Potable Presents

IMG_0090This year we’ve received some excellent wine and even a fifth of pre-made old fashioned as Christmas presents.  By my rough estimate, at least, we’ve received more bottles of holiday cheer this year than we have in the past.

I applaud this apparent trend.  I get to try wines that I normally wouldn’t even be aware of, so I feel like I am broadening my wine horizons and developing new favorites.  And bottles of wine, or gifts of other consumables, add to the festive nature of the holidays because they can be shared with your holiday guests.  It’s fun to try a new vintage with an old pal or family member.

Old Fezziwig would agree with me.

Eve Off

Our office officially closed at 4 p.m. yesterday, although some of us worked past that point, and it is closed today.  So, for me and others, Christmas Eve is a day off.

This is a change.  When I was a young lawyer, we worked until noon or so on Christmas Eve, just like we worked on the day after Thanksgiving.  But over the years the work calendar morphed — whether it was because every other white-collar office was closed and the firm just threw in the towel and joined the club, or because the firm elders realized that not all that much work was getting done on those days, anyway — and now both of those days are treasured days off and parts of extended holidays.

IMG_0057I didn’t mind working those days, but I also appreciate getting the day off on Christmas Eve — and I’m betting my colleagues who celebrate Christmas do, too.  For the procrastinators among us, it’s a day to get the last-minute shopping done.  For the families with young kids, it’s a day of mounting excitement building to an almost unbearable fever pitch and kids who are so amped up for Santa’s arrival that they can’t believe they’ll ever get to sleep.  And for empty-nesters like Kish and me, with our shopping long done and gifts out and delivered by the post office, it’s a great day to sit with a cup of good coffee, nibble on a cookie or two, listen to some Christmas music, and ease into the holiday.

For those of us who are not especially religious, Christmas really is about family.  Christmas Eve is a great day to pause for a bit and reflect on family — milestones reached, accomplishments logged, and those who have left us except in memory.  We’re glad that Russell is home with us, and we’re thinking of Richard far away, and we’re happy that everyone is safe and sound as another year comes to a close.

In The Holiday Spirit

IMG_7629America is the land of inclusiveness, and December is when people of many faiths and beliefs celebrate important holidays.  So when Kish and I walking down in the Short North today, it was nice to see that a shopkeeper remembered to recognize one holiday in particular.

That’s right:  Festivus . . . for the rest of us.

And to properly recognize Festivus, here’s a snippet from the Seinfeld script The Strike, when the Costanza household’s odd holiday traditions were first described:

FRANK: Welcome, new comers. The tradition of Festivus begins with the airing of grievances. I got a lot of problems with you people! And now you’re gonna hear

about it! You, Kruger. My son tells me your company stinks!

GEORGE: Oh, God.

FRANK: (To George) Quiet, you’ll get yours in a minute. Kruger, you couldn’t smooth a silk sheet if you had a hot date with a babe.. I lost my train of thought.

(Frank sits down, Jerry gives a face that says “That’s a shame”. Gwen walks in)

GWEN: Jerry!

JERRY: Gwen! How’d you know I was here?

GWEN: Kramer told me.

KRAMER: Another Festivus miracle!

And now, time for the feats of strength.

My First Momless Christmas

Yesterday I was baking my cookies, thinking about who would be getting their holiday tins and plates, when I suddenly realized that I’m going through my first Christmas without Mom.

IMG_7596It happened when I was cutting out the sugar cookies.  Mom always really liked them — or, in a reflection of the loyal, unflinching support we kids always got from our mother, at least said she did — and this year will be the first time in a long time she won’t be getting to eat an iced Christmas tree cookie that I made or sample one of my new efforts.

Of course, it made me feel sad and wistful, and the feelings caught me off guard.  When a loved one dies, time helps you deal with the everyday sense of loss because life goes on, but then a special memory or event that you shared with them sneaks up on you and you feel their absence all over again.  I remember one of my friends talking about how difficult it was to watch the OSU-Michigan game for the first time after his father’s death, because they had always watched it together.  In my case, baking Christmas cookies is what brought it back.

