December, Baby!

I feel for Brandi, truly, I have deep sympathy for her each December. It can’t be easy having so many December babies in her life. Her mom’s birthday and mine are just three days apart in the first week of the month. Then, of course, there’s Christmas. But, wait! There’s more! Her younger brother’s birthday is the very next day. By the end of the month, she’s financially ruined. Of course, she’ll recover sometime around late March. I kid, obviously; Brandi is great about anticipating the financial hurricane of December, and she generally shops year-round, and has her Christmas shopping wrapped up shortly after Thanksgiving.

As a December baby, myself, I adore this month. I love to celebrate, and there is so much to celebrate in December. We kicked off the month with a family dinner at Slackwater, one of our favorite Ogden restaurants, to celebrate Brandi’s mom’s birthday. As much as I love having a full house for Thanksgiving, it was nice to spend the evening with just immediate family. It’s a different quality of conversation, and you really get to catch up with one another in a way that you can’t over the bluster of a large family gathering. We had just seen our little nephew the week prior at Thanksgiving dinner, but I swear he was already taller. I think his bed might double as a taffy puller.

I took Thursday and Friday off this week, as a birthday gift to myself, to relax and decompress a bit. Of course, my version of relaxation is to do as much as I possibly can with the time I have available and then complain about how little time I have to relax. So, while Brandi was working, I got a few projects done.

I have this room in the basement where I can sequester myself and play guitar without disturbing the peace. During our kitchen remodel, we repurposed the room for storage, and we never really got around to completely unpacking everything we had moved down there once the remodel was finished, so the room was still pretty full of those seldom-used items that we didn’t care to find a home for in the new kitchen—things like the ice cream maker, the waffle iron and several thousand water bottles. So, I spent a good chunk of my first day off relaxing by finding homes in various closets, cupboards, drawers, and trash bins for those items to regain my music room and restore peace and quiet to rest of the home.

If only I could play any of these well.

Friday was all about Christmas! While Brandi was at work, I got the house all lit up. I go crazy for Halloween—for years I’ve put up fun story-driven displays with skeletons and headstones and lights and fog in the front yard, but despite my best intentions, I’ve never put up Christmas lights. I always plan to, but the season tends to get the best of me, time slips through my fingers, and before I know it, it’s New Year’s Eve. But on Friday, I finally tackled the exterior illumination with only a single Griswold moment (no, I didn’t fall off a ladder, just had a lousy string of lights fail to show up for work). And I think I did alright for my first go at it. I even dolled-up the baby pines in the back yard. Brandi says we’re festive AF now, and I don’t think she’s wrong.

Friday night was date night. Our date nights are usually date nights with Ogden too. Ogden nights, we call them (or Ogden days, I suppose, if the sun is still hanging around). We went downtown for the grand opening of the new Dumke Arts Plaza where we heard some wonderful poetry and some excellent live music, followed by a stroll through the Monarch to do a little Christmas shopping from some fantastic local artists, but I can’t tell you much more lest I spoil some gifts for folks who might be reading this.

For dinner, we decided to finally try out Wimpy & Fritz, a new taco place that started out as a food truck and built a brick & mortar shop earlier this year, and um… look… no offense to the rest of the taco shops around the world, but Wimpy & Fritz has you all looking like Taco Bell. Hands-down, these were the best tacos we have ever had. This might be a new favorite spot.

We got home full of beans and went to work setting up the tree and hanging the stockings. We have a few traditions to which we adhere pretty strictly.

  1. We watch Elf while we decorate.
  2. Every year, we buy a new special ornament. We started with our tree topper way back in 2006. In the beginning, we just found fun, kitschy stuff at Target or a gift shop in the mall, but over the past several years, we’ve tried to find ornaments that remind us of a special trip, or a particular time in our lives. In fact, we’ve bought the majority of our ornaments over the past decade on trips to the national parks. It’s a great tradition we hope to pass down to our kids—every year when we decorate the tree, we take a little walk down memory lane as we put up those ornaments.
  3. Any time we’ve had to replace one of our dog’s tags, we have repurposed the old tag into an ornament. Originally, I just thought they’d look nice on the tree, but since we lost Manny, our magnificent Yorkie, to heart failure a couple years ago, those ornaments have taken on a new meaning. They’re a reminder of Christmases we spent with our dogs, and they give us a good reason to talk about those memories.
  4. We drink eggnog. But not this year. Because of the beans.

