First Foot Forward

New Year’s Eve always reminds me of my grandmother. When I was little, I used to spend the night with her.  My parents always went to a party that night. I don’t remember my brother being at Grandma’s. So I don’t know if the two events were related or not. Of course, maybe I just wrote him out of that memory. Can you do that?

My father would come first thing in the morning. He had to “first foot” the house. Where my grandmother grew up (Scotland), the first person in the house in the new year had to be a dark-haired man. (I think it was also OK to be formerly dark-haired, currently bald, because Grandpa did it before he died.) The man had to enter on his right foot and carry something to eat, something to drink, and something to keep you warm. Dad brought meat pies, Scotch, and either coal or wood. Scotch seems to be an odd choice as a survival drink, but who am I to say?

I honestly believe Grandma would have refused entry to anyone other than the “first footer”. I know my mother (her daughter-in-law) was afraid to find out.

The night before, Grandma would burn down all the candles in the house. (This was before the days of 70-hour candles.) She wanted to burn away all the bad luck of the previous year. Similarly, no calendar could survive the end of the year. She had to sweep all the bad luck out the door as well. Grandma was pretty happy with her life, so all this stuff might have helped. If nothing else, the house looked and smelled good on January 1st. We always sang Auld Lang Syne, but I think that was more tradition than lucky.

I was looking at some other traditions earlier today. The first footing and sweeping seem to be pretty common. It also seems that while you want to sweep on New Year’s Eve, you do not want to sweep on New Year’s Day because you will sweep away the luck that comes with the new year. Apparently every year starts out good; somehow the bad luck seeps in as time goes by. Or leaps out at you when you least expect it. You also do not want to wash dishes, laundry, or your hair in order to not wash any of the good luck down the drain.

Laundry seems to be especially bad. Some traditions equate it with washing a person away, meaning someone will die in the coming year. You really do not need that special shirt for your team to win the big game New Year’s Day. If it was that important, you should have washed it immediately after the previous loss.

So far, we’ve done a lot of work on New Year’s Eve and pretty much nothing on New Year’s Day. Sounds pretty typical. But don’t forget to eat: grapes – 12 of them, one for every month of the year (some sources say you need to stuff one in your mouth at each chime of the midnight clock – no word on what comes after that); pork – because pigs root forward when they eat while chickens scratch backward (and you may remember I told you that bacon was this year’s “in” gift); black eyed peas and lentils – they resemble coins; and greens such as collard greens, chard, cabbage and kale – the folds of the greens resemble money. Actually, if you put all of that together, call me. It sounds delicious.

The key seems to be that whatever you do on New Year’s Day will be an indication of what you will be doing the rest of the year. It is especially important that you bring in before you give out. Don’t spend money you don’t have. Don’t start the year owing anyone (that must have started in the years before mortgages and car payments). Spend time with friends and loved ones. Take care of yourself. I’m not sure what it means if you ate bad crab dip the night before and are in the bathroom all day.

Finally, some words of wisdom if you happen to be traveling next year. (I don’t know how you’ll find it next year when you need it.) :

  • In Spain, wearing red underwear on New Year’s Eve means that you will have prosperity and good luck in the upcoming year. (Note to traditional men: no one will see it if you don’t let them.)
  • In order to chase out the bad luck of the New Year, the Irish bang white bread against the walls. (I’m not sure how old the bread needs to be before it will actually bang.)
  • In Ecuador, it’s customary for each family to burn a scarecrow at midnight. The scarecrow represents the negativity of the previous year, so burning it ensures positive energy and good luck as the new year begins. (Please remember to do this outside or you will not be invited back.)
  • Brazilians jump seven waves for good luck — one jump for each day of the week. (You may want to find a beach first. Or hope that your friends are really drunk.)
  • In Greece, smashing a pomegranate outside one’s door at midnight is said to bring good fortune. The red color and seeds of the pomegranate represent fertility, love, and happiness. (In college, a friend and I got pomegranate juice on my white curtains. Nothing would take out the stains. Just a warning.)
  • If you’re in Germany, touching ashes is the key to good luck in the new year. (Apparently Mary Poppins was on to something.)

I wish you all the best in the new year. Now I have to go see how the candles are doing.


What Would Grandma Say?

[Welcome to my new look. I was getting a little tired of the old one. Besides, I couldn’t resist something called “Choco” – it sounds very close to my favorite food.]

