Shapelings, this is the first year since Al and I met that we will be spending Christmas at home instead of in Vegas. Since our families are spread all over two countries and we found out that some friends — specifically, Sweet Machine, Ottermatic, their respective partners and Ottermatic’s bestie (hereafter, OTMBFF) — would be kicking around Chicagoland with no other plans, we decided to host Christmas dinner here.
I’ve had friends over for holiday meals a few times before, and whenever I do, I am beset by an uncharacteristic urge to go full-tilt Martha — which, because I’m me and not Martha, inevitably ends in frustration, tears, and inedible gravy (see below). I know I can handle turkey, mashed potatoes and stuffing, which are all I actually want to eat on Thanksgiving or Christmas, but at some point the socially ingrained Lady Neurosis kicks in, and I decide I need to produce exquisite canapes involving lots of phyllo and a standing rib roast and eleven different vegetables requiring trips to three different ethnic markets and some dessert that demands the purchase of edible flowers, a proper pastry bag and a better oven. Usually, I obsess about building the perfect menu for three or four weeks in advance, then compromise on turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, and a few new side dish and dessert recipes, only one of which will turn out to be worth the bother.
This year, in part because I’m older and wiser, and in part because we only decided a week ago that we definitely weren’t going to Vegas, I made a conscious decision to knock that shit off and keep it simple. I achieved this by asking myself the following questions before choosing any menu item: 1) Will the taste payoff be greater than the effort expended? 2) Is there any chance at all that my homemade version of this will be better than store-bought? 3) Is the likelihood of my fucking up the recipe greater than the likelihood that we will all be momentarily transported to food heaven?
Shapelings, I can’t tell you how much that simplified my ability to answer the questions that plague me every time I do this. For example:
- Should I brine the turkey? No. (1, 3)
- Should I try covering the turkey with a butter-soaked cheesecloth instead of aluminum foil? Sure, why not. (1)
- Should I make my own pies? No. (1, 2, 3)
- Should I look for exquisite canape recipes or just put out cheese, crackers and fruit? Cheese, crackers and fruit. (1, 3)
- Should I dry, chop and season some whole-grain artisanal bread for stuffing or use a bag of Pepperidge Farm cubes? Pepperidge Farm. (1, 2)
- Should I attempt any recipe for the first time on Christmas and pray that the cooking gods reward my adventurous spirit? Nooooo. (3)
- What can my guests do if they think any of the above shortcuts mean I’m a failure as a hostess and/or woman? Suck it. (1, 2, 3)
It’s a pretty terrific system, but even that doesn’t mean I’m completely free of guilt and fear of judgment. I now present to you — mostly because it’s amusing but also because it reveals the depths of my issues around food, hostessing and other people’s opinions — an e-mail exchange I have had over the last two days with Ottermatic, the other guests and Al. (The only background info you need, apart from the above, is that Al’s contribution to the Christmas meal is a huge bottle of the cheapest possible vodka, filtered with a Brita to [theoretically] make it more like expensive vodka. He and Mr. Machine recently had a conversation about someone somewhere on the internet who tried that and swore it worked, so he decided to give it a whirl.)
OTM: What shall we bring? Wine or other alcohol and what else?
Me (just to her): What I told Sweet Machine when she asked the same thing last night is below:
I went for the simplest possible menu, so it’s pretty well taken care of.
Things I could still use help with, though:
- If one or both of you have any talent for making gravy, awesome. I have never pulled it off, so I bought a thing of turkey gravy mix just in case, but if one of you is confident that you can make real pan gravy at game time, the job is yours.
- I can practically guarantee I’ll need someone to run to 7-11 for shit I forgot, so that is another volunteer opportunity.
- Solly will need extra snuggles to keep him out from under my feet.
Other than that, I can’t think of anything.
OTM: I will certainly take turns snuggling Solly, but I can also make gravy! Do you have chicken broth, flour, and butter?
Me: I do have all those things! HOORAY FOR GRAVY!
