A Holiday Season Like No Other

I woke at 2:30 this morning unable to shut my brain off. With Giftmas quickly approaching I began thinking of all the things I have yet to do, but this holiday season is like no other. I haven’t baked a single pie, I’ve made exactly one batch of cookies, and I haven’t hosted a single gathering. The holidays are incredibly different this year.

Like many others, I always anticipate the holiday season for several reasons. The parties, the fellowship, the camaraderie, and of course the food. Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday of the entire year and I truly enjoy cooking that meal. Christmas is one of three days on the calendar when I don’t cook. By this time I have usually scoured all the casino restaurants’ menus and made a reservation for dinner, but I didn’t do that this year. This year is unlike any other since we got married.

“Island of Lost Toys” Thanksgiving

For more than 30 years my husband and I have hosted the “Island of Lost Toys” Thanksgiving. It started when we were overseas. We couldn’t fly home for the holiday, so we invited our friends from the barracks and the childless couples we knew and enjoyed “chosen family”. When we moved back to the states, the tradition continued. With my kitchen in shambles because of the renovation (no sink, no workspace, or countertops) we hosted no one. To say it was weird is an understatement. I was literally bereft. I cried (in the shower like I always do so no one can see me or hear me) because I didn’t want to be alone. Yes, I’d have my devoted husband, my darling offspring, and my sib from another crib, but what about everyone else?

Then I got to thinking. Many of the people we have hosted over the past decade are no longer in our circle of friends for one reason or another. Some have left the area; some have moved on in other ways, and the boundaries I have learned to set for myself have forced me to tighten my circle as well. But what of the others? My mom brought it up – No one thought to invite us to join their table when they knew I couldn’t cook a true Thanksgiving meal.

New Neighbors to the Rescue

Our new neighbors came to the rescue! After helping friend Kim cull her turkeys (yes, I mean slaughter and butcher them), she kindly invited us to join her Thanksgiving tradition of yakitori. I had never done that before. Chinese food on Christmas? SURE! But Japanese on Thanksgiving? My brain couldn’t compute it. Oddly, it was just what I needed. Helping man the grill with other invitees, casually hanging around and noshing instead of loading a plate and being seated was a perfect antidote to my Thanksgiving ennui. It was like the best cocktail party you ever went to. Interesting people, fun conversation, tasty small bites of food, and wandering around meeting new people. I walked in a nervous wreck and left lighter and happier. It was just what I needed but didn’t know it.

We then proceeded to Esther’s Kitchen where Chef James Trees had kindly invited us to join him, his family, and staff for a traditional Thanksgiving meal. Because I was raised to never show up empty handed, I brought the aforementioned batch of cookies and Deez Nuts. This gathering was exactly what I needed too. Again, surrounded by loads of people, eating delicious food, and feeling like I was part of something bigger than myself. I was honored and humbled to be included. I think I thanked him profusely to the point of embarrassment, both mine and his. And I wept on the way home.

Home for the Holiday…just not MY home

And now, on the precipice of yet another holiday, things are different again. For the first time in ages, I won’t be in my own home for Christmas. The last time this happened was when we skipped Christmas and went to Mexico. This year we are spending the holiday with my sisters in law. The Hubs’ sister Bonnie and her wife Gretchen live in San Francisco and we are braving air travel during the holiday season to join them. I am excited and a little nervous at the same time. New traditions will be embraced, and I am sure joy will be had with people we love, but I won’t be “home for the holidays”. It just feels weird.

The most entertaining thing (for me) about the plans for this trip was a text convo with Gretchen about Christmas dinner. She wanted to know what I wanted to make and was a little shocked by my response. I told her I don’t cook on Christmas and whatever she decided to do was fine. I will be sous chef this year. Because I was warned there will be shucking in my future, my oyster knife will be packed.

When we moved into this home in April, I had every intention of a holiday housewarming party. I had plans for decorating and a mental menu of the food and drinks I would serve. The guest list was all compiled in an Excel spreadsheet. Construction delays forced me to embrace a new timeline; one I am not at all happy about. I dislike uncertainty and frequently have trouble “going with the flow” unless I am on vacation. So maybe the housewarming will be in the spring? Who the hell knows!?