My mom’s mother lived in a retirement community that had a potluck once a month for quite a while. While Grandma really enjoyed the potlucks, she had two complaints. The first was people who brought only enough of their dish for three or four people. On the one hand, she had a valid point; unless you rushed to the table, there were certain dishes you never had a opportunity to try. On the other hand, our family gatherings always had enough food to feed Oliver Twist’s orphanage.

The other complaint was that people brought store-bought food and said they made it. Grandma didn’t have a problem with someone picking up a frozen pie and heating it up or using a cake mix, but she did not consider that home-made. She said that it wasn’t home-made unless you made it from scratch. She baked until she was in her mid-eighties, so she was entitled to her opinion.

As often happens through the generations, my mother used many more convenience foods than her mother, and then the pendulum swung back with me. I am a cooking snob. You cannot tell me that taking frozen hash browns and melting cheese on them makes it a home-made dish. Similarly, cutting up cooking dough from a tube and heating it is not baking home-made cookies. Some of my attitude comes from Grandma, some comes from all the preservatives and additives in prepared foods, and some comes from the cost of ready-made dishes. My attitudes have changed over time; when we were first married, I was a much bigger fan of frozen stuff.

The holidays always highlight the various ways we can decrease our time in the kitchen. A woman caught me off-guard the other day. She asked me where she could find the Rice Krispie treats that were formed into a flat sheet and could be cut out into shapes. I love Rice Krispie treats. They’re so sweet, I can’t resist. I even like the pre-made ones you can take in your lunch.

But I could not imagine buying a sheet of it and using cookie cutters to make shapes. What do you do with the scraps between the shapes? They must be your reward for working so hard. How many sheets would you need to make enough cookies to put on a plate? Sometimes it hard to tell what shape a sugar cookie is (who designs some of those reindeer cutters?). I would imagine that a Rice Krispie star would look an awful lot like a Rice Krispie Christmas tree.

These questions must have even occurred to the Rice Krispie people; the product is no longer available. The woman truly looked crest-fallen. I couldn’t bring myself to tell her that she could make her own treats in any thickness she liked and cut them out. I knew that she would tell me that mixing the cereal and the marshmallows together was too messy and too much work.

There are several Christmas displays right across the aisle from where I work. One of them has gingerbread house kits. I can appreciate the idea behind these. I tried to make one from scratch once and discovered that I am not coordinated enough to hold the sides together while they set. Or detail-oriented enough to get all the pieces the same size to actually fit together. I never would have been able to lure Hansel and Gretel. But it did taste good.

A year or two later, I was still fascinated by the idea so I bought a kit. Like most pre-made food, it was considered edible for six months after its holiday. I still had trouble getting it to stay together. Obviously, I am not the one who fixes things around the house. Finally, I got frustrated and walked away. I decided to eat one of the candy decorations. Apparently the emphasis should be on decoration. I almost broke a tooth. I tried the gingerbread; it tasted awful. Not only would I have trouble luring Hansel and Gretel, they probably would have poisoned themselves on the house. And who wants to eat poisoned children?

I noticed that one of this year’s models was larger than the previous ones. It appeared to have a yard as well as the house. It also came with LED lights so you could back-light your house. I was impressed. The company has accepted that the product is inedible and is now trying to sell it based on your being able to have the only gingerbread house in the neighborhood with Christmas lights. Looking into the future, I can see tiny inflatable snowmen and reindeer on the roof. Scout troops can start having competitions as a fund-raiser.

Another lady came up to me and said that she couldn’t find the gingerbread cookies in a tube. I helped her find them. She told me they were so good that she always stocked up at Christmas and stored them in her freezer. That way should could have them year-round. I refrained from telling her that hoarders like her were the reason other people had to do without gingerbread cookies at Christmas.

I think those cookie rolls used to only come in one size. (Even my mother drew the line at cookies in a plastic tube.) It seems like the diameter was somewhere in the 1″-1 1/2″ range. Now you can get that size, but there is also a tube that appears to be about twice that size. I wonder if tubed cookies work the same way as the ones I make. It doesn’t matter what size I make, people generally take two or three.

There are also lots of flavors: chocolate chip, sugar, gingerbread, peppermint, cut-outs in the middle of the round. I’m guessing some are more popular than others. The other morning I came in and was checking my aisle for miscellany left during the night. I found an open tube of cooking dough with a bite out of it. Apparently the person tried it and didn’t like it. I suppose there was no reason to steal it if they weren’t going to enjoy it.

It’s true that my stuff doesn’t look as symmetric as what comes out of a tube. But I can buy the ingredients any time of year. So I don’t have to fill my freezer with tubes of cookie dough that have the potential to fall out, breaking one of my toes.


