Thursday, January 30, 2014
I’ve been watching Julia videos. (The French Chef, 3-DVD set from the Durham County library.) Without a doubt my favorite part is when she says, “Hello, I’m Julia Child.” However there is no real reason for that to be my favorite part.
My other favorite part is watching her chop things. Holy cow! She turns an onion or shallot into a perfectly sized dice in ten seconds flat without even looking at what she’s doing.
Just watch her mince this shallot in the famous chicken show.
I feel like part of the appeal of Julia Child is that she is half Everywoman and half Superwoman. Sometimes things stick to the pan when she tries to take them out, sometimes things aren’t quite as done as they should be, or maybe they are too done, and she looks more like a high school teacher than a movie star, yet she did things with food that hardly anyone in America had ever seen.
I am completely in awe of her omelette technique, the way the eggs envelop the filling as she shakes the pan, and how beautifully cooked they are in just a few seconds. It feels at once both totally beyond my capacity and like something I could do it if I just put my mind to it and practiced hard enough.
And I think that is why so many people loved Julia Child — she does amazing things, and tells you how you can do them too. How can you not be inspired by that?
Tuesday, January 21, 2014
For Christmas this year I gave my nieces hot chocolate mix, made with Droste chocolate and vanilla sugar (sugar that sits in a jar with the spent husks of vanilla beans), and peppermint marshmallows that I made using Alton Brown’s recipe with peppermint extract substituted for vanilla.
It was reportedly a big hit, with special kudos from their cousins who declared it “better than Starbucks” and “peppermint heaven.”
[A friend of mine made marshmallows a few years back while I was visiting her, otherwise I'm not sure I would have attempted these. I don't think I even knew you could make homemade marshmallows before that. But they are not difficult. They are especially not difficult if you have a stand mixer, but even if you don't, it's not bad.
My friend and I were discussing recipes etc. in December when I was trying to decide whether I should make them. She said she wasn't sure if she would do them without a stand mixer. I decided to try it anyway and see how it was. It was fine. It does take a little while but it's easy -- as I said to my friend, you're just standing there holding a mixer, it's not like you're trying to hold a Volkswagen over your head. I looked at it as quiet time, like meditation. I was busy that week, it was a nice break.]
Because of the rave reviews, and because we are in the thick of hot chocolate season, I decided to post the recipes.
3 packages unflavored gelatin
1 cup cold water, divided
12 oz granulated sugar (approx 1-1/2 cups)
1 cup light corn syrup
1/4 tsp kosher salt
1 tsp peppermint extract
1/4 cup confectioners’ sugar
1/4 cup corn starch
Prepare the pans.
Combine confectioners’ sugar and cornstarch in a small bowl. Lightly coat a 9×13 pan with oil, or use nonstick cooking spray. Sprinkle the sugar and cornstarch mixture into the pan and shake the pan to completely coat the bottom and sides. Return the excess mixture to the bowl for later use.
Place the gelatin into a large bowl along with 1/2 cup of water.
In a small saucepan, combine the remaining 1/2 cup water, granulated sugar, corn syrup, and salt. Place over medium-high heat, cover and allow to cook for a few minutes, until the sugar has melted. Uncover, clip a candy thermometer onto the side of the pan and continue to cook until the mixture reaches 240 degrees F, approximately 7 to 8 minutes. Once the mixture reaches this temperature, immediately remove from the heat.
[No candy thermometer? Here's how to tell what stage it's at the French chef way.]
Turn the mixer on low speed using the whisk attachment if you have one (if not, regular beaters will work fine), and, while running, slowly pour the sugar syrup down the side of the bowl into the gelatin mixture. Once you have added all of the syrup, increase the mixer speed to high. Continue to whip until the mixture becomes very thick and has cooled to lukewarm, approximately 12 to 15 minutes. Add the peppermint when the mixture looks to be about done, and continue mixing for another minute or so to incorporate.
Pour the mixture into the prepared pan, using a lightly oiled spatula for spreading evenly into the pan.
[Note: The mixture will be VERY sticky, and the process of getting everything out of the pan and smoothed will be somewhat challenging. Just do the best you can and happily enjoy the batter that is stuck to the beaters and the bowl and the spatula as a special bonus for the cook. That's all for you. Yum.]
