with a theme.  In every room. Well, not EVERY room because my husband has started to crack down on that--especially in his office, despite the lovely all white (sprayed snow and icicles and pine cones) tree I did one year.  It shed.

Above is the Woodland Creatures tree, new for 2015, made up mostly of ornaments I got from Pier One (all at least 30 per cent off, because it's the last minute.) I just couldn't resist these rustic little animals and birds made mostly of twigs and straw and natural products.(The star on top is a tiny starfish.)  The gold stars seem to be made of twigs--I cut apart a Pier One garland to get them. Click on the photos to enlarge them.

And here below is the little white tree I decorated with my hammered, painted tin ornaments  from Mexico and the lacquer-on-wood (I think) ornaments from India.

The Mexican tin ornaments are wonderfully crude and folk-y and the Indian ones are so  carefully detailed and elegant, so each country really should each have its own tree.

There's even a Mexican nativity scene of tin.  I love the clay angel at upper left sucking its toe.  And I love the Indian sets of three camels and three elephants.

At Thanksgiving 2015, with the help of kids and guests at the tree-trimming open house on Saturday night before Nicolas's baptism, we decorated the four trees that I always have. And here they are (in photos from 2010, but they look much the same in 2015).

The Real Tree goes in the living room.    I usually pick a color scheme, and this year went with silver and white, with the only color coming from some crazy peacock ornaments I got from Pier One.

With the peacocks, I also used lots of white butterflies (from the Dollar Store) and white birds and angel wings, so I guess the theme of the wonderful-smelling Real Tree this year would be wings.

In the dining room I always put a wire tree to show off my antique ornaments.  And I put a wire from the tree to the window latch so that it (hopefully) can't get knocked over.  You can see that we don't have snow yet in Massachusetts, unlike Minnesota, but we will soon.

Some of these ornaments are reproductions, but most are the real thing.  My grandmother had a whole tree decorated with blown-glass birds with those spun glass tails and often a metal clip to hold it on the tree.  I really love the fragile teapots once sold at every Woolworth's for pennies. They cost a lot more now.  The blown-glass ornaments usually say "West Germany" on the metal cap.  The  glass ornaments that were once screw-in light bulbs were made in Japan between 1930 and 1950 and are a lot less likely to break.

In the library I always put my Shoe Tree, which started when the Metropolitan Museum in New York first started selling ornaments based on shoes in their collections.  
This became a kind of mania and now I can't afford to buy the newest ones from the Museum, but I've added lots of cunning real (baby-sized) shoes, and people keep giving me more.  My favorites on this tree are the Chinese baby shoes that look like cats and the fur-lined baby moccasins and the tiny Adidas sneakers. 

On the porch I've put the  Kitchen Tree, or Cookie and Candy Tree.  This was inspired by some friends who live in a tiny apartment and decorate their tree only with cookies and candy and pretzels and candy canes.  Then, when Christmas is over, they put it all outside for the birds and other New York fauna to enjoy.

As you can see, I've cheated quite a bit--adding ornaments that look like kitchen utensils and non-edible gingerbread men and peppermints.  An authentic Kitchen Tree should have chains of real popcorn and cranberries (which we did back when I had children small enough to enjoy stringing them.)

Last year  Trader Joe's sold little gingerbread men with holes already punched in their heads so I could string them on the tree, but this year the gingerbread men are frosted but the holes are missing, so I just  stabbed them with the wire hooks and it worked fine (and any that broke, I ate, of course. They taste better frosted.)
That's four trees so far (six in 2015!)-- and I haven't  shown you my Santa Claus collection and the miniature town in the bay window in the kitchen and the many creche scenes we have from around the world....But let's face it, I have to get back to those Christmas cards.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Who Wore the Turkey Hat?

 Last week we had the best Thanksgiving ever.  We say that every year, but this was really the best for several reasons:  There were two new baby faces at the table—our seven-month-old grandson Nicolas Jose Baltodano Gage, and Efro and Sy Suire’s six-week- old son Stone.  (Efro is the daughter of Eleni Nikolaides who lives with us and she grew up like a sibling to our kids.)

Here is a picture of the two new moms comparing their babies’ weight to the 15-pound turkey.  Stone, at nine pounds, was out-weighed by the bird, but Nicolas, at a pudgy 18 pounds, took the prize.

And Efro and Sy posed for a family shot with baby Stone and new grandmother Eleni Nikolaides.

