The holiday spirit

Poinsettias at the Mara Sopa Lodge, Kenya - photo by E Jurus
Poinsettias at the Mara Sopa Lodge, Kenya – photo by E Jurus

The Christmas season can be challenging. Visions of dysfunctional family get-togethers, guilt-laden commercials asking for donations, neighbours who don’t know what Christmas-light overkill is, shopping mall craziness and sad songs that make me cry dance through my head.

I think anyone who gets giddy over the holiday season hasn’t yet experienced it after a deeply personal loss, or suffered through years of tense family occasions, and I envy them. For the rest of us though, there are strategies to cope.

Losing a loved one, whether human or pet, can wipe out whatever Christmas spirit you might have had. For those of you who may be scoffing at being so sad after losing a pet, get over it! Pets become an integral part of a family, and are loved and taken care of just like any other family member, so losing a pet is devastating.

For our first Christmas without our male dog, who’d been with us since he was a puppy, I couldn’t stomach anything glittery in the house – it seemed like too much of a celebratory atmosphere, and we certainly weren’t celebrating anything that year. We also dispensed with a standard Christmas tree; I just put a few white branches in a pot and a minimal amount of ornaments. Keeping everything low-key helped, and we got through it. The following year we lost our female dog as well, but in recent years we’ve been able to return to a fairly normal Christmas. It’s never been quite the same, though, and I’ve come to terms with that.

Sometimes we’re in a position to help others through a similar crisis.

One November, after many years of Christmas meals where the interpersonal tensions among some family members were thick enough to cut with a knife, if they even showed up, Mike and I decided we were tired of it.

We were on the same wavelength that year. I’d been watching a great old Hepburn and Tracy movie called Desk Set, and the scenes of Christmas merriment at Hepburn’s office really struck me – I hadn’t experienced that kind of celebration for years. When I mentioned it to Mike, he said he’d been feeling the same way, and he suggested that we do something revolutionary: hold Christmas dinner and invite everyone, regardless of who was speaking to whom. Everyone would be welcome!

I agreed, and we started planning. After some thought, we decided to have a brunch, which tends to be a more relaxed occasion than any other type of meal, in an open-house format to allow everyone with extended families a good window of time to drop in. Hot food would be out on the buffet table from noon to 4pm, and people could come and go as they needed.

We were just going to start making phone calls to everyone when the unthinkable happened – at the beginning of December one of our uncles died riding in the car with his wife. He’d had heart issues for years, but no one knew that anything was imminent. We debated what to do, and decided that we would go ahead with our meal, and that because time was short we needed to extend the invitations while we could catch everyone during the funeral weekend. It was a difficult choice to make, but it worked out – the idea seemed to be a bright spot in everyone’s mind.

We didn’t ask people to rsvp, just to come if they could, even if it would only be to share a holiday beverage. The only comment I made to Mike ahead of time was that if anyone brought trouble into the house I’d throw them out, and I meant it. This was to be a Christmas of harmony, even if only for a day.

Several days ahead of the big day I began cooking a selection of dishes I thought would sit well in warming pans for four hours, and then I kept cooking and cooking. My brother, who stayed with us on Christmas Eve and offered to help, asked me what the heck I was going, and I remember replying that I couldn’t seem to stop making food!

Christmas Day arrived bright and sunny. By 11:30am everything was on the buffet table and we waited with baited breath to see if anyone would actually show up to help us eat the huge amount of food I’d made!

We must have struck a chord with people that year, because people began to show up with smiles and much more good cheer than we expected. The warming pans worked brilliantly and I didn’t have to do anything other than relax and enjoy myself for the rest of the day.

It turned out that the buffet concept was a great idea – people who weren’t on good terms could just politely wish each other a Merry Christmas and then sit anywhere in the house (no room for big tables, so all the food was manageable on a lap plate).

Everyone was intrigued by the food and kept returning to the table to try out something else – turkey tenderloin in a cider cream gravy, cheese blintzes with cherry sauce, honey-mustard sausage bites, sour cream & onion bread are a few of the dishes I recall now.

There was a very benevolent and peaceful atmosphere that day, and we saw people who hadn’t really spoken in years having actual conversations together. Perhaps the best part was that it turned out to be a decent Christmas even for our newly-widowed aunt: she spent it with all her sisters together for the first time in quite a while, and without a formal table seating I think it wasn’t so painfully obvious that her husband wasn’t there.

No one came and went – everyone stayed for the entire afternoon and into the evening, eventually trickling out in good spirits. It felt like a Christmas miracle, and although I can’t tell you that everyone made up and lived happily ever after with each other, for that one Christmas (and a few afterward) everyone genuinely had the holiday spirit.

When you’re planning your holiday meals, remember that the spirit of Christmas is generosity – a genuine welcome for everyone. Forget putting on a grand show or trying to make everything perfect – what really means something to your guests is how welcome you make them feel. Without that, you may as well not bother.

Memories of travel food

Lunch at a bush camp in Botswana - photo by E Jurus
Lunch at a bush camp in Botswana – photo by E Jurus

One of my favourite things about travel is the cultural immersion, and a large part of that consists of the food we enjoy in different countries. What we’ve consumed has provided some of my most powerful memories over the years.