Holiday Indulgences Don’t Have to End With the Holidays

Back in the days before kids, I bought my husband a membership in a wine-of-the-month club. It went well, so the next year I tried the spa-item-of-the-month. That was nice too, although I think we may still have a container of powdery stuff that’s supposed to go on like lotion (or something like that).

In case you might be interested in sending this type of gift, I have done you the service of researching a few. You don’t have to thank me, chocolate will be fine. If you’ve been paying attention the past few months, a couple of these should come as no surprise.

“When Pigs Fly: American Bacon Club” is brought to you by the Ann Arbor-based Zingerman’s deli. What could be better – bacon from the home of my alma mater? You can get 3 months for $99, but you might want to go for the 6-month plan at $189. It includes Balinese Long Pepper Bacon. I assume that the long pepper is from Bali, not the pig. But the recipient would never know.

Next we move on to Murray’s Cheese of the Month Club. You can get a four-month membership starting at $275. Each month the recipient will get 1.5 pounds of cheese from various sources (cow, goat or sheep). I would make sure your loved one likes to eat almost anything. One year a friend got us cheese hand-made by monks in some famous abbey. It was a soft cheese and when we melted it, it smelled (and tasted) like dirty socks.

My personal favorite is the 12-month, $480 plan from master chocolatier Jacque Torres. Once a month, they send something something chocolatey to your chosen recipient. The gifts range from brownie mix to truffles and everything in between. (Men: this may sound like the perfect monthly gift to your wife. Just make sure she’s not planning a major diet for after the new year. Unless you don’t think she’ll mind you eating top-notch chocolate in front of her.)

Want something sweet but not chocolatey? I’m not sure what’s wrong with you, but try a quarterly shipment of Capogiro’s gelato. (It’s kind of a creamy sherbet for you provincials.) They send six pints at a time in what they call hyper-seasonal varieties. I’m not cosmopolitan enough for these flavors, but perhaps someone you know is. They include honeysuckle, rhubarb and sweet potato. Only $240 for the year.

Then we have the above-mentioned wine clubs. The most cost-effective (cheapest) option I found was a $29.98/month club offered by wine Library TV. You get a red and a white for that price. It is the same price I paid 15 or so years ago. I’m guessing these are not of that quality. But I could be wrong.

Looking for something stronger? Stirrings offers a 12-month plan of drink mixers for $180. They are advertised as flavorful, original, and all-natural. Once again I would recommend that you only send this assortment to someone who will try almost anything. Flavorful and original mean different things to different people.

Not a drinker? How about the Counter Culture coffee plan? The beans are fresh-roasted and seasonal. Don’t all coffee beans come from more-or-less the same part of the world? The hot part? How seasonal can it be? You can get a 3-month subscription for only $79.95.

These final three clubs are for those of you who really want to impress. We start with the Organic Vegetable Club. (Disclaimer: The ad is addressed to people shopping for a woman. If you are shopping for a man, this is not an appropriate gift.) It’s kind of an open-ended offer. You can choose how much you want to send (5-15 pounds) and the number of deliveries per year. Five pounds for 3 months costs $119.99. It doesn’t say anything about being seasonal (or local), so you might need to keep an open mind.

A little more indulgent? Holy Smoked Salmon has a smoked salmon of the month club. There are more types of smoked salmon than you might imagine. Once again remember the open mind about flavors. It is described as silky, spicy, salty, supremely good salmon. Hopefully it is as good as its copywriter.

Finally, for the well-off Ernest Hemingway types, I recommend the Kobe and Cab Club. It is offered by Signorello Vineyards in Napa Valley. Three times a year someone would receive “a rich, buttery, marbled piece of Kobe beef (note single serving) and a tremendous glass of Cabernet (I assume they send an entire bottle).” At $390 per shipment, it’s probably too expensive to send to get even with the evil vegan who just broke up with you.  But it might impress the father of the new one.

Upside to these gifts: you don’t have to wrap it. Downside: if they don’t like it (or you), they will be reminded every few weeks throughout the year.


My New Love is Warm but Not Very Fuzzy

Actually, it’s not fuzzy at all. And that’s probably a good thing, since it’s a slow cooker (crock-pot). The fuzzy things live in the back of the refrigerator.

Until recently, I was very spoiled. My husband was working part-time (through no fault of his own – the economy still stinks here) and did the cooking and grocery shopping. Now he has a full-time job with regular hours, the same as I do.