I have no idea why I am incapable of getting the ratio of flour to fat right, but history has shown that I am. The first time I did a holiday meal for friends, I fucked up the gravy so bad I was on the verge of tears until a friend came along and rescued it — but A) I’d already done so much damage that the rescue effort demanded extreme measures, and B) it was a Swedish friend, so the gravy ultimately involved red wine and cranberries and I dunno, Aquavit and mid-century furniture or something, so it was far from the old reliable midwestern taste I’d envisioned when I decided that cooking a bunch of shit I’d never tried to make before for 12 people was a REALLY GOOD IDEA. So from that I learned to A) make sure I had a jar of gravy or packet of gravy mix on hand and B) ask in advance if anyone else would like to take on gravy-making from start to finish.
FYI, I just investigated the flour situation, and I do have a mostly full container of Wondra “sauces and gravies” flour (which I bought ages ago thinking perhaps all-purpose flour was my gravy downfall, but I’ve never actually used it for anything except breading chicken breasts, like, twice). It expires in about two weeks, and I just realized the top was slightly open, so air’s been getting at it for however long, but it does not appear to be buggy. That is ALL YOURS if you want it — I honestly don’t know if the air thing is a real problem. If it is, you might want to bring flour.
OTM: I don’t think that exposing flour to air is bad, as long as it’s not exposed to bugs. I find ingredients in the back of our one, small kitchen cupboard that are expired and use them anyway all the time because the alternative is to buy a new package and then let that expire. I don’t know. I’m pretty cavalier about food safety. Which isn’t to say I’m going to put raw chicken in the gravy or anything, just that I am not afraid of your flour.
Me: I am similarly cavalier about food safety (there will, in fact, be raw chicken in the mashed potatoes, which will be served in a dented can), but I never want to admit that to other people, for fear they will judge me and never accept an invitation to dine in my home again.
This is sort of similar to the conversation I had with OTMBFF, in which he asked what was missing from the menu that he might bring, and I went, “Green vegetable?” and he was like, “Uh, do people really EAT green vegetables, other than green bean casserole, at holiday meals?” At which point I had to admit that no, they do not in my family (and I was never a huge fan of green bean casserole), but I am always afraid of being judged for just serving turkey and 7 kinds of carbs held together by fat instead of ensuring that my guests get as many phytonutrients as possible. Even though there’s a reason why carbs and fat with a side of protein is the traditional holiday meal, which is that it fucking TASTES GOOD, and it’s supposed to be a FEAST of things that TASTE GOOD, and I should probably reread that book by Marianne Kirby and what’s-her-name.
OTM: You should read it! It’s very good.
Me (to group): OTM has volunteered to make gravy. Sweet Machine, you are now in charge of Solly snuggling.
Mr. Machine: I’ll take care of the cycling of oxygen into CO2.
Al: Also, bring barf bags, because we have a lot of really cheap vodka to taste test. I’m afraid, not even sure if I can go through with it. Mr. Machine, we bought a virgin smaller bottle of Skol for comparison’s sake.
We have a whole bunch of wine and other stuff, vodka, gin, whiskey, not sure what else, so if you’re not fussy, I’m sure we are covered on the beverages.
Me: Oh, we also have rum and eggnog, because it’s one of those things I think I should have, even though people rarely end up drinking it.
Al: Let’s invent a drink that uses eggnog, rum, Skol vodka, and 3 kinds of gin. Served with an olive float.
Me: We’ll call it a “Divorcetini.”
OTM: I’ll bring two barf bags.
So, to recap: Despite all my long-term efforts to stop moralizing about food and my determination to make this particular meal as stress-free as possible, I remain neurotic about 1) my gravy-making abilities, 2) the possibility that I will realize I forgot something at the last minute, even though we’ll still have enough food and booze for 25 people, 3) a meal I borked 10 years ago, 4) the quality of my flour, 5) being judged for my willingness to use questionable flour, 6) being judged for not providing a more balanced holiday feast, and 7) disappointing a hypothetical guest who really wanted rum and eggnog on Christmas, even if there are 95 other things to drink. And sadly, this is progress.
With that, I am going to go make everything I can possibly make in advance, then sit down with a glass of wine and remind myself that the point of all this is hanging out with good friends, not getting an A+ in Traditional Feminine Duties. Merry Christmas to those who celebrate, Merry Day Off to those who don’t, and Happy Day After Festivus to all — please feel free to air your grievances in comments.