Finally, Saturday was my birthday. I won’t spend too much time here, other than to say that we spent the evening surrounded by some of the most wonderful people we know, eating good pizza, listening to good music, and having some great conversation on topics ranging from Marvel movies to neuroscience. I may or may not have, at one point in the evening, waxed poetic about my fascination with tangible media and how incredible I find it that songs can be etched into plastic and delivered with a diamond; no microchips or software required. In retrospect, that might have been the conversation that finally cleared the room.

On that note, Brandi crushed it this year, despite having so many December babies in her life. She got her Beatles-loving, vinyl-obsessed partner the perfect gift. This December baby has been playing it on repeat all weekend.

What do you get for the man who has every Beatles album on vinyl?

Spoiler Alert: Christmas is Coming

After a long weekend of Christmas shopping, gorging on Thanksgiving leftovers, and plowing through the new Beatles documentary series on Disney+ (I don’t want to spoil it for you, but don’t get too excited for a new Beatles album anytime soon), it was back to work today. For me, anyway. Brandi has this cush schedule that gives her seven days off at a time. At least, it’s cush until she has to work seven in a row; then it’s not cush. Not cush at all.

I went in tired this morning. I had a late night on Sunday because of Spider-Man. Tickets to the new Spider-Man movie went on sale at midnight, and I had to secure ours for opening night to make sure we don’t catch any spoilers before getting to see it. Brandi can take or leave Spider-Man, but I kind of dig him. He’s nerdy and quippy, so I can relate. And I say I don’t want to catch any spoilers, but I’m definitely going to spend the next three weeks picking apart the trailers and deep-diving into internet leaks about potential Toby Maguire and Andrew Garfield cameos until approximately ten minutes before showtime.

Tonight, I keep thinking about Christmas. It’s coming. It’s out there. It will be here before you know it, though you’d never know it by the weather. It was nearly sixty degrees today, and there’s no sign of snow in the forecast. Brandi says that much to her dismay, sweaters might be a thing of the past. This is a sweater household. We don’t love cold weather, but we love the warm, concealing, comforting embrace of cold weather apparel. You can get away with all manner of leisure and caloric intake with the right sweater.

But despite the weather, Christmas IS coming, and we’ve begun to plan accordingly. Brandi and I don’t like Christmas to sneak up on us, so we try to get as much shopping done as early as we can. We usually start keeping an eye out for good gifts in October, but we really dig in the Saturday after Thanksgiving. We skip Black Friday—Brandi usually has to work, and I’m not aggressive enough to avoid getting trampled—but we love to get out and about on Small Business Saturday. I come from the small business world, and we adore Ogden, so it’s important to us to support the local shops downtown. This year we got out to a few gift shops and galleries and made a few new friends while we were out.

We had planned on setting up the Christmas tree and getting the house decorated this weekend, but with the nice weather, it just didn’t feel right yet. This is an ongoing debate in our household. Traditionally, I have been of the opinion that decorations should go up after the first big snowstorm of the year, whether or not that comes before Thanksgiving. Brandi is adamant that Thanksgiving deserves its due, and she’s not wrong about that, but why waste a Christmasy snow storm just because Thanksgiving hasn’t passed yet? They’re so few and far between these days. To her defense, Brandi did spend quite a few years working in retail around Christmas time (a fate I wouldn’t wish on anyone), and I do get insufferable about Christmas music and holiday cheer this time of year, so I get it.

Still. As eager as I am to kick off the Christmas season, the weather just isn’t cooperating, so we decided to wait until later this week. I’m hoping for some snow this weekend, but I don’t want to check the weather as I can’t abide spoilers.

Dailies, Holidays

Good Gravy

What better way to begin than with Thanksgiving? This is one of our favorite holidays for many reasons. I love to cook, so it’s right up my alley, and we get to spend the day with our families all at once since Brandi and I usually host. It’s our largest gathering of the year, and this year was a big one, since the pandemic robbed of the holiday last year, and we have a big, new, remodeled kitchen this year, so a lot was riding on us to get it right!