I can’t tell you much about the 400-year-old pub we had lunch at in Stratford-upon-Avon many years ago, apart from the creaky floors that dipped alarmingly on the second floor where the washrooms were, but I can recall in great detail the incredible chocolate cake we had – three layers of intense dark chocolate goodness piled with a velvety chocolate frosting, and drenched in rich pale-yellow pouring cream. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven!

In Egypt, on chilly nights on the top deck of our boat on the Nile, after dinner the crew would bring out an enormous battered steel kettle of steaming hot tea, which they served with hot frothy milk and lots of sugar. There was nothing better than being bundled up in our blankets, sipping this wonderful tea and eating digestive cookies at the end of an amazing day of sightseeing.

On the island of Bali, we hired a vehicle and driver to take us to see the rice terraces that were currently under cultivation – a spectacular experience, like being inside a giant emerald – and after a long day of touring with still over an hour to get back to our resort in Denpasar we asked him to find us a place to stop for dinner. He asked us what we like to eat, and then after a few minutes he pulled up in a tiny town at a place that looked like an old mechanic’s garage. We were a bit startled, but Wayan assured us that the kitchen was clean and the food was safe to eat. We decided that it wouldn’t be beneficial to him to kill off his customers, so we went in with him and let him order for us. We were the only non-Indonesians in the joint, which had only one big table where we were slowly joined by a few men from town who trickled in. We had a very spicy vegetable stew, rice and some bottles of pop. The men from town paid us some attention, but mostly chatted amongst themselves. At one point Wayan stepped out to buy a live chicken caged in chicken wire, which he put in the back of his small van. The entire meal for all three of us cost $8. The mother who was cooking and her daughter came out to meet us, so we asked Wayan to tell her how delicious everything was, which earned us a big smile.

Our camp cooks in Africa have been able to produce some of the most amazing food on a tiny stove rigged up on top of pop cans over an open fire way out in the bush. We’ve had everything from cheddar and bacon pizza to steak to pears poached in red wine with chocolate cake. Eating out in the open, under the African stars, with the sound of hippos bellowing in the distance, is an incredible experience.

You can’t plan for experiences like this – you stumble upon them, and they stay with you forever. They represent an entire culture on a plate. Forget tracking down a MacDonald’s or something that reminds you of home; that’s not why you’re there. Enjoy a memory that will make you smile on a cold winter day when you need some cheering up, and even better, bring home the recipe from that distant land and make it that day!

Fall – a feast for the senses

View from the terrace of Montgomery Place historic estate along the Hudson River, NY - photo by E. Jurus
View from the terrace of Montgomery Place historic estate along the Hudson River, NY – photo by E. Jurus

Everyone has their favourite season, and you could drum up a lively debate about which one is best. For some people autumn represents only the impending return of winter, but to me it’s the most sensual season — if you take the time to appreciate it.

Forget the equinox date — to me autumn begins when kids return to school at the beginning of September, just as winter feels like it really begins at the beginning of December.

I loved starting school again each year, but it wasn’t just the return to classes and the schoolroom — it was picking out a new dress for the first day of school, buying new school supplies (I’ve always loved the smell of new notebook paper!), walking to school as the leaves began to drift down until every step became crunchy, the screech of blue jays on chilly mornings, eating a hot bowl of oatmeal with cream and lots of brown sugar, the scent of grapes growing in neighbours’ yards, Thanksgiving turkey with stuffing, and the building excitement as Halloween approached.

For a couple of years my family lived on a farm in northern Ontario, where autumn is extravagantly beautiful — great swathes of colour lining the winding dirt road that we walked to and from school, the tang of wood smoke in the crisp clear air, gold-tinged fields rolling away under a bright blue sky… Moving down to southern Ontario brought a gentler season but better opportunities for trick-or-treating in a more urban area. How I missed the wonderful autumns of the north, though!

I’ve taken my hubby Mike up to northern Ontario a couple of times over the years so that he could experience a bit of what I loved so much. Autumn has become our favourite time to travel almost anywhere (except parts of Africa) — to enjoy the milder weather and fewer crowds, to enjoy the outdoors, and quite a few times to enjoy Halloween events.

The first time we went to England was in early November, and we had a fantastic time. We bundled up in trench coats and toasty sweaters, had tea in cozy pubs by the fire. We visited Stonehenge on a cool, cloudy day, but besides us there were perhaps only about a half-dozen other people about. All the cities and towns had Christmas decorations out, so we had great fun in Oxford buying little university sweatshirts as gifts for all our tiny nieces and nephews. I remember driving down a country road to Bath in the dusk and watching autumn mist creep down the hillsides — if a Druid had come floating through the trees collecting mistletoe I wouldn’t have been at all surprised.

October in Paris is equally enticing. We had a chilly day on the Eiffel Tower, which gave us the perfect excuse to visit the café on the second level for a thick, dreamy Chocolat Chaud Viennois (rich hot chocolate with a generous helping of whipped cream on top).