Dust the top with enough of the remaining sugar and cornstarch mixture to lightly cover. Reserve the rest for later.
Allow the marshmallow to sit uncovered for at least 4 hours and up to overnight.
Turn the marshmallow out onto a cutting board and cut into 1-inch squares using a pizza wheel dusted with the confectioners’ sugar mixture. Once cut, roll each square in the confectioners’ sugar mixture to coat all sides. Store in an airtight container.
Alton Brown says these will keep for three weeks, but I’m here to tell you they will keep pretty much indefinitely. They will dry out somewhat, but will still be edible, and will taste fine.
I looked up a few cocoa mix recipes online, and the one that looked best was from Martha Stewart, so I went with that. The only problem was that it makes a huge amount, 92 eight-ounce servings, so I cut the recipe in half.
Hot Cocoa Mix
1 and 3/4 cups sugar
1 and 1/4 cups cocoa
1 and 1/2 tsp salt
Combine ingredients in a bowl or jar, and stir to distribute evenly. Store in an airtight container.
To serve, heat one cup of milk per serving. (Whole milk will taste good. Whole milk with a tablespoon of cream or half & half will taste better. Other forms of milk are an acceptable substitute. Do not attempt with water.)
To each mug, add 1 to 2 tablespoons of cocoa mix. (For a less sweet version, use two teaspoons of mix plus one teaspoon of straight cocoa.)
Pour a tablespoon or two of warm milk into the mug, and stir to make a slurry of milk and cocoa. Then slowly add the rest of the milk, and stir to thoroughly combine.
Top with peppermint marshmallows.
Share with your cousins to make them jealous that you get to drink this all the time and they only get it when they come over to your house.
Thursday, January 16, 2014
I know I’m four years late to the party on this, but I’m writing a post anyway. Because … well, I don’t know why. Just because.
I am here to put to rest, once and for all, the burning question of Why Did Julia Child Not Like Julie Powell’s Project?
There is a scene in the movie Julie & Julia where Julie receives a call from a reporter who tells her that Julia Child was not impressed by her project, and wondering if she has any comment about that. Julie is distraught by this. This scene is taken from the Julie & Julia book, which I read last month. I am up to July on the blog and have not yet come across any mention of this event in the blog itself.
There is a very long thread about it on Chowhound.
This is what Julie Powell herself said about it in a 2009 blog post:
A lot of people have been asking whether it’s true that Julia Child wasn’t a big fan of Julie Powell, and whether she and I really didn’t meet. Both of those things are true – Julia, I think, from what I gather, was less irritated than simply uninterested. Which, when I first found out, was of course devastating. But the thing about Julia, to me, was that she was a real person – a great 6-foot-2 force of nature, with tremendous gifts, nearly limitless energy and generosity, firm opinions, and even a few flaws. That’s what I love about her – she inspired because she was a woman, not a saint. Not to say that her not loving my blog was a flaw. I just mean that the fact that she might not for whatever reason adore me as much as I adore her has absolutely no bearing on what is wonderful about her. Throughout her life, Julia nurtured and encouraged and gave great help to chefs and writers both. And she changed my life. No matter what she – or anyone else, for that matter – thought of the project. I know why I did what I did, and I am proud that I spent a year writing and cooking in tribute to one the most wonderful women I’ve ever not met.
There is a post by Russ Parsons, food writer with the Los Angeles Times, who was friendly with Julia Child and saw her regularly after she retired to Santa Barbara, describing how he brought the blog to Julia’s attention, printing out everything Julie Powell had written to that point (he doesn’t say at what point in the project he did this, though his article about the project was written in March 2003) and delivering it to her. And then when he didn’t hear back from her, following up to see what she thought.
This would appear to be the source of the scene in the book and movie, though at the same time, Russ Parsons said that Julia asked not to tell anyone her thoughts on this, and he didn’t. So not sure how to reconcile that.
At any rate, in the 2009 blog post, Parsons does say that he was “right there in the middle” of this event, and says that Julia Child replied thus, when asked what she thought of Julie Powell’s project:
There was a silence as she gathered her thoughts. Then in that familiar reedy voice she nailed the answer: “Well,” she said, “she just doesn’t seem very serious, does she?”