So I sat there for a few minutes, listening to the holiday music that was playing and thinking about Mom.  I thought about how I was with her the first time I ever helped in making Christmas cookies, when I was a little kid and the Webner family kitchen was a madhouse of flour-covered people with rolling pins and cookie cutouts and icing and bright sprinkles.  That’s one reason I’ve always liked making Christmas cookies.  And then I thought about how most of the Christmas music I listen to during my baking days, from Bing Crosby to the traditional carols to the Nutcracker pieces to the Chipmunks’ Christmas song, and just about everything in between, were songs that Mom loved, too.

IMG_7602And I’m sure I’ll think of her when I watch National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation at some point over the next few weeks, because Mom was a movie person and it was one of her favorites that always provoked some loud and happy laughter, and when I look at the little Santa mug with “Bobby” painted on it that she gave me years ago and I remember how there were little Santa mugs with names of each of the five Webner kids painted on top that were lined up on the fireplace mantle for Christmas — and then I’ll remember how much Mom loved Christmas all over again.

It made me realize that, although she’s no longer physically with us, her spirit and sense of fun and the little family traditions she created and the memories of those shared holiday events will always be with us.  I may be technically Momless, but there’s still a lot of Mom in my Christmas.

At The Messiah Side-By-Side Sing-Along

For a number of years now, ProMusica Chamber Orchestra has been presenting George Frideric Handel’s Messiah in a side-by-side sing-along format — where all of the singers among us can join together in the majestic confines of the Southern Theatre and sing their hearts out to the 15 separate full chorus sections of some of the world’s most beautiful holiday music.  Last night Kish and I and our friends Mr. and Mrs. JV took it all in for the first time, and it made for a fabulous holiday experience.

IMG_7589Most of us have heard the Hallelujah chorus from the Messiah and, probably, tried our hands at singing along, but there’s a lot more to the Messiah, and a lot more to the ProMusica experience.  Last night’s program was hosted by the affable and knowledgeable Dr. Robert J. Ward, the Director of Choral Activities at The Ohio State University, who offered interesting and funny commentary about the composer, the music, and the message and feeling Handel was seeking to achieve in this choral masterpiece.  To make the evening even more special, the ProMusica orchestra was joined by a host of student musicians from schools that partner with ProMusica in their music programs, and the combined orchestra was guest-conducted by Dr. Ross and seven other local church and school music directors who each directed different choruses.  And the audience — or perhaps I should say the performers seated in the theatre rather than on stage — featured singers from no fewer than 12 local church and school choirs and choral groups, roughly divided into bass, tenor, alto, and soprano sections.  The combination of students and teachers, professionals and aspiring performers, gave the evening an almost magical, festive feel.

And, make no mistake:  the people in the theatre (except for the four of us, who were too awe-struck to utter a peep) were there to sing, in the most full-throated and unabashed way.  They all brought their copies of the score to the Messiah and followed the direction of the composers, and they sang wonderfully.  It tells you something very positive about your community when it can fill a theatre with highly capable singers who can read music and skillfully navigate the difficult vocal gymnastics of some very complex Baroque music.

The combined effect was, in an oft-overused-but-nevertheless-apt-in-this-instance word, awesome.  The theatre was jammed, and the only seats available when we arrived were in box at the side of the theatre, right in front of the stage and next to the bass section.  It turned out to be a spectacular and inspired location, with orchestral beauty coming from one direction and song from the other, giving us a kind of total immersion in the music.  And the feeling coming from the students excited to be on stage, the guest directors happily getting the opportunity to strut their directing stuff in front of a big crowd, and the singers joyfully singing with all of the talent they could muster created an indelible impression.  You don’t fully appreciate the combined power of a choir until you are sitting in their midst.

I’d be willing to bet that every person who walked out of the Southern Theatre after that performance was filled with the holiday spirit and feeling better about the world.  Dr. Ross said at the outset of the program that their goal was not to change the world, but just to make the two hours of the performance as wonderful as it could be.  Mission accomplished!