Another new face at the table was Carmen Oyanguren, mother of Emilio, mother-in-law to our daughter Eleni, and co-grandmother of Amalia and Nicolas with me.  She’s at the left in the photo above.  We remarked on the fact that there is no word in English for our relationship to each other except for the non-specific “in laws”, but in Greek, Carmen is my “sympethera” and in Spanish my “consuegra”.  In the photo, daughter Marina looks dashing in the coveted turkey hat which has become part of our Thanksgiving tradition.

Another reason this Thanksgiving was extra special is that everyone pitched in and used their talents for the holiday table. Granddaughter Amalia made the turkey place cards from a kit…

and her little brother Nicolas tried to eat his.

Amalia also decorated the pumpkin pie with candy corn, while her Aunt Marina fixed her hair.

Eleni cooked a Spinach Gratin, while, in the background, “Big Eleni” Nikolaides is making her famous chestnut stuffing.

And Marina made a persimmon salad with toasted almonds.

Early in the morning, Big Eleni and Amalia set up the Christmas village in the kitchen’s bay window.

Later that night Nicolaki practiced standing up by himself….

And his Abuela Carmen taught him to play the maracas.

And although he couldn’t eat a turkey leg, because he only has three teeth, Nicolas had his moment of glory wearing the turkey hat.

Next Thanksgiving, we promised, both he and Amalia will get a drumstick.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Thanksgiving for Dummies (And a Lazy Grandma)

I'm reprinting this Thanksgiving post from past years with apologies and some revisions, because this year is a special case. Thanksgiving on Thursday will be followed by a tree-trimming party on Saturday night for thirty-some people who will have come from out of town to attend the giant Greek baptism of our new little grandson Nicolas on Sunday.   So you can see why my annual Thanksgiving frenzy is doubled this year.  I'll report next week on how well my sneaky shortcuts for getting through the holidays worked out. 

Just back from New York--deep into my annual pie baking panic before the kids fly and drive in and we sit down to a Thanksgiving table set for 12, including four-year-old granddaughter Amalia.  Last year  she made me promise that we'll bake an "orange pie" together, which I took to mean a pumpkin pie.  (Pies pictured above are from Thanksgiving two years ago, when I was more organized.) 

 Amalia and I are going to make gingerbread people from tubes of dough bought at the supermarket--all ready to be rolled and cut into shapes and baked.  I'll punch holes in the tops of the figures when they're warm from the oven and at the Saturday tree-trimming party, the kids in the group can have a cookie-decorating table to themselves and take their gingerbread people home as ornaments for their own trees.

For 45 years I’ve been streamlining Thanksgiving cooking  every year because I’m lazy, and my Greek relatives still don’t realize that my special cornbread stuffing comes out of a package (slightly doctored up.)  They spend days making their Greek stuffing, which includes chestnuts, hamburger and a lot of other good things.  Amalia's honorary Grandma, "Yiayia" Eleni Nikolaides, will be making it for our table this year. (And her new little grandson, Stone, will be celebrating his first Thanksgiving with us, as will our 7-month-old grandson Nicolas.)  Of course everyone prefers the Greek stuffing, but I still make my cornbread stuffing, because it’s “tradition.” 

Every Thanksgiving I try a different apple pie recipe in the hopes of finding the prize-winning pie that will bring tears (of joy, not sorrow)  to my family’s eyes.  This year I've finished baking two pies and am ordering a pecan pie and an apple pie from a wonderful new bakery that popped up next to my hairdresser's in Westborough, MA.  It's called "Yummy Mummy" and has addictively delicious brownies all year round.

I just finished making a Chocolate-Kahlua pie that  has somehow become a staple of our Thanksgiving.  When I make a pumpkin pie—which is really fast and easy…(just take the recipe off the pumpkin can)—I decorate the top with a circle of candy corn left from Halloween. Or Cinnamon Praline Pecans.  It's Amalia's job to put the candied pecans or candy corn decoratively on the pie.

Amalia wore her turkey dress to the Thanksgiving show at her school on Tuesday
 Nowadays magazines and ads on TV make much of the young wife and mother terrified by the complexities of roasting a turkey and serving Thanksgiving dinner to a crowd. I think the whole thing has been vastly over-complicated by the media. So I’m going to share some sneaky shortcuts for a super-easy Thanksgiving.