Our Thanksgiving always starts the night before, as soon as we’re home from work, and it doesn’t end until around 10pm, Thanksgiving Day. It’s feet-murdering, body-bloating marathon, and I love every minute of it.

This year, we did a lot more prep on Wednesday night than usual. I got home from work a little early, and immediately got the Turkey into the brine to allow it enough time to do its thing. For the uninitiated, to brine a turkey is to submerge it in a heavily-iced saltwater bath for 12-24 hours before roasting it. I usually include brown sugar, garlic, turkey & veggie stocks, and some secret seasonings. The idea is that the brine tenderizes and seasons the bird, a bit like a marinade, and the result is a super juicy, flavorful turkey. In the words of the Mandalorian, this is the way.

Don’t worry. This is our dedicated Turkey Brining cooler. We rarely get mixed up with the drink cooler.

Next up, was stuffing prep—chopping and sweating an S-load of veggies and apples. I have this thing about chopping onions, where I tend to cry a lot. Like. A LOT. I once chopped off the tip of my thumb cutting onions because I could barely see through the tears. So, the prospect of cutting up five onions for the stuffing was a little daunting. Nevertheless, I had plan.

One of the few benefits of living through an airborne respiratory pandemic, is that there is no shortage of masks in our house. I quickly found an unopened package of KN95s I had purchased for a work trip in October. I threw one on with a pair of safety glasses from my toolbox and got to work. I’d like to tell you that it worked very well, but all I can really say is that it worked. I still cried my eyes out like I was watching Rose pry Jack’s frozen fingers from that floating door for the first time (never let go, Rose), but it wasn’t quite as bad as it would have been without the gear.

By the time I finished the stuffing stuff, Brandi was home from work, so I ceded the kitchen to her to make the rolls. I cook, and Brandi bakes. Brandi loves baking for the very reason that I hate it: science. Don’t get me wrong, I dig science, but I love the freedom of improvisation. When you cook, for the most part, you get to figure it out as you go—season to taste, add a random ingredient last minute because your instincts say it will work, adjust ratios, etc… Baking is much more precise. Only these ingredients, combined in this order, in these ratios, using this method, at this exact temperature, for no more and no less than this amount of time will give you this particular result. I think that Brandi is a big fan the structure of baking—having a recipe and a process. I am not. I love to wing it and see how it comes out. Sometimes that sucks for me, because I don’t keep recipes anywhere outside of my head, which is a faulty storage system, but it also makes cooking a great adventure since I’m always setting off without a map. I guess the point here is that Brandi’s rolls came out stellar, as usual.

Ariel came by to hang out and spend the night around 7, and we wrapped up the prep work with Pumpkin Pies. Years ago, I found a recipe by Alton Brown that suggested using gingersnaps for the crust instead of graham crackers, and it was an absolute revelation, so we’ve been using that method ever since. I’d like to say that I make these pies with fresh pumpkin, but I’ve done that in the past, and honestly, I don’t taste a difference between fresh and canned pumpkin, so all it really does to go fresh is to add an extra hour of cooking and prep time.

River is a funny little guy. He made a big scene when Ariel arrived, and then didn’t leave her side for the duration of her visit. We tell him all the time, “you can’t bark at people and then insist they cuddle you,” but somehow he makes it work. He even spent the night in the guest room with Ariel when we all went to bed.

Finally, Thanksgiving Morning was upon us. One of our favorite Thanksgiving traditions is to do a turkey trot first thing in the morning. The hospital where Brandi works holds an annual five-mile run / two-mile walk to raise money and take food donations for a local pantry, which we’ve done for quite a few years now. In the past, we’ve always done the run, but this time around we decided to just do the walk. We met up with a few friends who always join us for the run/walk followed by coffee in the parking lot afterwards. You’ll see them below, they’re great. What you won’t see is the middle-aged woman on roller skates who took a tumble rolling backwards down a steep hill halfway through the walk just as I was thinking certainly, she’s going to fall. Don’t worry, she survived with little worse than a bruised ego.

Back home, it was time to get cooking, so we put on a record and got to work! Long ago, an old friend gave me his family recipe for a delightful turkey, and I follow it to this day. It’s a little unconventional, but it makes a damn fine bird. Basically, you melt some butter into some orange marmalade (you heard me), mix in some sage & thyme, and rub the glaze between the skin and the breast meat. This requires me to do something I call Turkey Glove. Vegetarians and vegans, avert your eyes.