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes — 2015

Well, Thanksgiving has passed — which means two things.  First, the Christmas cookie baking season is upon us.  Second, we’ve just eaten a lot of whipped toppings on pumpkin pie, pecan pie, or, in cases of extreme need, bark.  So why not combine these two staples of the modern American experience?

Cool Whip Cookies

I’ve never made cookies using cake mix before.  It seems like a tawdry shortcut, but some of my friends swear by cake mix-cookie recipes.  This one looked interesting enough — and easy enough! — to make it onto my Christmas cookie list for this year.

orange-cool-whip-cookiesIngredients:  1 8-ounce container of Cool Whip whipped topping; 2 eggs; 1 18.25 ounce package of lemon cake mix; 1 teaspoon lemon juice; 1/3 cup of confectioner’s sugar.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Beat eggs and whipped topping together.  Add the lemon cake mix and the lemon juice and continue beating until dough is fully mixed and thick.

Fill bowl with confectioner’s sugar.  Drop teaspoons of cookie mixture into bowl and roll to coat.  Bake cookies at 350 degrees for 8 minutes, then remove cookies to rack to cool.

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes — 2014

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes — 2013

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes — 2012

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes — 2011

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes — 2010

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes — 2009

Double Oven Dreams

Lately, when I go into our kitchen, I am drawn to the shiny, aluminum-clad appliance in the far corner, next to the outside wall.  I look at it, and think about possibilities.  Happy, hopeful, heated, holiday possibilities.

It’s the double oven, of course.

IMG_7516_2A double oven may not be a big deal for those who’ve always had  one, but I’m not in that category.  I’ve only had a single oven, which has been . . . sufficient.  There aren’t many times when you really need two ovens.  But the holiday season is one of those times.  And now, with Thanksgiving only two days away and the Christmas cookie season right behind it, I think of what I might be able to accomplish with deft use of the double oven.

For Thanksgiving, the benefits of a double oven are obvious.  The turkey can be cooking away in one oven, perhaps with one or two other dishes, and the other oven can be used for warming pies, candied yams, rolls, a green bean casserole, and on and on.  No more desperate attempts at oven space management, trying to jam every course into the nooks and crannies around the turkey in a doomed bid to get everything hot and ready to serve at the same time.  In short, the double oven affords the luxury of ample space.

For Christmas cookie baking, the potential benefits are different.  The double oven should allow me to maximize efficiency and eliminate the down times, when I’ve got a sheet of cookies ready to bake but I’m waiting for those in the oven to finish.  I look at the shiny aluminum facing and I think of Dutch spice cookies turning a rich golden brown in the top oven as I’m loading a tray of Cranberry hootycreeks into the bottom unit.  An efficiency expert would undoubtedly be able to calculate how much time I might save by deft use of the double oven options.  It will require careful planning and sequencing, of course, but I’m eager to tackle the challenge.

And now I wonder — do I have enough counter space for all of these cookies?

The Worldwide Celebration

Every year, I approach New Year’s Eve with a meh feeling.  It’s a phony holiday, I think, based solely on the arbitrary divisions of time set by medieval calendars created by forgotten leaders.  It’s also a an event that causes people to raise their hopes for great parties and great times, and often it ends up being a tremendous letdown.

Unbeknownst to me, however, there is a hard core of people out there who love New Year’s Eve.  They live for it and celebrate it with joy and fervor.

Why?  As one person explained it to me, it’s because New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day are really the one worldwide holiday.  Many holidays are national, or religious, and therefore aren’t recognized, much less celebrated, by people in different countries or of different faiths.  But New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day are different.  Across the globe, as the hour strikes 12 and the calendar page turns, people of all nationalities, faiths, colors and creeds celebrate the New Year and the promise of a fresh start that a new year holds.