“I worked very hard on that book. I tested and retested those recipes for eight years so that everybody could cook them. And many, many people have. I don’t understand how she could have problems with them. She just must not be much of a cook.”
She asked me not to quote her, and after thinking it over, I didn’t, choosing a valued friendship over a couple of juicy paragraphs in a story. I’m still not sure it was the right call, but there you have it.
So that solves part of the mystery of Julia’s dis: professional pride.
This won’t come as a surprise to anyone who knew her well. One of the marvelous things about Julia Child was that even with all of the honors she had earned, she still approached her work with the earnestness (and competitiveness) of a beginner.
However after reading the books As Always, Julia and Julia Child: A Life, I think that’s an odd interpretation of Julia’s statement.
For one thing, it feels surprising to me that Julia would say that she can’t see how someone could have problems with the recipes because they had been tested so thoroughly. Julia did not sail through life effortlessly putting elaborate meals on the table. She struggled to learn to cook and worked and worked at it, experiencing many a failure along the way. In Julia Child: A Life, Laura Shapiro gives us this quote, taken from an episode of The French Chef:
“Cooking is one failure after another, and that’s how you finally learn,” she told the audience while she stirred the caramel. “You’ve got to have what the French call ‘je m’enfoutisme,’ or ‘I don’t care what happens — the sky can fall and omelets can go all over the stove, I’m going to learn.'”
Perhaps she had forgotten all of this by the time she was 91, or perhaps there was some interpretation on Russ Parsons part, writing a blog post six years after a conversation that he says he didn’t tell anyone about at the time. I don’t know. But it struck me as odd.
Also I think calling Julia’s comment a “dis” of Julie Powell doesn’t seem quite right either, and I don’t see how her “professional pride” could possibly have been touched at all by what Julie Powell was doing. As Julie notes, it wasn’t so much that Julia didn’t like the project, but that she wasn’t interested in it.
But more important is the question of what Julia’s most direct statement means — “She just doesn’t seem to be serious, does she?” — which it seems to me Russ Parsons misses the boat on entirely.
Laura Shapiro, in Julia Child: A Life, talks about Julia’s beliefs about French cooking specifically, and cooking in general.
“People are always saying WHAT MAKES FRENCH COOKING SO DIFFERENT FROM OTHER NATIONS’ COOKING?” she reflected in a letter to Simca [Simone Beck], and she set down four principles that struck her as definitive.
–Serious interest in food and its preparation
–Tradition of good cooking … which forms French tastes from youth
–Enjoyment of cooking for its own sake — LOVE
–Willingness to take the few extra minutes to be sure things are done as they should be done
Her highest praise was the word serious — the very first word that came to her fingertips when she started to type these principles. A “serious” cook, to Julia, was a careful, mindful, thoroughly knowledgeable cook, whose pleasure you could taste in the food….
And at the opposite end of the spectrum from the serious cook was the dark angel who hovered over the last principle in the list, the cook who refused to put in those extra minutes it took to reach perfection. This cook — male or female, French or American, famous name or anonymous homebody — was fatally associated with the term housewife. Julia never did recover from her early, bruising experiences with that word, and she consistently refused to be associated with such creatures. As she put it many times over the years, whenever the subject of housewives came up, “We are aiming at PEOPLE WHO LIKE TO COOK.” Yes, supermarket ingredients could be transformed into authentic French dishes, but not without two ingredients for which there were no substitutes, and Julia named them often: time and love.
If you actually read Julie Powell’s blog — which is very different from the movie, and much better than the book — she ultimately did learn a lot about cooking while doing the project. But I can see how someone reading through a print-out of the blog that a reporter dropped off might not see that.
Much of the blog centers around dealing with life in New York, watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer, working at a job you don’t like, and drinking vodka gimlets. And sometimes successfully getting a meal on the table, and sometimes doing things half-assed because you don’t have the right ingredients or don’t have the time to do it the way you’re supposed to. But you have a deadline, so you just have to keep moving, and you make the recipe anyway.
When Julia Child says that Julie Powell doesn’t seem “serious,” she means it in exactly the way that Laura Shapiro describes. Because Julie Powell is cooking all of the recipes in the book in a single year, while working a full-time job. She often does not have the time or energy needed to focus properly on the recipe at hand and make sure it comes out right. To Julia, this means that Julie is not a serious cook. And it would be hard to argue with her on that.
