Another Auld Lang Syne

Ham hock and black-eyed peas, from Wikimedia
New Year’s Eve was not a big deal when I was growing up in Tennessee.  We generally went to bed early, and rarely even stayed up to watch the ball drop on TV.

New Year’s Day was the more important event.  Mother always cooked black-eyed peas with hog jowl or ham hock and made cornbread.  She put a dime in the peas, and whoever found the dime would come into money in the new year.  After my brother Gil and I shoveled out half the bowl while searching for the dime, Mother ruled that you had to eat everything you spooned out.

My friend Ed who is African-American has an additional tradition, eating collard greens on New Year’s Day.  The black-eyed peas are coins, he says, and the greens are folding money.

Many cultures believe in having pork on New Year’s Day.  Pork represents fat, plenty, and thus prosperity.  Maybe that’s where I’ve been going wrong–I guess turkey kielbasa doesn’t count!

Another custom in our part of the South held that the first person to cross your threshhold (come in your front door) on New Year’s Day should be a man, preferably a tall, dark-haired man, in order to have good luck in the new year.  Apparently this comes from Scottish tradition, and is called “first-footing.”  The Scots start at midnight on New Year’s Eve and go visit during the next several days, bringing small gifts that signify plenty like Scotch whiskey or treats.

I’ve had many New Year’s Eves that were pretty decadent.  New Year’s Day usually involved recovery and watching the Rose Parade on TV.  This year I plan to stay home and celebrate quietly.  But I will have black-eyed peas, cornbread, and some kind of pork.  And I plan to find a dark-haired man to cross my doorstep.  My neighbor Bob comes to mind.  It’s time for all the good luck I can get!

A safe New Year’s Eve to all, and a prosperous, healthy and Happy New Year!


Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas

Like about one-third of the country, I’m traveling for the Christmas holiday.  So I’m taking a break from the blog for a bit, not wanting to monopolize my brother-in-law’s computer or laboriously post from the iPod Touch.  I want to experience Christmas with my family, not record it.

Before I go, however, I want to make a shout-out to last December in New York and New Jersey.  Mercifully, I put that disaster out of my mind until time to travel this year.  I got out before the storm came last year, but I couldn’t get back home.  Flying on Continental miles, I was at the bottom of the list for rescheduled flights and would have had to wait over a week to get back to New York.  So I rented a car and drove back from Ohio.  I stood in line with three other people who were doing the same.

The drive was not unpleasant, although the roads still had some ice in the mountains of Pennsylvania.  I sang along with the radio and my iPod, and stopped about once every hour or so.  Things got eerie once I got to New Jersey.  It was dark, and mountains of snow dwarfed the highways.  I got to Newark Airport, turned in the rental car, and took a shuttle van to the parking lot where I’d left my car.

The van driver stopped where I remembered my car was parked.  The plowed snow had made tunnels over the smaller cars.  My little yellow Hyundai Tiburon was buried to the roof.  The driver immediately pulled out a shovel and dug out my car.  I gave him $20 and thanked him profusely.  Left to myself, I’d have had to wait for spring to thaw it out.

So I’m hoping this year will not provide adventures.  I’m looking for quiet times with my sister’s family, sitting by their fireplace.  Best wishes to everyone for happy holidays, and more to come later on!


Recipe: Original Red Velvet Cake

Red velvet cake was not part of my holiday tradition in middle Tennessee.  My mother made blackberry jam cake every year, and I’d never heard of red velvet cake until Ron made it for my Christmas party here in New York.  After he died, Linda graciously assumed the mantle and has made red velvet cake every year since for the party.

It’s really a chocolate pound cake with cream cheese frosting.  What makes it red is a ton of food coloring.  Linda has tried everything from beet juice to all-natural coloring, but nothing gets that lurid red except regular food coloring.  If the thought of Red Food Dye #whatever bothers you, just use one bottle instead of two.

This recipe is a little retro–I think it dates from the ’60s if not earlier.  Now that red velvet cake and cupcakes are popular, I’m sure there are many variations.  But this is the one I know and love.  Happy Christmas from me, and a shout-out to the memory of Ron.

Red Velvet Pound Cake

3 cups cake flour

1/2 cup cocoa

1/4 teaspoon baking powder

Sift together the dry ingredients.

Then mix:

3 cups sugar

5 eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla

2 1-ounce bottles of red food coloring

1/2 cup Crisco

1/2 lb. butter

1 cup milk

Mix the dry ingredients into the wet mixture.  Bake in a tube pan 1 1/2 hours at 300 degrees.


