Life’s pretty quiet around here.
Oh, don’t misunderstand —there’s plenty to do. The Chef’s restaurant has been packed with people who leave the front door rubbing their bellies and proclaiming to the cold air how happily full they feel. I have been writing and planning and creating, to the point that it’s sometimes hard to find time to clean up the kitchen. We’ll have some lovely new developments to announce in the new year, about this site and writing. Life hasn’t slowed down that much since we returned from traipsing across the country, promoting the book.
But this time of year, for me, now brings out a lovely calm. All around us, hordes of people are rushing frantically down rainy sidewalks, desperate to reach the next store to plunder, in hopes of finding the gift that will release them from the list. Inside the few stores I have stepped foot in during the past week, hands reach for anything with a red sales tag, lines linger long past the point of patience, and every other person seems to be in angry tears.
About a decade ago, I was the perfectionist Christmas fairy. I started mailing out cards before Thanksgiving. I made dozens of batches of rolled-out sugar cookies, so that I could choose the most symmetrically shaped ones, scraping off the excess frosting with the back of a spoon to keep it all smooth. And I spent so much money on gifts for everyone I had ever met —just to make sure I didn’t miss one — that I mostly ate rice and beans all of January.
One year, I baked and rolled cookies into balls and filled little green and red paper plates with powdered-sugar treats, for weeks on end. Every morning, I picked up the carefully arranged piles of goodies and handed them to friends or acquaintances at school, like I was the Christmas fairy dispensing sugar and sprinkles. I drove myself so hard, grading papers and making holiday goodness happen, that I sat in front of the fire at my parents’ house on Christmas Eve, wheezing and finding it hard to breathe. By the end of Christmas day, I lay on their couch, delirious with fever and mumbling lines from J.D. Salinger novellas through my blue-tinged lips. The next day, the doctor diagnosed me with double pneumonia —one lung completely infected, and the other one half-way there. Apparently, if I had waited three more days to come in, I would have been dead.
I learned to relax after that.
Turning 30 helped. So did turning 35, undergoing emergency surgery, surviving a car accident, and finally being diagnosed with celiac. Life throughout the year, the tiny miracles everywhere, feels more profound than Christmas ever did before.
The thing is — I didn’t really enjoy those Christmases past, when I gave my spirit to the season so entirely that I nearly passed out. It all felt so obligatory.
Besides, now those cookies would make me sick.
So, the Chef and I talked about sending out Christmas cards, before Thanksgiving. We have so many people in our lives now, and we would love to thank them all, profusely. I intended to make a few batches of gluten-free baked goods and send them to friends and family. Visions of mix cds and jars of pear butter danced in my head.
Life happened instead.
(Raise your hand if you didn’t send all the Christmas cards you intended. Raise your hand if you were still thinking of presents a few days ago. Raise your hand if you didn’t bake perfect cookies this year, all lined up and gleaming. Look around. That’s a lot of hands in the air.)
So we’re feeling pretty quiet around here. Within the hour, we’re leaving for two days of food, Elliott, and Nintendo Wii with my family. We have all bought or made one present for each person. Not one of those presents sums up how we feel about that person, distilled. But I think each will like that book or the photograph. The Chef has a couple of days off from the restaurant, so the only cooking he will be doing is making food for six people he loves. I’m certain we’ll all take time off for naps throughout the afternoons. (Well, maybe not Elliott. He’s too excited about Spiderman these days to sleep much.) This would never make a Hallmark special.
But the older I grow, the more I feel that this is what it’s all about. I’m a Buddhist, so this really isn’t about the birth of Jesus for me. As religious as I get is that moment in A Charlie Brown Christmas when Linus comes onstage to explain the meaning of Christmas. (“Lights, please?”) His simple story in that sweet little kid voice truly does tear me up every year.
In our busy lives, we rarely have the chance to spend two straight days with family, laughing and playing board games, sharing food together and teasing each other. Something about this feels more holy than any plate of baked goods or presents.
We have been blessed this year. This has, without a doubt, been the best year of our lives, for both of us. So much of that has to do with you, the one reading right now. Thank you.
Merry Christmas, everyone. We hope your days are filled with calm connection.
(And please don’t bake yourself unconscious. Take it from me —it’s not worth it.)
Rose Ahern’s candied pecans
We won’t be bereft of baked goods this Christmas. The Chef is looking forward to eating my mother’s cinnamon rolls on Christmas morning. I can’t partake, but that’s okay. Everyone loves them, and I want them to be able to eat. And I can’t imagine eating anything with gluten anyway. My mother would tell you they aren’t that great, but that’s not true. Someday, I’ll adapt them.
But I have fudge and holiday fruit and nut balls and candied pecans. The Chef’s mother sent out two packages of baked goods this year: glutenous cookies went to the restaurant, and the fudge and candied pecans went to our house. Believe me, I did not miss those cookies. We’re calling the pecans candied crack around here. They are that addictive. The Chef says you could put these candied pecans in a bowl and pour milk over them — they remind of him of eating cereal when he was a kid.
Luckily, the Chef’s mother shared her recipe with me this year, and this is our gift to you.
1 teaspoon cold water
1 egg white
1 pound large pecans (4 cups)
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon salt
Beat water and egg white until frothy., Mix well with pecans. Combine sugar, salt and cinnamon. Mix well with pecans. Spread on a cookie sheet. Bake at 225 degrees for 1 hour. Still occasionally. ( I stir every 15 minutes).