However, in Julie Powell’s defense, I will say that buried within the stories about bad housekeeping and difficult bosses and crappy apartments and vodka gimlets, are also stories about how much she has learned as a cook.
Julia was teaching people to use their senses when they cooked, because she thought the senses belonged in every well-run kitchen, like good knives. There was no better instrument in the service of accuracy than an attentive cook who was watching and smelling and tasting. Monitoring the progress of a syrup for candied orange peel, she made a point of listening for the “boiling sound” coming from the mixture. You can use a thermometer here, she told viewers, “but I think it’s a good thing to see and feel how it is.”
And that is exactly what Julie Powell did:
The kind of thing I really am learning from J.C. is about really paying attention to the food as it cooks. Instead of depending just on time or heat, she instructs me, for instance, to watch for “a little pearling of red juice beginning to ooze at the surface of the steak”….
You know what? She’s right. Those things really happen, and when I pay attention and my attentions result in a perfect medium-rare steak, I feel like I’m really beginning to cook.
And I think if Julia could have seen that in the print-out of the blog she was given, she would have liked it. And Julie Powell knew that, which is why she was ultimately able to take the report of Julia’s lack of interest in her project in stride, as much as it might have pained her when she first learned about it. Because she knew she was learning from Julia, and she was becoming a serious cook. And that is all that mattered.
Thursday, January 9, 2014
I finished the Julia Child/Avis DeVoto book last week and am completely in love with both Julia and Avis.
I started reading the Laura Shapiro book about Julia Child (Julia Child: A Life), and the author starts off by talking about the large volume of letters received by every television station on which The French Chef appeared, in which the letter writer professed his or her great love for Julia.
At one point in the Julie/Julia Project, Julie Powell mentions watching old Julia Child shows:
And while we were eating, we watched Julia. One of her later shows, when she’s just about to keel over. Rick Bayless was the guest. And the thing is, you know I’ve been cooking with Julia for like nine months now, and there’s a tendency to take her for granted at this point. But watching her is always an education. This woman is a) endlessly generous, and b) endlessly curious. God love her – I hope with all my being that I will have her love of life when I’m ninety. Or even now. Julia and Willie – two people we should learn from every day. During this episode, Julia was obsessed with the epazote – “And they say it takes the gas out of beans – is that true?” And she was always sticking her fingers in everything. But her best single line of the night referred to lard, of course. When discussing how afraid people are of lard, she said, with real warbling vehemence, “It’s just terrible!”
I love her. So. Much.
That just cracked me up. And I feel the same way, and I haven’t even watched any of the shows. This is all from reading her books and letters.
Totally love her.
And here is one of my favorite, non-food related stories in the Julia/Avis book. Julia is telling Avis about a visit from a childhood friend, Gay Bradley, who had come to Norway when Julia and Paul were living there:
Great fun to again be with Gay and we talked and talked and never finished what we had to say. But what a different life she leads than we. Her husband is a lawyer in San Francisco, and they live in Burlingame, and must have so much mazuma that it is quite beyond our ken. They live an upper level San Francisco type of social life and, I guess, know everybody who is anybody including all the visiting big wigs who come out there. Go to the dinner for Khrushchev and sit facing the table of honor, and all that. It takes her 1-1/2 hours to get dressed in the morning, even when just here with us, for instance. And then there is the endless shopping, matching of colors, taking things back, re-fixing of hair, finger nails, face oil, bathings. Most interesting to observe for one who can easily get dressed for a big evening in about 7 minutes. For a bit I felt like a smelly old frump, but luckily reverted to my usual what the hell, as one couldn’t compete or compare. Most interesting to think about, however.
I love the phrase “we talked and talked and never finished what we had to say” as that is exactly what it is like when I’m with my friends from high school and college, we talk and talk and never finish, and also I think it’s funny that she says she can get dressed for a big evening in about 7 minutes because that is how I am too. And I have friends “with so much mazuma it is quite beyond [my] ken” with whom I “couldn’t compete or compare” and it is indeed “most interesting to think about.”
Also I love the fact that Khrushchev is footnooted in the book, because how would anyone reading today be expected to know who Khrushchev was.