1 8 oz. package cream cheese

1 box powdered sugar

1 stick butter

1 cup pecans (small pieces)

2 tablespoons vanilla

P.S.  I got the photo from Wikimedia for a “Southern red velvet cake.”  I never think to take a picture of Linda’s–too busy eating!

Bring Back “The Homecoming”

I’m making a pitch for resurrecting an older TV Christmas special, “The Homecoming.”  Do you remember it?  This is the special that became the basis for the series, “The Waltons.”

The great thing about the special was, it was darker, funnier and less heartwarming than the series became.  Viewers really saw the widespread poverty of the Depression and the desperation that drove their daddy to work many long miles away in order to bring home food and presents for that large family.

The mother was played by Patricia Neal.  She was harsh and loving, fearful and strong, less pretty, more rawboned and real than Michael Learned, who played the role in the series.

As these dark days of winter roll in and aftermath of the Great Recession refuses to go away, I find myself thinking about how my parents and grandparents endured poverty and hard, manual labor during the Great Depression, and how their lives did not change for the better until World War II brought factory work and higher-paying jobs.  I think how hard they worked so my sisters, brother and I could go to college and have more comfortable lives.

Things may not have always worked out as they hoped.  But I never had to hoe tobacco or eat biscuits and sawmill gravy for dinner because I couldn’t afford meat.  “The Homecoming” is a gem in its own right, but I love it all the more because it takes the viewer inside a world my parents knew–a world I hope I will never have to know personally.  Good night, John Boy!

Here’s a link to part of the special on YouTube:


Showing Up and Being There

Last year's table (not so different this year)

Showing up is 80% of life.–Woody Allen

Do you ever feel like you spend most of your time showing up, without really being there?  By “being there,” I mean paying attention, being involved, feeling and enjoying that particular moment, not racing ahead in your mind to the next thing to be done.

The first time I realized someone else felt that way was years ago when I first saw “Annie Hall,” which I still think is Woody Allen’s best movie (although “Midnight in Paris” is a contender as well).  The scene where Annie and the character Woody plays are in bed, and at the same time she’s sitting on top of the bureau observing–I thought, “That’s it!”

Journalists and novelists are like that, I think, and photographers as well.  Have you ever spent so much of an event taking photos that you don’t really take part in what’s going on?  I have boxes and boxes of old-style physical photos I took in countries all over the world when I was traveling with Ron and on my own.  I look at them now and think, where was that?  What was I doing?  What was I feeling?  The camera becomes a way to create distance and put up a wall.  I think psychologists call it “compartmentalizing.”

I’ve gotten somewhat better at “being there” over the years.  Yoga class helps a lot.  I used to smirk when the teacher said, “Be here now,” but now I know the teacher means “Stop your mind from running in circles and feel where you are and how you are moving.”  Easier said that done, but it can be learned.

I think Twitter is yet another way to not be here, and texting can be as well.  Have you ever wanted to strangle a teenager who is sitting right next to you, not listening or participating in what’s going on, and texting as fast as they can to a friend?  How about the dad who can’t put down his Blackberry or iPhone?  Is every email that important?

Sorry to be such a curmudgeon.  I’ve been guilty of all the above at one time or another.  But it came home to me that being there, really being there, can be fun sometimes.  One of my friends brought his guitar to the party I gave the other night and lyrics to Christmas carols and songs.  We all sang and laughed and banged rhythm instruments for hours.  And I didn’t even realize until the next day that I didn’t get out my camera or my phone and take any pictures of the group and the party.  I was too busy having a good time!

That’s really a good way to “be here now.”

We’re Having a Party

Tomorrow I have my Christmas party.  I’ve had one ever since I moved to my present location in 1996.  It’s less elaborate now than in my earlier years, but still involves decorating for Christmas, 10-12 friends, and more food than any of us need.

But that’s part of the holiday spirit–fun, and excess, and not being prudent or circumspect.  I’m baking a pecan pie, and tomorrow a tomato-ricotta tart.  I have smoked salmon, shrimp, cheeses, vegetables, and pate.  And, needless to say, lots of wine and other drinks.

My friends are bringing appetizers and desserts.  The real treat, however, is that one of them brings his guitar and we sing Christmas carols and Beatles songs.  Okay, it may sound hokey, but we love it.  How many chances do we all get to sing out loud?  When do we get to laugh, and tell stories, and dance?

My cat is exiled to the basement until the food is gone (he can’t be trusted).  Then he comes up and socializes, too.  Even he feels how warm and fun it is.

It’s not that all inhibitions are loose.  That’s not it at all.  It’s that we love and trust one another, and this is a party where we feel warm and happy together.  I love it.  And I’ll do it as long as I can.

Peace out, my friends, and may you all have a happy party in your immediate future.

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