Senses of Living® Holidays

December 2003
© 2003 by Bret S. Beall

Setting A Place For Your Guests!

For any sort of entertaining, you must serve refreshments. Last month I discussed dishes (Senses of Living® November). Now I’m going to assume a sit-down event in your home, and discuss those accoutrement you might need or want to entertain your guests. Please note: the following tips and guidelines are not for buffets, cocktail parties or other “general” parties; these events have their own guidelines separate from a sit-down dinner party.

Cutlery: I have one set of cutlery. I use it for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and all special occasions (that is, entertaining). It is a cheap set given to me by my mother when I got my first apartment in college, a quarter of a century ago. No, it’s not the most attractive set. It’s also not the most comfortable set. It is certainly not the most sophisticated or glamorous. But, they work. Plus, not once have I had a guest’s attention diverted from my food to my cutlery. I also don’t have to worry about expensive cutlery ending up accidentally in my trashcan, or (for those who have them) in the garbage disposal, or (for those with dubious friends) in a guest’s pocket. Cutlery is a means toward enjoying a meal, not the goal in itself.

Placemats/Tablecloths/Napkins: I set tables with different moods. Different seasons and different food themes inspire different colors, shapes and motifs. To that end, and since I am an entertaining professional, I have collected a wide array of placemats, tablecloths and cloth napkins. They are designed to add a bit of color and texture to enhance the black and/or white dishes I use, that in turn enhance the food. Most of the time, I select accessories that connect the table to the room, but not always. I have a teal and turquoise motif that looks fantastic on the table with the addition of black and white elements, but there isn’t another speck of teal or turquoise in the dining room … no one has ever refused to dine because of that! Oh, before I forget: if you are entertaining via a sit-down dinner, you MUST use cloth napkins. Paper towels and paper napkins just add to our disposal problems, and waste trees. Every single one of my cloth napkins, whether white, black or multicolored, has come from resale shops. I think I can usually get 4 for $1 or $2 at thrift stores. Just do it.

Serving Dishes: Serving dishes do NOT have to match your other dishes! Sure, they can, and such an effect will be attractive, and I’ve done this many times. Alternatively, the serving dishes can be very ornamental, and not match anything! I’ve done this just as many times, because when I serve multiple courses, I can use the serving pieces to give each coarse a slightly different visual flavor (and I don’t have to worry about purchasing a huge number of pieces from the same basic set of dishes). Finally, please do not feel as though you have to use separate serving pieces! This is my favorite way to serve food: directly from oven/stove to table, without transferring the food into a serving dish at all. This is a no-brainer when one is using a casserole. However, sometimes I make stews or soups or fricassees or other recipes in large Dutch ovens (like lidded frying pans on steroids) or some kind of stovetop skillet; I always serve these directly on the table. I have invested in some table pads, and potholders, but mostly a variety of trivets that keep the hot pots from scorching the maple wood table. If any one of you is thinking, “Oh, that’s so tacky,” then I’ll say, “Go ahead. Dirty more dishes. Waste more water. Use up more of your valuable time. Keep yourself in the kitchen longer, and thus away from your guests longer. Now, in my home, THAT is tacky.”

Glassware: You will need a water glass for each diner. Depending on what else you are serving, you may want another stout glass for non-alcoholic beverages, and another glass or two for wine(s). You can use a stemmed goblet for water and non-alcoholic beverages, but I prefer just a simple, elegant straight-sided glass because they are easier to clean and because this serves as a clear communication that one is dealing with non-alcoholic beverages. Now, for the wine, you must make some decisions: 1) First of all, I usually only serve wine rather than hard liquor with dinner [or even before dinner], because one’s taste buds can be numbed by the excessive alcohol in distilled spirits, leading to decreased sensation of the food. 2) Secondly, I don’t plan meals around particular wines. I buy wine that is a “value,” and which I either know to be food friendly, or, if it isn’t, I haven’t wasted much of an investment [we’ll discuss wine in a future column]. 3) Because some wines may not pair particularly well with a course or two, I like to offer at least two [a red and a white], and maybe three wines, and I like to offer them simultaneously [“tandem tasting”] to both increase the opportunity for enjoyment, and to offer education about how different wines have different tastes with different foods … it’s really eye-opening when you stop and TASTE the wine with the food, rather than quaffing. 4) Because I am clumsy, I don’t buy expensive wine glasses; until recently, all of my glasses were from resale shops (and believe me, no one would guess it! You’d be amazed at some of the spectacular stemware you can acquire at resale shops). Within the last few months, I have had the opportunity to visit IKEA in suburban Chicago. Usually, I eschew huge stores like that, but IKEA has an excellent reputation for fair trade and employee benefits. I have become infatuated with their standard issue “white wine glass.” These glasses have a huge, egg-shaped bowl that I use for both red and white wine. The best part? They only cost $1.99 each! Yes, they are delicate, but so are $50 glasses (and unless you have an exceptionally trained nose, the subtleties gained by drinking wine from some of the “specialty” glasses will be lost, especially if you are drinking the wine with food; those specialty glasses are intended to be used for wine-tasting, not wine-drinking-with-dinner.). Despite certain ethnic traditions, don’t drink wine out of a tumbler; invest in some affordable stemware. I hope I don’t need to mention this, but Styrofoam cups and plastic glasses are not permissible at a sit-down dinner.