While he is still interested in the shopping, there had been a significant decrease in the joy of cooking for quite some time. We seemed to be eating a lot of macaroni & cheese and tacos (not at the same time). Fairly regularly, we would get fish he caught (very yummy), burgers (not so much, I really don’t like beef), or pork chops. He also made soup (it always tasted really good, but sometimes I couldn’t quite identify all the ingredients).

I felt a sense of impending doom with the arrival of the new job. We might be the first family to starve because the man had gotten a job. Our 17-year-old son was not amused.

So I decided it was my turn. I am a very good baker. I just finished making a cheesecake for tomorrow. (My husband makes the pumpkin pie. I detest pumpkin pie. Besides, who eats vegetables/gourds for dessert?) We generally have home-made cookies or brownies for dessert and cakes for special occasions.

However, I am not allowed to touch beef (and I am not particularly interested in cooking hunks of other types of meat). I like beef well-done. Apparently that is like desecrating a work of art, so I don’t touch it. I think my husband got the idea on one of our earliest dates when I tried to make hamburgers. I guess you need to flatten them so they’re not raw in the middle and crispy on the outside.

Oddly enough, the one time I am allowed to cook beef is the standing rib roast on Christmas. It’s been a family tradition for generations, along with Yorkshire Pudding (guess where my family comes from). I don’t think it’s any comment on my ability to cook beef though. I set the temperature, season the roast, and let it cook until it no longer moos. The male members of the family are happy, and I don’t eat it.

I really couldn’t see myself coming home every night and making dinner. Generally, I would rather take a nap. So I looked around and discovered the slow cooker that has been sitting in the corner of our kitchen since my brother-in-law gave it to us about ten years ago.

It seems that slow cooker is the high-end name for a crock-pot. I would guess that’s because of people like me who put crock-pots in the same category as fondue pots. They have their place, but not in my kitchen. Most of what I have seen come out of them are kielbasa & sauerkraut, variations on baked beans, and chili/soups. All fine foods, but not the perfect long-term menu. The other option, as my son said, was to put in a hunk of meat and some liquid.

However, once again I went to the Internet (the decent cookbooks were in the $25 range, and I wasn’t sure my family would even like me cooking with it). Lo and behold, there are thousands of recipes out there. There are an alarming number of recipes for pork loins; pigs may want to band together for protection.

Today I made tortellini. There was a recipe for lasagna, but I make that from scratch and wasn’t sure I was ready to risk my reputation. However, the tortellini was very good. Crock-pots are excellent for slow-cooking pasta sauce. I have also made chicken and dumplings. Soups and chili were successes. My attempt at a hunk of meat was a ham cooked in Vernor’s (the only real ginger ale), with potatoes and onions. I made a beef stew-sort of thing (well-done beef is acceptable in stew).

So, I think we may be a match made in heaven. There’s very little work involved (although I do seem to be chopping a lot of onions); and with spices, the dreaded blands have been been avoided to this point. Of course, the test in any relationship is the holidays. So we’ll see what it gives me for Christmas. Or if it sulks when I yell at it.

I wonder if it cooks hamburgers.


Random Thoughts

I drive country roads to work – why do I only run into slow drivers on the straight parts and never on the parts that resemble a NASCAR track?

Why do they name it head cheese when that’s the only disgusting part of the animal that is not in it?

Why do I only see predators (animal, not human) when they have some poor animal in their mouth/talons?

Should I be insulted that when I was pulled over for driving erratically, the cop assumed it was for a medical emergency not for being under the influence?

Why am I the only one on the sales floor when someone breaks a bottle of (really cheap) strawberry wine or a gallon of milk or a jar of horseradish? They really are the only things in the store that make me really gag. (Aside from human emissions of various sorts.)

Why do I attract all of the really strange people? Do I really look like I know what to substitute for spicy paprika (or know what spicy paprika is)? How about all the stores that carry the products that we don’t? The guy who feels he needs to tell me his life story before asking for money?

If my mother knows that I am liberal in almost everything, why does she insist on telling me everything she has “learned” on Fox News?

Does my car have a sign that says pull out in front me, there’s only a quarter mile of empty space behind me?  Or maybe, it’s icy so test my reflexes by cutting in front of me and slamming on your brakes?

Why do people insist on telling the same awful jokes over and over? (“Where’s the cheese? Where’s the cheese? Oh here it is.” as he enters the aisle.)

Why do I only have the nerve to complain online or at home when those are never the people who need to hear it?