The Turkey—don’t stuff it! A turkey roasted with the stuffing inside takes much longer and then you have all those risks of food poisoning if you leave the turkey and stuffing unrefrigerated long after taking it out of the oven. Stuffing baked in the turkey comes out soggy. I prepare my stuffing on top of the stove.The directions are on the back of the Pepperidge Farm Corn Bread Stuffing package—Melt 6 TBSP butter in a saucepan, add a cup of chopped celery and a cup of chopped onions, cook for 3 minutes. (Then I throw in sliced mushrooms and maybe this year chopped apples and cook some more. You could also add chopped chestnuts or pecans and crumbled bacon or sausage.) When everything is softened, you throw in 2 1/2 cups water or broth  and add the stuffing mix, stir and you’re all done.

As for the turkey—I always get a fresh turkey, even though it costs more, so as not to have to defrost it for days and then find it still frozen on Thanksgiving morn.  I get mine from a nearby Wegman's and bought the organic kind, which cost five times as much as the non-organic kind, but I justified the expense to myself and a sticker-shocked husband by saying the turkey was free range, had a happy childhood, and was never injected with hormones.  When I put it in the oven, I'll cut an onion and a couple oranges in half and put them in the cavity first.  For the last 15 minutes I'll baste it with an Apple-cider glaze from the November issue of Martha Stewart Living.  (Do you remember the Thanksgiving when Martha recommended deep-frying your turkey and many faithful readers risked life and limb trying?). Don’t forget, the turkey needs to sit for a half hour to soak up the juices.  But without stuffing, it cooks a lot faster, so I won't have to get up before sunrise to start it.

Green Bean Casserole and Candied Sweet Potatoes with Marshmallows: I don’t make them. I came to realize that nobody eats them. What I do make is: Parmesan Potato Casserole which is mashed potatoes in a casserole dish with a lot of butter and cheese, cream and eggs stirred in and then you bake it with some cheese and parsley on top. I cook Wild Rice mix straight out of the Uncle Ben box. Artichoke hearts alla Polita with peas and dill. Corn and red pepper casserole.  Stuffed mushrooms as an appetizer.

Gravy—open a can.
 I’ve tried about a million “No fail turkey gravy” recipes over the years and I manage to fail every time. What I do is open a couple cans of store-bought turkey gravy, chop up some of the neck and liver of the turkey (which have cooked in the roasting pan alongside the turkey), add a nice splash of some liquor—like sherry—or you can throw in some of the pan juices. Who’s going to know that it came out of a can?

Orange-cranberry relish—you can make this up to a month ahead. Everybody loves it and it makes even the driest turkey taste better. Pick over and grind in the blender a one pound bag of cranberries. Grind up a couple oranges—pulp and rind. Mix together with two cups sugar or more. Chill in the refrigerator--the longer it sits the better it tastes. I always make a double recipe.

When the kids were small I would have them cut with scissors a jagged edge around hollowed-out orange halves to make little baskets to hold the cranberry relish—I’d put the baskets surrounding the turkey. Nowadays I surround the turkey on its platter with green and purple bunches of grapes.

Placecards and menus—Making the placecards or favors is a great way to keep children busy and out of your hair. I used to have mine make favors/placecards that were turkeys fashioned out of (store bought) popcorn balls with a ladyfinger for the head and neck, three toothpick legs to stand, red or orange cellophane tied around the popcorn ball and gathered for a tail.—The three-legged turkey was then stuck in a large flat cookie, where the name would be written using those cake-decorating tubes.  This year Amalia is making our place cards --colorful paper turkeys with googly eyes made from a kit I bought at a Paper Store in Manhattan.  Stores like Michael's now offer place mats to color and place-card kits to assemble.... perfect for keeping the little darlings busy through the long Thanksgiving meal.

Pie dough—Pillsbury refrigerated. I don’t have the magic touch for “from scratch” pie crust that grandmas always brag about, and I’ve never had any complaints. When I do some clever crimping around the edge, the pie crust looks completely homemade and tastes fine.

The centerpiece is always the same—I have a basket shaped like a cornucopia, filled with various fruits, nuts and some fall flowers that have survived in the garden. Couldn’t be easier. Candles in candle holders.  Also I've acquired a bunch of rubber turkey finger puppets which Amalia has already commandeered.    And yes, everyone has to tell what they're thankful for. I always print out on the computer a small decorative menu for each plate so people know what they’re eating. What they won’t know is how easy it was, unless you tell them.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Can People in Heaven See Us Down Here?


