It’s that time of year again, when everyone and their nagging aunt seem to jump out of the holly bushes to try to ruin our holiday season. Suddenly we stagger under a tsunami of wagging fingers, reproachful glares and all manner of strident demands designed to separate us either from our money, our wits or both.
It all starts before Thanksgiving, when the first of the season’s diet KGB begin their annual rants about what you should eat for Thanksgiving dinner, and how you should eat it. No more of that sweet potato and marshmallow nastiness — too tacky and way too sweet. Cranberry sauce? Make your own (we always do) but with one quarter the sugar (why bother at all, then?). Stuffing? Tsk tsk. Replace those empty carbs with a healthy wild rice and mushroom mix, and as for mashed potatoes — well, do we really have to tell you? If you must, you must, but use chicken stock instead of milk and keep that butter in the refrigerator. And don’t even think of pouring that clotted concoction of grease and flour you call gravy* all over everything, unless you happen to be dining at the house of an angioplasty surgeon with an on-premises operating theater.
To which we reply “go soak your head.” The problem is not what people eat for Thanksgiving dinner. It’s what they eat on all the days between Thanksgiving dinners. Folks who plunge a serving spoon into the creamed onion casserole like a backhoe digging a drainage trench didn’t learn to eat that way from the Pilgrims. Those with less aggressive appetites are hardly likely to suddenly expand into dirigibles if they have a few extra calories at a holiday celebration; it’s just food, not heroin, and candied yams are not a gateway drug to 20 piece buckets of fried chicken and 64 ounce grape sodas.
But once Thanksgiving is past, the real fun starts.
The Myrmidons of the vast conspiracy to make you feel just awful about yourself kick into their highest gear as they compete to bite your ear once the mistletoe is up. The end of the year is when most people start thinking about tax deductions, and the additional aura of the holiday season, with its traditional focus on helping the needy, creates a feeding frenzy among the eleemosynary set, with a strange and unpleasant result. No matter how generous you have been, the pitches won’t stop. The media blares a continuous stream of solicitation, sometimes sad, sometimes strident, including everything from earnest celebrity talking heads to videos of gut-wrenching pathos. The telephones suddenly leap to life with reminders from organizations you have favored in the past that you haven’t paid this year’s installment, or, if you have, to suggest that what you sent in seemed a little meager, given the enormity of their need and your relative prosperity. You can’t escape it; even if you abandon your home and take to the streets, there are all those accusing sidewalk Santas shaking their bells at you.
And this whole effort has bred a new spawn of Satan — the donation experts. And I don’t mean tax lawyers. No, these are the folks who inform you that you can’t really in good conscience give away your own dough without their counsel and approval. They will advise you which causes are truly worthy, and which are not; which are already well-funded and which, because they aren’t cute and cuddly enough, find little enthusiasm among potential donors despite their admirable intent. (I think this is how PETA came to be. I can find no other likely explanation, other than a degree of intellectual perversity generally unknown outside Hollywood, the San Francisco bay area, university campuses and parts of Sweden.)
Unfortunately, most of these folks seem driven by a fanatical hostility of some sort or another, and spend more time dissing good causes they for one reason or another detest (university endowments and museums are high on their hate list) rather than endorsing those they admire (after-school diversity training, algae-as-energy research, and other efforts of similarly obscure provenance and utility).
Finally, there are the guilt mongers who focus on your own holiday gift-giving largess and smugly direct that you either cut back on your presents to others — does your next-door-neighbor really need that discount set of tools? — or eliminate them altogether, with the money redirected, of course, to more productive ends, which they are happy to identify. This is also called “Let me spend your money for you,” and to me, makes about as much sense.
So — what’s the point of all this, as our President might ask?
Many years ago I read a story in the New York Post about a man who, every Christmas, would buy several hundred pairs of gloves and walk around the city giving them to the homeless. He explained that when he was a young boy, he was poor, and he was always cold outside because gloves were a luxury his family couldn’t afford. “I always associated a pair of gloves with being warm,” he said.
Of course, he admitted, many people thought that he was foolish, either to give away gloves, or to give away anything at all to unworthy bums. “Some people say to me, ‘well, they’ll just sell them for what they can get, a few bucks maybe, and go buy booze.’ But that’s not the point. It’s a gift. It’s not up to me to tell them what they can do with it. It’s theirs to use any way they please.”
Now, here is a magnanimity worth emulating. And now for our surprise finish:
Most of us, at a certain age, discover that we have somehow unwittingly stumbled into a strange state of grace, where we actually believe, at least during the holiday season, that it is more blessed to give than receive. We enjoy immensely the pleasure others take in what we give them, and look forward more to this experience than to opening the presents others give us. And, although it may seem unusual for nemo, that cold, cranky and critical Scrooge, to advance and even endorse this notion, it is still unarguably true, even for me. Perhaps even, since I am by nature and by trade not an affable man, especially for me.
I therefore commend to all our readers this holiday season this time-honored holiday spirit, unreservedly, even enthusiastically, and, like the man who gave away all those gloves, without condition. No one can, try hard as they might, tell you how to enjoy this brief recess called Christmas by some, and other things by other people, nor should you feel any obligation whatever to heed the outright and disguised grinches that plague the season. It’s your holiday. It’s your gift. Do with it as you will.
Now, pass that gravy!
* Every year I make gravy at my sister-in-law’s Thanksgiving dinner. I have to make two batches to be sure there’s enough because there’s so much pre-dinner sampling by my daughters and nieces that the first pan is usually half-consumed before we even sit down. Here I would point out that my sister-in-law and her husband are almost waiflike, and feel the same way about fat in their food as a gazelle feels about lionesses in the savannah. But when it comes to that gravy, well…. Here’s how I make it. Prepare to be horrified.
Simmer turkey neck, giblets and liver for 2 hours in 6 cups chicken stock with parsley, onion, carrot and thyme, preferably fresh. It will reduce to about 4 cups. When the turkey is done and resting on a platter, pour roughly 1/2 cup of the roasting pan liquid (mostly fat) into a very large frying pan. Forget about “deglazing” the roasting pan; there’s already enough flavor in the grease, and it’s a messy, nasty and dangerous job. Heat frying pan over a medium flame. Add 1/2 stick unsalted butter, stirring until it melts. Stir in roughly 1/4 cup flour and blend well with grease/butter with wire whisk and more or less continuously continue to stir until flour is well-cooked (roughly 5 minutes or so, be careful not to let it darken too much; reduce heat if necessary). Slowly add turkey stock as you continue to whisk. Mixture will thicken very quickly as you continue to whisk. Keep adding stock until the mixture is thinner, but still too thick. Add about 1 tsp. of fresh thyme. Chop and add giblets from stock. Then add roughly 1/4 cup of heavy cream, whisking in. Reduce heat to low. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Add just enough flaked red pepper to give it a tiny bite. Finish gravy with one more big dollop of butter (maybe 2 tbsp.). Keep on very low heat until ready to serve.
** There isn’t, and never has been any such word. It was invented by gym attendants who wanted to be called “fitness counselors” and dietitians who had been fired from high school cafeterias.