Thursday, December 25, 2008

The Nog Test

"Happy holidays!"
"Have a nice holiday!"

Over the years, I've made a concerted effort to wish people "happy holidays" instead of "merry Christmas" because in a multi-cultural environment, you never know who celebrates what, if anything. The other thing is that I love political correctness. I do. Political correctness rose to prominence when I was in college, and my friends and I were very excited about the idea of communicating with others on their own terms, instead of what we'd been taught by the previous generation.

So, truly, I prefer to hear "happy holidays" because it encompasses and embraces everyone. Now, Asheville is a very diverse and accepting community. And I've heard a sprinkling of "happy holidays" around here. But the overwhelming sentiment I've heard from store clerks, waiters, waitresses and the average person on the street is "merry Christmas." And I've honestly bristled each and every time I've heard it. But since it came from such a sincere place, I couldn't help but reciprocate. And I couldn't help be feel a little naughty every single time I said it. So, it's with that tingling feeling of doing something I'm not supposed to be doing that I wish you all a very merry Christmas. Hee hee.

Michael and I are feeling just a little under the weather this Christmas morning, and I can't remember ever being sick on Christmas morning. I think I just need a hot toddy or some nog. Which brings me to the true reason for the season: egg nog.

Because I'm always on a quest to capture the picture-perfect, quintessential Christmas promised to me by Currier & Ives and countless Coca-Cola commercials, a few years ago I decided I really should be making and drinking egg nog. So I went where I always go for instruction...Martha Stewart. Martha has an amazing egg nog recipe. It's rich and creamy and highly flammable. Yes, Martha douses her egg nog in three cups of bourbon, two cups of cognac and half a cup of dark rum. Then, a couple of years ago, I decided to add a half a cup of white chocolate liqueur to the mix, with terrific results. But here's the thing. I made my nog in Los Angeles every year, sometimes for our parties, sometimes for other people's parties, sometimes for family. But no one drank it.

I don't know if it was because it looks just too decadent. Or if people are intimidated by the alcohol content. But every year, I'd make a huge punch bowl full of egg nog, and besides what Michael and I would drink, I'd end up with a full bowl of nog. I think people like the idea of it. Like the look of it. Like the feelings it inspires and the idea that it adds something to a traditional Christmas event. So I made it every year, because not only is it delicious beyond words, but it's also festive.

So when Michael and I decided to have a party here in Asheville for the holidays, I knew I wanted to make my egg nog. In years past, I've tried cutting the alcohol down by half, then by three-quarters, to make it more appealing to revelers. But this year I decided to take a chance and go full strength. I even made this announcement to Michael the night before the party, when I was whisking together the mix. His eyes widened. "Just in case people actually drink it," I reasoned, "I want to extend it a little." Michael shook his head. "You don't usually add alcohol to extend something," he explained.

The guests were arriving while I was still beating the heavy cream into fluffy white clouds to float on top of the nog. Then with a sprinkle of nutmeg on top, it was ready. I ladled the first cup of it for myself, and I thought, "If I'm the only one who drinks it, at least that means more wine and champagne for everyone else." But then, a Christmas miracle occurred. I started noticing several people holding and drinking goblets of egg nog. Then when I went back for more, I noticed a drastic reduction in the contents of the punch bowl. Then not much later, someone told me that if I wanted another cup, I'd better hurry, because it was almost gone. What?! Could this really be possible?

Someone even sloshed a couple of more cups of rum into the empty bowl to get the last remnants of whipped cream. For the first time ever, the egg nog was a huge hit! I don't know if it was the atmosphere or the chill outside or what, but I had an empty punch bowl only about halfway through the evening. I had found my egg nog crowd. Next year: chocolate shavings on top.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Haul Out the Holly

If you're like me (and why wouldn't you be?), then you spent every free moment over the past couple of weeks making bows on your Bowdabra. If you don't have a Bowdabra, then I truly feel sorry for you. Basically, you know when you're making a bow and you ask someone to put their finger in place, so you can tie it? Well, for $14, the Bowdabra will do that for you, with almost no attitude.

With bows made and presents wrapped, we put up our lovely silver tinsel tree and used our black ornaments and black trim again this year. Usually we do a different theme from year to year, but when we were packing to move, the black ornaments were closer to the door of the storage unit. So they got to come along with us. Plus, I'm finding there's a lot of value in the fact that our Asheville friends have never seen our old bag of tricks. So we've been able to recycle and reuse everything from party themes to dinner menus to stories, and improve upon them for a new audience. Of course, we can only do that for so long here, then we'll have to move someplace new and start all over, like con artists fleeing from town to town.