 I thought that kids were about six years old when they started to grapple with the concept of death, but granddaughter Amalia has been obsessing about it since she turned four-- although she’s never had a close relative, or even a pet, pass away.  And it’s probably my fault.  On a visit to her home in Manhattan, I once said something like this:  “That book is by a man named Maurice Sendak.  He’s a very good artist and writes wonderful books, but he’s dead now.”

I could hear my daughter Eleni exclaiming from the next room, “Why would you say something like that?  You have no filter!”

It’s true. I was thinking the same thing myself, as Amalia asked, “Why is he dead?”

“Well he was very old,” I replied lamely.

“Like you?” she asked.

“Oh, much older than I am,” I lied.

I was also, according to Eleni, the person who introduced Amalia to the concept of heaven when she asked one day where my Mommy was and I replied “in heaven.”  The conversation ended there, but she must have been mulling it over.

On a more recent visit to New York, Amalia and her Mommy took me out to a restaurant for dinner on the last night before I left for home.  On the way to the restaurant Amalia suggested brightly, “Mommy, I’ve got a great idea!  We should take Yiayia out to dinner on her last night with us before she goes to heaven!”

Hilarity ensued, although I assured Amalia that it was an excellent idea, but I wasn’t planning on going to heaven just yet because I wanted to dance at her wedding first.

Maurice Sendak aside, Amalia has been distressing her mother for months by insisting that she doesn’t want to grow up.  She doesn’t even want to turn five.  She wants to stay four years old forever.

This is a very scary thing to hear, especially for a parent.  When Amalia says it to me, I counter by listing all the good things she’ll be able to do when she’s older that she can’t do now—ride a bike, drive a car, even get married and have her own children.

Recently, after my recitation of the good things that come with age, Amalia conceded that she would like to grow up after all, but that she never wanted to be “Old like you, so that people look at the veins in my hands.”

The veins on the back of my hands were bothering Amalia even before she could talk very well.  It must have been when she was around two and really into putting Disney character Band-aids on everyone and everything.  One day she pointed at my hands with concern, said “boo-boo!” and tried to put Band-aids on the backs of my hands.  I explained that it wasn’t a boo-boo, but just the way hands look when you’re old.

Amalia’s Mommy was wondering if she should talk to the child’s teachers, or a psychiatrist, about her obsession with death and old age, but I looked it up on line and discovered there are a lot of four-year-olds out there who don’t want to grow older and who ask disturbing questions about death.  I think they don’t want to grow older because their lives are so terrific right now and they sense that older people have to deal with unpleasant things like homework, exams, lack of money and social insecurities….and death.

Questions about death are disturbing to us because we’re wondering the same things our children are, and we don’t know the answers.  No one does.

As for the question above-- “Yiayia, can people in heaven see us down here?” --I told Amalia that nobody knows the answer to that question for sure, but I was convinced that when I was in heaven—and I didn’t plan on being there for a very long time, because I’m so determined to dance at her wedding—when I was in heaven looking down, I’d see all the great things that Amalia was going to accomplish as she grew up, and I’d be so proud of her.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Amalia Wraps Up Halloween and the Marathon


By guest blogger Amalia

 Halloween weekend was awesome.  On Thursday Yiayia and I made trick or treat bags for everybody in my pre-K class.  Nicolas helped.

 My costume was Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz.  I even had ruby slippers and a basket to carry Toto, my dog, in.

On Friday I went to two Halloween parties—in the morning in my classroom and my teachers gave us goodie bags, and in the afternoon Yiayia came and we went to the whole school’s Halloween party where I danced a lot and had a sword fight with inflatable swords and the DJ said I won over a bunch of older kids who were sword-fighting with me.

Yiayia looked really funny in her Scarecrow costume. She even did a Scarecrow dance.

On the way to school we passed lots of scary decorated houses, but now that I’m four, they didn’t scare me, even the ones where the monsters lit up and moaned and one where a giant spider jumps out at you.

My favorite was the one where the witch’s legs peeked out of the ground—sort of like in the Wizard of Oz when a house falls on her.

On Saturday, which was Halloween, we all dressed up like the Wizard of Oz characters and went to a huge party at the Natural History Museum called “Fright at the Museum.”  Mommy was Glinda the good witch, Papi was  the Tin Man, Yiayia was the Scarecrow, and Papi’s friend Arshad was the cowardly Lion.  Little brother Nicholas was supposed to be a Munchkin but he wouldn't wear his pointed hat and beard. There were a million kids at the Museum in different costumes, and I even saw two other Dorothy’s.