Candles: I have discussed candles extensively in previous Senses of Living® columns, so I won’t bore you with a reiteration. Some key points to consider: for a sit-down dinner, avoid or minimize the use of scented candles (and other scented products). Let the aromas of your food fill the room and home; don’t make them compete with other fragrances (including personal perfume or cologne), which can really assault your senses. If you have problems with pet or other odors in your home, burning some scented candles or incense or use of other aromas a few hours before your event can help offset the offending odors without negatively impacting on your food. For the sake of enhancing light, though, candles do add a wonderful glow. I like them on the dining table, but not on the space between guests (I keep one end of my dining table free of place settings, and that is where I put candles and other types of décor [see below]).

Other Décor: One could argue that by specially decorating your home for a dinner party, you are showing your guests how much you value their attendance. On the other hand, one could also argue that you are trying to impress and awe your guests, and that sends the wrong message. All I ever do is use that far end of my dining room table where I have candles set up, and incorporate some seasonal foliage, or flowers, or glass ornaments (like shiny Yule tree ornaments, all tucked in a bowl), or fruit, or potted plants, or unusual dishes, or something along those lines. I don’t like “stuff” occupying the space between me and my guests, unless it is food. If you must have a centerpiece, or if you table is square or round rather than oval like mine is, just keep it LOW. Magazines and television often show huge, spectacular centerpieces; they are just wrong. Period.

Though I didn’t mention it last month, I will emphasize here: plastic/paper plates are not an option for entertaining. If you don’t have enough “real” dishes, then either 1) don’t invite so many people, or 2) head on our to the thrift store(s) and get more “real” dishes. You are not being more frugal, in case you think you are. If you are inclined to use disposable items to save time, I applaud your mindfulness, but must insist that adding to our already considerable landfill problem while unnecessarily wasting natural resources is just not an option. We will revisit these issues when I discuss (in a future column) entertaining larger groups in your home in a format other than a sit-down dinner.

Meanwhile, start entertaining by celebrating any of the following holidays:

Drunk and Drugged Driving Prevention Month: While I am a staunch believer that our own bodies are ours to do with as we please, I am vehemently against inflicting our own choices on other people. If you plan to party, either select a designated driver for transportation purposes, or hire a cab. If you can’t afford to hire a cab, then you shouldn’t be out partying in the first place.

Hi Neighbor Month: This seems to be another of those “holidays” created by greeting card companies, so I’m going to co-opt it. We need more sociality in the world today. I cannot believe the number of people who do not know their neighbors. Sure, I can be annoyed by “too much” neighborliness, but there is also such a thing as “too little.”

Safe Toys and Gifts Month: We see television reports all of the time about children hurt or killed by dangerous toys. I have two things to say. First, children today receive TOO MANY toys. I don’t mean to sound like an old fogey, but this rampant commercialism is creating a monster in the form of our next generation. Secondly, make safety a top priority. Your children’s safety is the #1 job you have as a parent. If you have to read back issues of Consumer Reports, visit your library and do it. Don’t be lazy when it comes to your children’s safety. Bottom line: buy fewer toys, and buy safe toys.

Stress Free Family Holiday Month: Having lived through too many stressful holidays, part of my mission with Global Organic Designs (GOD-DESS) Lifestyle Management is to minimize everyone’s stress during holidays and every day. If you adopt the attitude that all expectations are self-imposed, you will realize that the only one you will disappoint is yourself. To offset the effects of stress, try dancing more, as I describe in this month’s Sensational Living® column, “Dancing the Night Away.” Stress is a killer; don’t let it kill you. Call or email me if you need some outside help.