Seeking some inspiration for our "Old-Fashioned Southern Christmas," we decided to make the trip to Gatlinburg for the Fantasy of Lights Christmas Parade. Now, this was right after the Asheville Holiday Parade, so I think my expectations were higher than they should have been. I don't know about you, but a bunch of freezing, sullen teenagers stomping down the street don't exactly inspire warm feelings of holiday spirit. A nighttime parade with lots of lights can't make up for a noticeable lack of "sparkle" amongst the cast. Luckily, we were providing our own "sparkle" thanks to our flasks and mini bottles of booze.

The next morning, we headed off to Dollywood to check out their idea of Christmas in the Smokey Mountains. As you know, before I became an international country music star, I grew up in the Smokeys. Wait, that wasn't me. That was Dolly. And Dollywood didn't disappoint, at least where decorations and festivities were concerned. The whole park was festooned with lights and holiday merriment. It was lovely. All the rides were closed, because of the cold, so we spent most of our time walking around shopping, eating and wishing everyone a "Gary Christmas." We did this, of course, because our friend Gary was with us, and it seemed like a good idea at the time. Since it was so cold, we ducked into one of the theaters and enjoyed a live holiday concert, which was surprisingly secular up until the very end, when the angel and the fog machine showed up.

I came home inspired, but not from visions of an "Old-Fashioned Southern Christmas" in my head, but from the growing feeling that with our tinsel tree and black ornaments, we should probably just be ourselves and let the sugarplums fall where they may. Several years ago, one of our rejected party themes was Cirque du Snowflake, which Michael hated, but I thought was just horrible enough to actually be good. So, stealing a little from that theme, we decorated the outside of the house and our driveway with snowflake lights, then added snowflake touches here and there around inside.

The retro house, the silver tree and the glittering snowflakes have given our little mountain home a cold, sterile and soulless feeling, so I couldn't be happier!

We were ready for a party.

More to come...

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Holidays are Busting Out All Over

I haven't written in ages, so I have lots to catch up on. It's so easy to get swept up in all the preparations and tasks preceding and during the holidays that you forget to stop and write it all down, so friends, family and strangers can read about it.

First up is the Asheville Holiday Parade. We've been hearing about this thing since before we even moved here. Friends here promised us that whatever it lacked in sophistication, it would more than make up in drunken debauchery. How could we refuse? The key, we were told, is to station yourself on the patio of a bar, so you can start drinking as soon as they open. (And after 12:00 noon, because of the crazy alcohol laws.)

In an effort to subvert this tradition, the town decided to have the parade earlier this year. Undaunted, our little group arrived bearing thermoses of bloody marys, mimosas and, our contribution, hot buttered rum. Since the morning started with frigid temperatures, I'm glad we had something to warm us up a bit. Here's a helpful hint, though. Hot buttered rum tends to separate, so be sure to give your thermos a good shake before you pour.

What had been described as "heckling the parade," actually turned out to be no more than good-natured chanting. Our group grew to over 20 and would dutifully cheer and applaud for each float and group that went by. But on top of that, we'd start chanting helpful suggestions or demands for action. For instance, we had no patience for bands taking a break. So our crowd would start chanting, "Play! Play! Play!" and the bands would always comply. We got similar responses from dancers and all the martial arts kids. During lulls, the group would break out in Christmas carols, or failing that, TV theme songs. It was all extremely silly.

I used to be highly critical of my own hometown holiday parade. If only I had been drinking and surrounded by a group of funny and outrageous friends. Even the inevitable appearance of the town's garbage trucks would have been more enjoyable. There were no garbage trucks in the Asheville parade, but they did have tractors and horses and lots and lots of churches and competing manger scenes. And actress/model Andie MacDowell, who happens to be a resident of Asheville. Here's a photo:

She's unbelievably beautiful in person. In fact, she's so beautiful, I didn't even start shouting "Murder! Murder! Murder!" at her fur boots. Though I'm going to assume they're faux fur, since she was on the Humane Society float.

We had such a good time at the parade, that I really was sad when it came to an end. Our hosts told us it was a better experience when it was later in the day, because you had more time to drink before hand. True to form, they started making plans to meet earlier next year. At the risk of sounding too treacly, I'm really grateful for the people we've met here, who have embraced us and always include us in their plans now. It's humbling and very sweet.

We have one more parade to attend before the holidays end, though. This weekend we're off to Gatlinburg, Tennessee to witness the Fantasy of Lights Christmas Parade. The name alone makes me giddy.

More soon!

Be sure to check out my parade photos on my Flickr page!