I never really thought about it in quite that way — and while I’m not sure that the remote villages in Papua, New Guinea, for example, are waiting for a ball to drop, there’s a lot of truth to the notion that New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day are the closest thing we’ve got to a worldwide holiday.  Turn on the TV now, and when it strikes the hour you’ll see fireworks and celebrations in some faraway land.  So maybe New Year’s Eve really does deserve to be the subject of festivity.  This year, we’re going to give it a shot.

In A Darkened Room

Shhhh! I need to be quiet.

I’m sitting in our darkened room in a bed and breakfast in Jacksonville, Florida. Kish and I are here to visit Richard and have a family Christmas. We got here last night, and Russell is staying at Richard’s apartment.

On these family vacations, it seems that I always spend time in a darkened room. I get up early and don’t want to wake my lovely, slumbering wife by turning on lights, so I will sit in a chair in the gloom, checking my email, watching dawn arrive and the dim light grow through cracks in the drawn curtains and shades of the windows, and trying to be as quiet as a church mouse. I’ve experienced a few stubbed toes over the years, shuffling through the blackness, but it’s worth it.

Sitting in a darkened room says “family travel” to me, because it only happens when I travel with Kish. When I am flying solo, I can spring from bed, turn on every light in the hotel room, and hit the ground running. It’s only on joint trips that I experience this sweet, slow, patient, quiet start to the day.

I hope all of our friends and Webner House readers can enjoy special times with their families this holiday season!

The Dark Underbelly Of The Elf On A Shelf

Millions of American households with young children have an “elf on a shelf.”  As explained to me — because the elf didn’t become popular until well after Richard and Russell were out of their childhood years — the elf is a little figure that changes its position from time to time and moves from room to room, supposedly so he can keep an eye on things and report back to Santa Claus on whether the kids of the family are being naughty or nice.

Now a Canadian professor contends that there is more to the “elf on a shelf” than meets the eye.  Rather than an innocent yet tangible expression of the power of belief in Santa Claus, she contends that the “elf on a shelf” conditions children to uncritically accept existing power structures and norms and to get used to lack of privacy and being spied upon.

So . . . even if that questionable theory is true, what’s wrong with that?  Speaking as a parent, I wanted our kids to accept the existing power structure — namely, that Kish and I got to call the tune in the Webner household — and to think that if they were doing something bad, it would be discovered and reported.  Fortunately, our kids were little angels at all times.

Of course, the combination of Christmas and spying goes back to well before the “elf on a shelf” first made his appearance.  Santa Claus, of course, knows if you’ve been naughty or nice — so he’s not only spying on your kids, but he’s also judging them.  If we’re worried about the impact of naughty/nice spying on children’s psyches, maybe we also should ask what gives Santa the right to judge our kids?  Obviously, a guy who smokes a pipe, wears real furs, and has a gut that shakes “like a bowl full of jelly” when he laughs is not living a perfect, healthy, blameless lifestyle, so why should he be deciding whether a little kid is abiding by accepted societal norms?

Maybe there’s a deep, dark underbelly here — or maybe professors at the University of Toronto Institute of Technology need to relax and realize that kids trying desperately to control their inner demons for a few weeks each December in order to maximize their presents is part of the magic of the holiday season.

Partied Out

When I started as a new lawyer in Columbus in the 1980s, the turn of the calendar to December 1 marked the beginning of a very festive month of celebration.

In those days, it wasn’t uncommon to get a surprise present or a gift basket with some wine, cheese, and crackers from someone who wanted to get or keep your business; one year I received a porcelain cookie jar in the shape of a snowman’s head and another I got a candy-dispensing contraption.  At night large parties hosted by consultants, clients, court reporters, and other law firms were the norm.  During the weeks leading up to Christmas, lawyers could always find a post-work place to revel in the brotherhood of the bar and enjoy a free drink or two, some hors d’oeuvres, and often live music, too.