My brother, Vinny, arrived shortly after I got the bird in the oven. I had insisted that he come up early so that he, Ariel, and I could record a… special holiday message of thanks to share online with our friends. We tried to rope Brandi into this, but she’s a little camera shy. Good thing too, because she can actually sing, and would have completely upstaged us all.

While I took a break to upload our foolishness to the internet, River got comfortable with Vinny and Brandi got to work on the cranberry sauce. I don’t usually like the stuff, but Brandi crushes it every year. She makes it with fresh cranberries, orange juice, and probably something highly addictive, because it’s the only cranberry sauce I’ll eat. It’s bonkers-good, and it’s even better the next day atop a turkey sandwich.

I had told everyone to plan on dinner at about five, so our families started to arrive around four. What I hadn’t counted on was what a filthy liar the internet would be. Our kitchen remodel included all new appliances, including a new oven with a convection setting. I had never cooked a turkey on convection, so I did quick google to see what kind of a difference to expect in cooking time. The internet (dirty liar) told me that a 23 lb bird should cook in about three and half hours on convection at 350 degrees. I had planned on having ample time for the bird to rest and the stuffing and potatoes to cook before 5pm. But that damn bird took nearly five and half hours to get up to a safe internal temperature of 160 degrees. The turkey didn’t end up coming out of the oven until a little after 4:30, and I still needed to cook the stuffing, make the mashed potatoes, whip up some gravy, and get everything on serving dishes. Suffice to say, I was desperately hoping that the food would be worth the wait.

This is where Brandi deserves a million percent of the credit for Thanksgiving EVERY year. I do the bulk of the cooking, but she handles nearly 100% of the chaos as our guests arrive. It always feels like a sudden explosion of people—like a clown car just unloaded into our house. One moment, it’s just us, and the next, the house is bustling with activity. And River, the anxious wonder, certainly doesn’t make it any easier. But Brandi gets everyone situated, handles the dogs, and gets the space ready for dinner. It’s remarkable, and I don’t envy her that duty.

We had the house packed. Close to twenty people, including ourselves. By the time everything was finally ready, it was nearly 6:30. Ooof. Dinner was an hour and a half late. BUT! The food was a hit! The gravy, in particular, got rave reviews. I like to say that the gravy is the quickest thing to whip up, if you’ve got twenty-four hours to spare. Once the drippings are ready, it only takes about three minutes to make a gravy. The trouble is, that deep, rich, remarkable flavor comes from the brine and the glaze and the aromatics and the time it takes to slow roast them out the bird. The gravy might be a minor player, but it contains the pure essence of the meal.

So, we shared a lovely meal, we all ate way too much, the kids played some classic Nintento games on little 8-bit handhelds, and the adults talked late into the evening about our lives, current events, politics, religion, and a few other Thanksgiving Bingo topics, and before we knew it, the night was through. I wish I had gotten more pictures while everyone was here, but I was too occupied getting everything squared away and trying to stay on top of the dinner mess before it got too out of hand. Fortunately for us, Brandi’s cousin Michelle kept sneaking into the kitchen to do dishes while I finished cooking, so the mess wasn’t too bad by the time everyone headed home. I was bloated, I had the meat sweats, and my feet were killing me. But good gravy, I was overjoyed.

This holiday is so important to me. When I was little, my grandma on my dad’s side would host a big Thanksgiving dinner every year. All of the aunts and uncles and cousins and many of their friends would show up hungry and leave full of food and full-hearted. It was such a joyful experience each year, and I adored it. My grandmother died while I was still in high school, and the Thanksgiving gatherings ended after that. For years, it was just my dad, my siblings, and me. When I got old enough, I decided that if I ever wanted to have that big, joyful family experience again, it was up to me to create it, so I started hosting a combined Thanksgiving—Brandi’s family and mine all under one roof—something we had never done in my childhood. And when I’m asked if someone can bring a friend, the answer is always “YES! The more, the merrier!” It’s expensive and exhausting each year, and even though it makes me sad that my grandmother and my father are no longer here to take part, I never want to stop doing it, and I hope that our families are able to draw as much joy out of the day as I do.