And that is all for now. Though I expect this won’t be the last you hear from me on this. You know how people are when they are in love.
Saturday, December 28, 2013
Over the summer, I was browsing cookbooks at Parker & Otis here in Durham, looking for birthday gifts for various family members, and ran across a book of letters between Julia Child and Avis DeVoto called As Always, Julia, which I was unable to pass by without purchasing as a birthday gift for myself. I started reading it over Thanksgiving and just love it. The letters span from 1951 — when Julia Child sent Bernard DeVoto a gift of a kitchen knife (in response to an essay in Harper’s magazine about how terrible American knives were), and received a letter in return from his wife Avis, who worked as his secretary — to 1961 when Mastering the Art of French Cooking was published.
Reading so much detail about what went in to creating the cookbook made me think about the Julie/Julia Project and what happened when someone actually tried to make all of the recipes. Which has resulted in my own little Julie/Julia project. (Fortunately my project is much less demanding than either Julia Child’s creation of the cookbook, or Julie Powell’s execution of it. Though at the same time not likely to result in world renown as a famous chef or a book-and-movie deal for me. But my time will come. I’m sure.)
So for my project, I have read (or am in the process of reading), in addition to the Julia and Avis letters, both of Julie Powell’s books, and after much fruitless clicking and “Page Not Found” messages, I finally managed to locate the original Julie/Julia Project on the Wayback Machine, so I am reading through all 365 days of that.
One of the notable features of the project, mentioned in both the Julie and Julia book and frequently remarked upon in the blog posts, was that Julie and Eric Powell found themselves drowning in dirty dishes, pretty much all the time. Eric was the designated dishwasher and often wasn’t able to keep up. And the interesting thing is that Avis mentioned this very issue in a letter written to Julia on February 1, 1955. She said:
Also been thinking about something Louisette lighted on during the short time she was here. She wondered if Americans would bother to do cooking that meant getting every pot and pan in the kitchen dirty. Wish I’d had time to go into it with her. Because I am deeply convinced that it just is not necessary to let everything pile up to be washed. I suppose it is a sort of fixation of mine. I certainly had it drummed into me thoroughly by my old ma. And I wish you would write something about it. It is so easy to wash up as you go along — absolutely no soap needed. Everybody who reads your book will have a kitchen where the water is continually hot. All that is needed is plenty hot water coming out of the faucet, and a brush. The nylon ones stand up better, but ordinary Fuller Brush sink brushes do very well. Finish with a pan, take ONE MINUTE to stick it under the hot water faucet and brush it out. Turn it upside down to drain and it will be dry in a few minutes. No soap. I just never use soap on utensils, except the detergent that goes into the dishwasher. And it works on the very greasiest of pans, roasting pans and everything, if you do it at once. If you are dishing up, and hurrying to get things hot to the table, have a sinkful of very hot water and put your bulb baster, meat rack, thermometer, skewers and the like in and let them soak. After dinner, use the brush and the running hot water and they are done. I realize this is very hard to knock into people. My last maid was a dream, and a wonderful cook, but she would let the potato pan and the ricer and the strainers sit around and dry hard every time, and I suppose it never entered her dear little head that she spent half an hour extra in the kitchen every night as a result. Let alone wear and tear on pans. I suppose you noticed the way I snatched things from you last summer and washed them up and I hope I didn’t get on your nerves. I just cannot bear to have things pile up. I’ve only seen one article saying all this, and it was in Gourmet sometime back and written by a man who felt as strongly about it as I do, bless him.
All I could think about when I read that was that if only Eric and Julie had taken that strategy to heart when they started, things might have turned out differently.
I know that I myself am not so good about cleaning everything as I go, but I’m very good about rinsing things off before they get all dried up and hardened. And it really does save a lot of hassle.
[And a side note on the subject line: I remembered reading about the dishwashing thing but knew I hadn't marked the page. Last night when I went to see if I could find it, I started with the index, and the index for this book is fantastic! There was actually an entry for the exact thing I was looking for: DeVoto, Avis: on "clean as you go" cooking. Thank you Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and your great indexer for this book! All hope is not lost for the publishing industry.]