It was all a vestige of the Mad Men era where work and partying went hand in hand, and it soon ended.  Court reporting firms and consultants became “service providers” who cut costs so they could compete more effectively on price, and lavish parties and gifts were the first line items on the chopping block.  Legal organizations became a lot more sensitive to the problems of alcohol abuse in our profession, and people started to realize that large, liquor-infused parties probably weren’t good for the inebriated lawyers who were making fools of themselves on the dance floor or under the mistletoe, or their marriages.

These days, December has a different, more family-focused feel to it.  It’s not a bad thing.

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes — 2014

With Thanksgiving behind us, and the tryptophan coma starting to dissipate, it’s time to think of the crunchy, sweet, delectable items we all associate with the next holiday.

IMG_2238This year exigent circumstances will require a new, more focused approach to my holiday baking, but I’m always on the lookout for some new recipes that add a new twist along with the old favorites.  This year, making something with coconut and chocolate sounds good.  I found this recipe on an internet cooking website and am going to give it a shot:

Chocolate-Drizzled Coconut Macaroons

Ingredients:  1 1/4 cups granulated sugar, 4 large egg whites, 1 tablespoon honey, 1 teaspoon vanilla extract, 1/2 teaspoon fine salt, 7 ounces sweetened shredded coconut (about 2 2/3 cups), 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour, 6 ounces semisweet chocolate chips

Fill a large saucepan with 2 inches of water and bring it to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to low so the water is just simmering. Whisk sugar, egg whites, honey, vanilla, and salt in a large heatproof bowl. Set the bowl over, but not touching, the simmering water. Heat, whisking frequently, until sugar has dissolved and the mixture looks thicker, paler, and is hot to the touch, about 8 to 10 minutes.  Remove bowl from the heat and stir in the coconut and flour. Cover and refrigerate the dough overnight.

Heat oven to 350°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Stir the dough and drop level tablespoons onto the baking sheet about 2 inches apart then bake on the middle rack. Bake until cookies are light golden brown around the edges and set in the centers, rotating the sheet halfway through, about 12 to 15 minutes total. Place the pan on a wire rack and let the cookies sit for 1 minute. Transfer the cookies to the wire rack to cool completely. Using a cooled baking sheet and the same sheet of parchment, repeat with the remaining dough. Set aside the parchment to use for drizzling the chocolate over the cooled cookies.

Place the cooled cookies on the reserved parchment sheet (they can be touching). Melt the chocolate chips in a small saucepan over low heat. (Alternatively, melt the chocolate chips in the microwave.) Dip a fork into the chocolate and drizzle it over the macaroons in a zigzag pattern. Let the cookies sit at room temperature until the chocolate has set, about 30 minutes. Store the macaroons in an airtight container for up to 2 days.

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes — 2013

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes — 2012

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes — 2011

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes — 2010

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes — 2009

Another Reason Not To Celebrate Columbus Day

Columbus Day is one of those “holidays” that really isn’t a holiday in any meaningful sense of the word.  Sure, federal workers and state workers get the day off — they get every holiday off, without fail — and so do bank employees.  For the rest of us working stiffs, however, Columbus Day is just another day to slog into the office and briefly wonder why that the flow of rush hour traffic is lighter than on the average work day.

And these days many people don’t care much for Christopher Columbus, either.  Admiral of the Ocean Sea, persuader of Ferdinand and Isabella, intrepid explorer — forget all that stuff we learned in grade school!  Now we hear that Columbus brought disease and slavery to the New World and is viewed as standing for colonialism, cultural insensitivity, and a Eurocentric vision of the world.  That’s why some people insist, instead, on celebrating Indigenous People’s Day.

Poor old Chris and his lame holiday are taking a beating from every quarter — which is why I got a chuckle out of the story sent along by the Friendly Doc Next Door, about an Ann Arbor, Michigan bank that announced that it wasn’t celebrating Columbus Day because Columbus, after all, is a city in Ohio.  Why not?  College football’s greatest rivalry is as good a reason as any to not recognize a federal holiday that is a “holiday” in name only.  When Arbor Day rolls around, we here in Ohio will retaliate by not celebrating it, either.