Saturday night Yiayia and Mommy and I went Trick or Treating around the Upper East Side, even to former Mayor Bloomberg’s house where people dressed as Minions handed out treats.

Papi had to go to bed early because the next day, Sunday, he was running in his first Marathon.  He had been training all summer.

He got up at six am. and took the Staten Island Ferry to the start of the race.  I had made signs saying “Go Papi Go” and we went to watch him pass by on First Avenue and 79th Street near our apartment, but there were so many people there that we couldn’t get close enough to see him.  Mommy was tracking his position on her phone.  He stopped and looked for us but we couldn’t get where he could see us.  Then he went on running up and across Central Park.

I started crying because I didn’t see Papi so Mommy took me with her across town to find him at the finish line.  We got worried when she saw on her phone that he had stopped running in Central Park, but then he started again.  Later he said that he got muscle cramps and had to stop and someone massaged his legs.

Papi had hoped to break four hours in his first marathon, but his time was 4 hours and 18 minutes, which is really good for 26.2 miles.  We found him after the finish line and he got this awesome medal and a really cool cape to keep.

Papi says he thinks he’s going to run the Marathon again in two years.  In the meantime he’s going to do a 100-mile bike ride next year. 

Now that Halloween and the Marathon are over, I’m going to start planning what I’m going to cook for Thanksgiving.  Cookies and pies are my speciality.

The holiday season is awesome, but it’s also exhausting because there’s so much to do when you’re four years old.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Not Laying Down -- Grammar Outrages Continued

Dear Richard Morgan of the  New York Post,

If you're going to make grammatical mistakes in a newspaper,  don't make them in inch-high headlines!

And if you really don't know the difference between ""lying" and "laying", please refer to my essay on the Huffington Post of April 4, 2013, called "The Last Surviving Grouchy Grammar Nut.",
which received 728 comments last time I looked.


A Rolling Crone


Thursday, October 29, 2015

Weird and Wonderful New York


      It makes sense that the streets of New York become weird, mysterious and scary around Halloween.  That’s the case all over the country, but especially in the brownstones on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, people seem to be competing with each other to create the scariest haunted houses and yards complete with lights, sounds, and moving parts of the life-sized mummies, witches, skeletons and zombies. Walking Amalia to her school around Halloween begins to feel like being an extra in “The Walking Dead,” but now that she’s four, Amalia is happy hanging out with the neighborhood ghouls.

      But what I love about New York is that it’s full of weird, bizarre and unexpected sights all year round.  Every time I turn a corner I encounter something so strange that I pull out my camera to prove I really saw it, while the real New Yorker's don’t even blink or slow their stride toward the subway entrance.

"Everyone attending is guaranteed a message"

Above and below are  signs that I encounter every day on my way to pick up Amalia from school.

 Today I’m featuring some New York strangeness that is not necessarily seasonal.  In my next post I’ll focus on Upper East Side Halloween décor. (And on Halloween night itself, many of these elaborate, scary haunted houses -–decorated multi-million-dollar brownstones-- open their doors to all comers!)

     I found myself standing in line at a Dunkin Donuts behind this tattooed shoulder and arm.  I recognized those columns!  They’re from an ancient Roman temple in Baalbek, Lebanon, that I once photographed and later painted.  So I tapped the guy on the shoulder and said, “Is that Baalbek?” and he said it was.  Then I asked if I could take a photo.

       In September my friend Mary and I traveled by subway to Brooklyn to visit the Morbid Anatomy Museum, which describes itself as “Exploring the intersections of death, beauty and that which falls between the cracks.”  Besides being an avid collector of early and Victorian photographs (which often explore the same territory) I’m morbidly interested in traditions and superstitions surrounding death, so I found a lot to photograph there—reflecting the histories of taxidermy, medical practices, mourning customs, and just plain weird stuff. 

 Every table in the cafe held a bouquet of dead roses.

Two-headed duck and friends.
A devil (I think) and friends.

Taxidermy and pickled body parts.
       Don't know the purpose of this spooky doll in a suitcase.

       And on my way back from the Morbid Anatomy Museum, I couldn't resist photographing this Brooklyn front terrace, with a crowd of lawn ornaments that totally eclipses the single garden troll on daughter Eleni's balcony.  (But he does change his hat and garden pickings with the seasons.)

 Manhattan garden troll dressed for fall.

Next post: The Ghouls of Manhattan!