Wednesday, December 18, 2013
If you are looking for something to give to whoever you might want to give holiday treats to — friends, neighbors, clients, coworkers, teachers, hairdressers, doormen, elevator operators (everyone needs to go read the John Cheever story “Christmas is a Sad Season for the Poor” when you’re done here) and of course, Santa — and you would like something other than butter-laden, chocolatey-ness to send out into the world, I am here to remind you of the delicious granola bars that smitten kitchen posted a recipe for in 2009 and that I made a few times in 2010 but never got quite right.
I came back to the recipe this year because I was looking for something I could eat in the morning shortly after getting up, on days when I had to be up and out of the house on an accelerated schedule. (The problem with not being hungry for an hour or two after you get up is that if you have to actually get up and get out of Dodge, you get really hungry right in the middle of whatever it is you had to leave early for. And then you are trapped somewhere with no access to food. And that is a bummer.)
After a few more tries with the granola bars, I am now completely in love with them. (I gave some to a friend a week or two ago and told her I was still working on the recipe but that they were pretty good, I hoped she liked them. She emailed a few days later and said she thought I could stop working on the recipe, and could I please send it to her.)
So here’s the latest version, and what I learned.
The first thing I learned is that you should definitely get quick-cooking oats; the ones I made with old-fashioned oats pulsed in the blender or food processor, as the original recipe gave as an alternative to quick-cooking oats, did not hold together. The ones with quick-cooking oats worked much better.
The second thing I learned is that you should follow the instructions and use parchment to line the pan.
I feel like every cookie or brownie recipe I see these days tells you to use parchment, which just seems like a waste of paper to me, just oil the pan like they used to do back in the olden days. But because of the falling-apart problem, I’m going with parchment, because you can pull the whole thing out of the pan and then cut it, which keeps it from falling to pieces when you try to put a spatula under individual squares and pull them out.
So after making those two changes, I ended up with actual granola bars, not granola bar crumbles. Hooray.
And in terms of ingredients, you can mix and match and put in whatever strikes your fancy.
The main downside of these is that nuts are expensive, and some oils and sweeteners too. You feel like you spend a million dollars getting everything together. But if you get a bunch of different things, you don’t use that much of any of them, so you can make a whole bunch of batches with a whole bunch of different things in them. Just keep them all in the freezer until it’s time for the next round. And also you can mix in lower-cost options — sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, raisins, coconut — and that helps.
The last batch I made had coconut oil and safflower oil as the oils; honey, molasses, and agave syrup as the liquid sweeteners; dried apricots and raisins as the fruit; cashews, pecans, almonds, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, and coconut flakes as the mixed nuts and seeds; and peanut butter as the nut butter. (The previous two batches had pepitas, which I missed in this last batch; I didn’t realize I’d used all of them up.) And I made it with 1/4 cup of brown sugar, instead of 1/2 cup, because the first few batches felt too sweet for breakfast.
They are much better than store-bought granola bars, and maybe even better than cookies (well, for breakfast, at least). Enjoy!
1-2/3 cups quick cooking oats
1/3 cup oat flour (or oats processed into flour in a blender or food processor)
1/4 cup to 1/2 cup sugar (brown or white)
1/4 tsp cinnamon (optional)
1/4 tsp salt
1/3 cup nut butter
1 cup dried fruit
2 cups mixed nuts and seeds
6 Tbsp oil, or melted butter
6 Tbsp liquid sweetener
1 Tbsp water
In a large bowl, combine oats, oat flour, sugar, cinnamon (if using), and salt. Stir to mix.
Chop nuts and fruit into small pieces.
Over low heat, combine sweetener, oil, and water and stir to combine.
Pour combined oil and sweetener mixture over oats. Add nut butter. Stir until everything is mixed together and the oats are coated with oil and sweetener. Add nuts and seeds and stir until everything is coated and uniformly distributed.
Place a sheet of parchment in the bottom of an 8 x 8 inch pan, with enough overhang on the sides to use as handles when removing.
Spoon the mixture into the pan and, using a sheet of plastic or waxed paper between your hand and the batter, press press press until it is all packed into the pan.
Bake at 350 degrees until the top is evenly brown.
Remove from oven and let cool. When completely cooled, remove from pan using parchment overhang, peel off parchment, and cut into squares.