Hug your people, bring them in close and tell them you love them. That’s the most important thing about the holiday isn’t it?

Aunt LeAnne Goes to a Tamaleada

I wrote and THOUGHT I posted this yesterday, but apparently I never hit “publish”.  Merry Christmas! Never miss an episode when you subscribe by adding your email address on the right!  And follow along on FB, Twitter and Instagram – all @GoodforSpooning

Tamaleada – (ta MAL ā AH da) noun, Spanish

  1. a Latino tradition of gathering together as a family to create tamales for Christmas. Usually done on Christmas Eve, but can be done any time during the holiday season.
  2. a tamal making party. Typically Mexican, but also found in other Latin cultures.

Having lived in the desert southwest for more than 10 years, and being surrounded by a strong Mexican/Latino population, I have always wanted to learn the art of making tamales. Being a gringa (white girl) I was never asked because the tamaleada is a FAMILY thing.  Traditionally the Abuela (grandmother) is in charge and she dictates what is done, by whom and when. Most of the hands-on work is done by the women (what else is new – hahaha, JK) and the men are only brought in as tasters. Does this need more salt? Is this texture right? Is it too spicy?

Gilbert (center) acting as Abuelo telling everyone what their tasks will be. Friend Sunshine and Gilbert's partner David look on.

Gilbert (center) acting as Abuelo telling everyone what their tasks will be. Friend Sunshine and Gilbert’s partner David look on.

Being a military family we have had the need and pleasure of creating our own holiday traditions. Sometimes we were invited to other people’s homes, mainly because they felt sorry for us, “Oh, let’s invite that military family so they aren’t alone.” We never really felt connected to our hosts or like we were part of “The Crowd”. Living in Vegas is no different. Most of the people I know are transplants from somewhere else, so their family may not be in the area to hold or attend the annual tamelada (like Friend Gilbert). Or maybe because they lived here for so long without family they never did it (like Friend Lillian).

This is what usually happens:

  • Everyone gathers together to do the prep work
  • Everything is made from scratch – NO SHORTCUTS
  • Kids are encouraged to get involved and are given specific tasks suited for their age and skill level
  • Each person has the same job every year until someone dies (TRUTH) and they move up into the next position
  • It’s a typical “hen party” with conversations ranging from funny stories of past holidays, to what everyone is doing now, to how the kids are and shared traditional music, familial jokes and much laughter and smiles. (Gilbert told us a GREAT story of the older women keeping the younger women in line at his family’s event in years past – we were all howling with laughter.)

When I walked into Gilbert & David’s home on Sunday my only expectation of the day was that I would go home with a new skill and hopefully some new cultural knowledge and awareness. I knew Lillian would be there, but nothing else. I had no concept of what my role would be. I knew nothing about tamales except that they are delicious. I got so much more than I bargained for! I got LOVE! According to Gilbert, and I quote, “Tamales are love”. I knew most of the people at the table socially, except for Amber and Laura. By the time I left, after helping to make a few hundred (it seems – I didn’t count) tamales, I felt connected to each of them in a very special way. I know that a tamaleada is a FAMILY thing and I was honored to be included in the chosen family surrounding that table. I felt needed, a part of a generations old tradition, and like I belonged. Not an outlier with no roots. We started with handshakes all around and ended up hugging like long lost relatives.

The makings of tamales - and the meat isn't even on the table yet

The makings of tamales – and the meat isn’t even on the table yet

Efforts from the Tamaleada

Efforts from the Tamaleada, and yes, they are tied with little strips of corn husk.

Just 2 of the several pans we filled

Just 2 of the several pans we filled

The funniest part of the day? Everyone was delighted that there was something that I couldn’t do. (Moment of Truth – that first tamal took me FOREVER. I couldn’t get the masa to spread evenly and it kept sticking to the spoon instead of the corn husk and pulling holes in the thin layer I was trying in vain to create. Once I changed tools and started using a silicone spatula it all went rather smoothly!)

Enjoy the pics – I SHOULD have had someone take my pic making a tamal so you know I actually did it, but trust me, I did!

The finished product - this one with chicken and tomatillo green chile sauce.

The finished product – this one with chicken and tomatillo green chile sauce.