With so much conflict in the world, we must learn to honor the holidays of other countries and their people: December 1 (Self Governing Republic Day, Central African Republic; National Day, Romania), December 2 (Independence Day, Laos), December 4 (Tupou I Day, Tonga), December 6 (King's Birthday, Thailand), December 8 (Independence and Republic Day, Tanzania; Constitution Day, Uzbekistan), December 9 (Constitution Day, N. Mariana Islands), December 10 (Foundation of the MPLA Worker's Party Day, Angola; International Human Rights Day, Cambodia, Equatorial Guinea, Namibia and the Turks & Caicos Islands; Constitution Day, Thailand), December 11 (National Holiday, Burkina Faso), December 12 (Independence Day, Kenya; Constitution Day, Russia; Neutrality Day, Turkmenistan), December 13 (Republic Day, Malta; Constitution Day, Russia [varies]), December 14 (National Day, St. Lucia), December 15 (Constitution Day, Nepal; Kingdom Day, Dutch St. Martin), December 16 (Independence Day, Kazakhstan; Anniversary Day, New Zealand [Canterbury]; Reconciliation Day, South Africa), December 17 (National Day, Bhutan), December 18 (Republic Day, Niger), December 19 (Separation Day, Anguilla), December 22 (Unduvap Poya Day, Sri Lanka; Army Day, Vietnam; Unity Day, Zimbabwe), December 23 (Victory Day, Egypt; Emperor's Birthday, Japan), December 24 (Constitution Day, Yap [Micronesia]), December 29 (King's Birthday, Nepal), December 30 (Republic Day, Madagascar; Rizal Day, Philippines), December 31 (Revolution Day, Ghana; Republic Day, Republic of Congo).

Now for a day-by-day breakdown of holidays to honor, respect and celebrate:

December 1: World AIDS Day: I have become aware that too many people believe that HIV and AIDS are manageable, and safe sex practices are falling by the wayside. This must stop. The current drug cocktails that are available, while diminishing the impact of the disease, have side effects that lower the quality of one’s life. Anyone who has seen a friend, family member, or even a stranger die of AIDS must recognize the need to stop this scourge around the world.

December 1: Pie Day and Eat A Red Apple Day: Why not combine two celebrations in one, and make an apple pie?

December 1: Life Without Art Day: Art feeds our souls. Some argue that the government should not be in the business of encouraging art. Unfortunately, sometimes creativity must be nourished, both emotionally and financially. As a civilized society, we have the responsibility to promote creativity, for the betterment of all society. Appreciate Art in all of its forms.

December 2: Abolition of Slavery Day: Adopted in 1927, this day was set aside to recognize that there are still human beings being kept (and treated) as slaves. In 2003, this cannot continue.

December 3: National Roof-Over-Your-Head Day: if you have a roof over your head, be grateful, for it could disappear in a moment. If you don’t have a roof over your head, be optimistic, for it could materialize in a moment.

December 4: Wear Brown Shoes Day: I keep seeing fashionistas insisting that one must wear brown shoes with a navy suit. Why? I wear black shoes and a black belt with a navy suit, and it looks SO much better than brown accessories.

December 4: Cookie Day: Without realizing it, I selected two multidimensional cookie recipes for this month’s Simple! Sensible! Sensational!® recipes. Of course, I could eat cookies every day, being the original cookie monster.

December 5: Santa's List Day: Not everyone celebrates Christmas, but I decided to include this “pseudo” holiday because it gives me yet another opportunity to rant about materialism. So much of our society is guided by greed, and this sort of behavior is engrained, indoctrinated and conditioned during childhood. Emphasizing the merchandising aspect of Christmas rather than the “real” purpose of the holiday is antithetical to the purpose of any holiday, but especially Christmas.

December 5: National Sacher Torte Day: I LOVE Sacher Tortes! But, they are too much trouble for me to make. Since December 9 is National Pastry Day (see below), why not allow yourself four or five days to patronize your favorite bakery, and boost the economy. Or, develop your own baking skills.

December 5: Bathtub Fun Day: I’m quite guilty of saying, “I don’t have time to take a bath; I’ll shower instead.” But, as someone who promotes the bathtub as a means of experiencing the Senses of Living®, I will take this opportunity to urge everyone to take a long leisurely bath this Friday night. Add some scented oils and/or soaps, light some candles, play some gentle music, and bathe …

December 6: National Gazpacho Day: Gazpacho is a summer dish. I hope this holiday arose in the southern hemisphere, for it makes no sense in December (except for the red and green colors). I’ll be presenting a Simple! Sensible! Sensational!® recipe for gazpacho next summer.

December 7: Letter-Writing Day: As a society, we just don’t write letters like we used to. I’m as guilty as anyone. Take some time, and write a “real” letter. Even if it’s an email, try to use a salutation and a closing.

December 7: Teacher Appreciation Day: it seems that we’ve celebrated this day before, but it is impossible to appreciate teachers too much. They are educating our next generations. Honor and reward them!

December 8: Bodhi Day: There is a moderate level of agreement that today is the anniversary of the enlightenment of Prince Siddhartha Gautama as he sat under the bodhi tree, meditating to overcome the ignorance inherent in each of us. One can purchase skeletonized bodhi tree leaves as decor items or to include with letters or cards to friends, and I do this, but I think the most important thing to do is to begin or enhance your route toward mindfulness, as I have written at http://www.soulfulliving.com/mindfulness_gratitude.htm .