These keep well in a closed container (e.g., plastic storage container or cookie tin) for at least a week. I don’t know how they freeze because I’ve never been able to keep them around long enough to need to freeze them.
Tuesday, December 3, 2013
I have to make a small confession before I start this post, which is that I am mildly addicted to reading advice columns. “Ask Beth” was a particular favorite of mine back in the day. I also used to love reading “My Problem and How I Solved It” in Good Housekeeping magazine. I don’t know why, I just dig that kind of thing.
A couple of years ago I read this pathetic letter to Carolyn Hax, proprietress of the “Tell Me About It” column (syndicated by the Washington Post and appearing twice a week in the Raleigh News & Observer, which is where I read it) from someone who had a terrible time with holidays, her immediate family was generally dysfunctional and she had no close relatives. She had tried various approaches — volunteering, inviting people from church, inviting friends of her kids — but none of them had panned out. She and her daughter had spent the most recent Thanksgiving “eating turkey in the kitchen and reading newspapers,” and she felt that they were destined to spend the rest of their holidays that way. She wrote to Carolyn asking how she could help prepare her daughter for coping with this sad life.
Carolyn acknowledged that there were some real problems in the letter-writer’s life that she needed try to address, but also pointed out that the rest of the letter seemed to be her taking things to extremes and wallowing in self-pity.
CH’s main piece of advice was that the letter-writer simply let go of the “traditional Thanksgiving script,” and write herself a new one — that she should look at the holiday as nothing more or less than a day off from work, and take it from there.
The reason this letter struck me is not just because eating turkey in the kitchen and reading newspapers sounds like not a bad holiday to me, but because it reminded me of how worked up people get over holidays, and how difficult it can be for people whose lives might not have turned out quite the way they had imagined, to deal with certain situations.
And I thought CH’s advice was generally good, but I would have added one other small bit of advice, which is that the first thing you need to do if, for whatever reason, you find the holiday season distressing or depressing, is to …
TURN OFF THE TELEVISION.
And possibly the radio, too.
Just take my word on this. You need to kill the commercials.
You can’t avoid all holidayness — you will have to leave the house at some point, and Christmas decorations are everywhere — but if you have the television on you are simply bombarded with it. It’s a lot easier to ignore front yards with reindeer in them and baking displays on the end caps at the local Stop and Shop than it is tune out a continuous barrage of commercials involving people giving each other expensive gifts and attending fabulous parties with a whole bunch of beautiful people who live in perfectly decorated houses and who all love each other.
That’s just all I can say. Turn off the television. I guarantee that you will feel better the instant the screen goes dark.
[Aside on living without television...
If you are at a loss as to what to do with yourself now that you cannot watch television, my suggestions would be to:
(a) read something interesting (may I recommend David Copperfield, it is 900+ pages long, that'll keep you out of trouble for a good long while)
(b) get back to an old hobby (knitting, sewing, woodworking)
(c) acquire a new hobby (ceramics, welding, boxing)
Make holiday cards, paint your house, clean the basement, bake cookies for the neighbors, trace your genealogy, dig holes in your yard and then fill them up. Who cares.
If you like having television for background noise, see if you can substitute listening to music, or talk radio (NPR or whatever else you have access to), or even audio books. Whatever you can do that is commercial free.]
This will help you, as Carolyn advised, to “write a new script.” Because you can now think about what is important to you, and what you want to do, and not get all caught up with what you feel like you should be doing based on what you think the rest of the world is doing based on what you see on tv.
The other advice I would give, which she did touch on but didn’t emphasize quite enough, in my opinion, is …
Don’t worry about what the rest of the world is doing.
If you want to be with people, then be with people, and if you want to eat turkey in the kitchen and read newspapers then do that. You can cook and eat a big meal or go to McDonald’s and buy a Big Mac or not eat anything at all. You can spend the day with family, or with friends, or with your dogs, or by yourself. Or any combination thereof. It’s all good.
And if you’re worried about what other people will think, if they will feel sorry for you or just feel like you’re odd, if you do some nontraditional activity, I would give you the advice that someone told me the artist Laurie Anderson gave in response to a question about what other people thought about her and her art. Laurie Anderson reportedly said, “No one else really cares what you’re doing.”
And that is the truth.
No one else really cares what you’re doing. Just do what you want. All the time. But especially during the holidays.