Autumn is the perfect time for a road trip. One of our favourite places to go is the Hudson River Valley in New York State. There are magnificent old estates dotted along the river, lots of great hikes, delightful small towns to poke around, plenty of history, an abundance of farmer’s markets with fabulous artisanal food (can’t give you names, just stop in at any market you come across), and best of all for all Halloween buffs, this is Washington Irving country. The denizens of the Valley make the most of the whole Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle atmosphere — in fact, there’s a real town called Sleepy Hollow where you can walk across the Headless Horseman bridge and visit Irving’s grave in the very old cemetery (which you can catch glimpses of in the new TV series that just debuted this week). Irving based his tale of the Headless Horseman on a genuine old legend, and believe me, if you wander up into the Catskill Mountains you’ll get some eerie shivers when the wind moans through the forests. There are a ton of Halloween-themed things to do, including the Headless Horseman haunted farm, which is the top-rated haunted attraction in the U.S. and an absolute blast!

In our increasing urbanization, people are missing out on many of the sights and sounds of autumn. It’s not a season to be depressed about — it’s a season to celebrate as Nature puts on her finest show, but you may have to go looking for the best stuff. Go hike in the woods and breathe deeply of fallen leaves. Visit a fall fair and buy some good home-made sausages and apple butter to take home for dinner. Have a picnic on a plaid blanket spread out on the leaf-strewn grass, with a thermos of tea, some sumptuous sandwiches and crumbly pumpkin squares for dessert. Line your porch with pumpkins of all shapes and sizes, then enjoy chocolate eyeballs and some cheesy old sci-fi movies for Halloween. Life is too short not to make the most of this most glorious season.

Dream Trip No. 1

Rice farmers in Bali - 35mm slide by E. Jurus
Rice farmers in Bali – 35mm slide by E. Jurus

I’ve been very fortunate in my life so far to have been able to travel to many places in the world. Once in a while, though, a trip is advertised that I can’t swing but that I dream about being able to take.

A new offering by Oceania Cruises that’s making its debut in 2015 is one such that’s making me drool. Called “Around the World in 180 Days”, the company describes it as “something more than a cruise, truly a voyage, and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to really enjoy all the best your world has to offer”. The cruise departs from Miami on January 10, 2015, and takes you around the world to places like Guadeloupe and Tobago, Devil’s Island in French Guiana, Cape Town in S. Africa, cruising around the Cape of Good Hope, Mozambique, Madagascar, the Seychelles and Maldives, cruising the Andaman Sea, Rangoon, Bangkok, Singapore, Borneo, Bali, New Zealand, Tonga and Tahiti, and much more, finally docking back in Miami on July 8th.

For this inaugural voyage, Oceania is offering 2 for 1 cruise fares, which changes a Concierge Level Veranda room from $176,784 to $ 58,999! You also get an Exclusive Prestige Package that includes free pre-paid gratuities, transfers, luggage delivery, unlimited laundry services, etc.

I’m not sure I could talk my husband into spending 6 months on a cruise, but if I had the $59K to spend I’d love to give it a try. I can envision myself enjoying some of the special shore events, like a private cocktail party at the Jim Thompson House in Bangkok, or having a classic English-style afternoon tea after a day at sea. The tour includes a large number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, so there’s lots of world culture included.

Sigh. This would be a fantastic bucket list item. If you can swing this trip, you have to tell me all about it afterwards, photos included! You’ll find more information on the Oceania website.

Post-shopping tea breaks

misc jan-may13 039

Going out shopping, even just for groceries, can be such an exercise in frustration. A few of my pet peeves include: people who leave their shopping cart in the middle of the aisle while they wander off somewhere else to grab an item, blocking everyone else’s way; people who block the entire aisle at food-sampling booths; people in the parking lot who can see you backing out from 10 feet away and still think it’s a good idea to walk behind you…

On days like that, I restore my depleted energy and sorely-tested good nature with a mug of tea and something both yummy and easy to make. The tea I usually have is a heady mug of Assam, full-bodied and aromatic. The carb-supplier is a gluten-free English muffin by a company called Kinnikinnik, toasted to a golden brown and topped with a lovely dollop of crème fraiche (I use Liberty brand) and a really good jam (in this case, Greaves’ wonderful apricot jam). We’re very lucky in Niagara to have ready access to Greaves jams, produced locally and some of the best jam outside of homemade that I’ve ever had — not too much pectin, so their jams have a nice texture for spreading, and a perfect amount of sweetness without being cloying. They’re nicely balanced by the mild tartness of the crème fraiche, and toasting the English muffin provides a slightly crunchy base along with great flavour.

If you’re on a gluten-free diet, this is a great combo to have with tea, and even if you can eat wheat you may want to check out these English muffins, which are perfect for the purpose. The muffins can be found in the freezer compartments of health-food sections in grocery stores, and in health-food stores as well. I recommend putting them into the microwave first for about 15-30 seconds, depending on whether you’ve thawed them out or just pulled a frozen one from the bag; microwaving softens them up and produces a nice crumb texture when you split them with a serrated knife. You can put the whole thing together in about 10 minutes, leaving you lots of time to put your feet up and relax!