Party at My House
One of my neighbors asked me the other day, "How long have you guys been having that party?" It has probably been nearly 20 years now; I remember when Sue and I decided that we needed to host a Christmas party, and my home for some reason made for an easier site than hers. She found out from Cait how to make the good egg nog that she'd remembered having at one time, and gave me a recipe that has been concocted differently each year since but with two invariables: make it a couple of days ahead of time, and use the good rum.
Neither Sue nor Cait live on the island any more, but I owe them both a nod each year when we gather in my kitchen to toast the first day of winter and the (seemingly contradictory) soon lengthening daylight. OK, maybe nobody really "toasts" anything at all, and I may be the only one who gets sentimental about the more, uh, bronze-age sorts of holidays, but I don't think so. One year, we sent out actual paper invitations to feast on St.Nicholas' Day, December 6th, he of course the patron of not only the Father Christmas image but, according the the St Nicholas Society of the UK, “…against robberies, of apothecaries, bakers, boatmen, bootblacks, brewers, captives, children, dockworkers, fishermen, lawsuits lost unjustly, longshoremen, mariners, parish clerks, poor people, sailors, scholars, schoolchildren, spinsters, students, thieves, travellers, unmarried girls, and watermen.”
That sounded about right for Matinicus.
The 6th is awfully early in the season, however, hard to manage the tree that soon and then, when our children went to the mainland for high school, no way they could get here that early. We settled on having our Christmas party be a Solstice party when it became obvious that absolutely no day of December would work out for all of our neighbors. We tried, valiantly, back years ago to schedule and re-schedule around people who wanted to be here, but it never worked. Working around one friend messes up another. Eventually we learned that the only solution was to have the party again next year, for those who miss it, and to pick and date and stick to it. Thus, Lisa wishes me "Happy Solstice." Suzanne wishes me "Happy Solstice." In this house, a happy heathen.
To be honest, it's all about the food, and as the hot dishes are fairly ordinary comfort-food fare, it's really all about the desserts. There aren't nearly people enough on Matinicus any more to begin to tackle everything I'd like to make, so maybe there's no cheesecake this year, maybe we'll wait and do the rugalah later, maybe we'll save the applesauce fruit rum thingy for Twelfth Night, but there will be ginger snaps, there will be chocolate pound cake, there will be pies, there will be baklava.
Every Christmas, there will be baklava. It has become one of those carved-in-stone traditions.
This year, for something new, we made Needhams, the old-fashioned candy made of coconut and mashed potato, dipped in chocolate and, uh, paraffin. No, no, you didn't see that (it is in the old recipes, though.) You do not taste the potato whatsoever (or the paraffin.) It's like a homemade Mounds bar. Very good. People gave me the very best of compliments when they said "just like my grandmother used to make." Thanks, Pat, for the recipe, although I did use butter instead of oleo.
So we had the three stoves all humming, with the big gas stove full of lasagna and that strange green bean casserole, the other gas stove up on tilt for the French bread, and the wood stove yielding its turkey, which had been cooking most of the day (having spent the night before in a lobster kettle full of salt water, on the advice of another island cook.) Anybody showing up cold wouldn't be cold for long, even without the egg nog (or Canadian rotgut or whatever they chose to celebrate with.) Cold they were, as this year we partied despite the biggest storm in a long time, cars wallowing in snow, boots filled, and no small worries about the power lines later. Several comments were made praising the virtues of four-wheel drive, even four-wheelers, which though not a warm ride could get through the snow. People gave other people rides, and I heard one friend comment that if she got stuck going home, there was no doubt somebody would pull her out. I overheard a group of the men, Paul, John, Maury, Clayton, Robert, whoever else it may have been, discussing the realities if the lights go out…"My chain saw's all sharp…" The main thing is to have a "real" telephone, rather than an electronic cordless phone set requiring power from the wall outlet. Anybody who owns a chainsaw ought to also own an old-fashioned telephone, but I've ranted about that topic before. Sorry.
Our oldest neighbor Kathleen was not about to come out in the storm, despite having been offered a ride, and nobody blamed her. We did all have to chuckle though when it became clear that she had specified, ahead of time, what she'd like and not like for "take-out." Knowing that somebody would bring her a plate of food from the party, she had made the statement that she "didn't want any of those shells," meaning stuffed shells, Italian style. I'd made those last year. This year, I did lasagna instead, which in my kitchen is constructed of exactly the same components as stuffed shells. We perhaps naively assumed that if she didn't like shells, she didn't like lasagna either. The next morning she told one of the women that of course she liked lasagna, and we should have sent her some. She just didn't like those stuffed shells.
We had the teenagers home from boarding school, and spare me the Dickensian images of a young Ebenezer Scrooge stuck over the break, neglected, unloved, demoralized and bored. Eric arrived with a bum shoulder thanks to a hidden patch of ice at Sunday River; he barely made it home, got the last flight the day before, nearly in the dark and thanks are due the flight service guys and Tammra who gave him a lift from Bethel, in time to make that late flight. He wouldn't have made it home on Monday, as had been the original plan when he was going to take the bus, as the weather did it's usual maritime thing and sabotaged the travel plans of many.
Emily had been out of school several days already and was busy splitting wood, like all good prep school kids should.
We had cookies my mother used to make, and cookies by a recipe Em got off the Internet, and cookies that nobody makes at home (except that I do, every Christmas…those three-color marzipan layer things with the chocolate on top.) We had a screeching gale outside and warm, friendly faces inside, even including a few who have little use for each other of late but no bone to pick with me; I was delighted to offer my home as "Switzerland." That's what Christmas parties are good for. We had a little boy licking the sugar off the star cookies, and Bill who attends no church suppers or official island Christmas functions but is willing to make merry here, and a couple of us conspiring toward a New Year's polar bear dip, and folks making up plates of turkey and pie for guys who would have come but were stuck on the mainland. We had holly and winterberry and fragrant balsam fir. We had, best of all, a Christmas truce.
Our friends all made it an early night, most worried about the weather. The last words of some as they located their winter gear had to do with their willingness to help if the power went out (which it did not.) I did remind Emily to make sure she had a flashlight in her bedroom, just the same. Now, it's four days of leftovers, biscotti for breakfast, two turkeys down and one more to go, and, hopefully, a break in the weather.
Eva Murray admits to being a show-off about the baklava.