December 8: Brownie Day: I love brownies, and this is a great time of year to make them and give them as gifts (and eat a few yourself). Next year I’ll offer my recipes for brownies.

December 9: National Pastry Day: I don’t make a lot of pastries, but I do have a simple recipe for pie crust that I’ll offer one of these days. Baking is an art, and pastries are a fine art.

December 9: Homemade Gift Day: a gift made from the heart and the hands is worth far more than one purchased. I like to gift special people with my baked goods, and with multi-course wine dinners at Casa Beall.

December 9: Shareware Day: I almost deleted this holiday, but decided to make an editorial comment: this day is about sharing software with others, free of charge. While an argument could be made that software manufacturers are overcharging the public, I prefer to consider the people who created the software in the first place. Like all creative people (writers, designers, musicians, etc.), they deserve remuneration and recognition. Non-creative people take for granted the non-tangible items that creative people produce. I have had my own ideas stolen as a paleontologist, and so I know how piracy feels firsthand (of course, it was done by one of the world’s most famous paleontologists, so I am also honored!). I also experienced the CEO of my former company take my exact words and ideas, and using them in a talk to the entire company, without crediting me (it was a backhanded compliment, but I was still honored).

December 10: Festival For The Souls Of Dead Whales: I’m leaving this in, with a caveat. Various sites on the web claim this is an Inuit holiday. It isn’t. While whales are important to Inuit culture, apparently their souls aren’t. But, instead of just trashing this non-holiday, I would ask each of you to increase/enhance your knowledge of cetaceans, and their plight in today’s political and environmental climate.

December 12: Poinsettia Day: I may be one of the few people who are saddened by poinsettias. The reason I am saddened is that I have seen so many killed in the spirit of holiday giving. People take them out into the frigid cold (they are tropical, heat-loving plants), or abandon them over their vacations (returning to find a limp or dried mess), or nurture them as leggy plants through the year, unable to recreate the glorious red sepals. As someone who advises people on houseplants, there are MUCH better choices for home décor.

December 13: Santa Lucia Day: To be honest, this holiday would have passed under my radar were it not for my Swedish friends (and I don't mean ABBA, though I will be listening to their music on this day). Lucia was a Sicilian martyr, and for some reason, Sweden's King Canute declared that the Christmas season would begin with the Feast of St. Lucia on this date. Swedish pancake with lingonberries are a great way to start this feast, though poached salmon with dill sauce, and cardamom-scented lamb stew are even better ways to finish it. Visit http://www.umkc.edu/imc/stlucia.htm for a more thorough discussion of this holiday which, like other winter holidays, is designed to celebrate the "light."

December 13: Cocoa Day: I LOVE cocoa, and regularly make Mexican hot chocolate, which is flavored with cinnamon and ground almonds. No need for marshmallows.

December 14: National Bouillabaisse Day: I did not know that America had such a day, but as a fan of fish stew in any form, as well as saffron, why not combine them for your own version of bouillabaisse.

December 15: National Lemon Cupcake Day: this month, I offer a number of quick bread recipes in Simple! Sensible! Sensational!® Quick breads and cupcakes are theoretically related, so perhaps you can make some adjustments on your own.

December 15: Bill of Rights Day: Ratified on this date in1791, the Bill of Rights is the sum of the first ten addenda to the Constitution. They provide specific guidelines for protection of American citizens. In 2003, these guidelines were ignored when the deceitfully named Patriot Act was passed in the name of security. What a slap in the face to our founding fathers. What an act of treason.

December 16: National Chocolate Covered Anything Day: I’m more fond of chocolate IN things (such as my Chocolate Chip Cookies and Oatmeal Cookies among the Simple! Sensible! Sensational! recipes), but some strawberries or biscotti dipped in chocolate can be pleasant.

December 16: Boston Tea Party: Yet another example of how early Americans fought to demand their freedom, and a reminder of how they gave up the “security” of being “protected” by England in favor of freedom with representation.

December 17: National Maple Syrup Day: try using maple syrup as a sweetener in more of your savory dishes; you’ll be surprised by the depth of flavor it provides.

December 18: National Roast Suckling Pig Day: I go rabid over Cuban roast pork, but most of my memories of suckling pigs relate back to working on a hog farm during my teens, and to dissecting a suckling pig in advanced biology in high school.

December 18: Bake Cookies Day: December 4 was “Cookie Day.” Check out my advice for that date.

December 19: Oatmeal Muffin Day: see my comments for December 15 (National Lemon Cupcake Day).

December 19: Hanukkah begins: The Jewish Festival of Lights begins today. While it is generally considered a minor holiday among Jewish festivals, its proximity to Christmas has elevated its significance in recent years. Personally, anything that promotes the celebration of light and encourages mindfulness of our limited natural resources (Hanukkah is about how one day’s worth of lamp oil lasted a miraculous eight days) is to be embraced.

December 21: Winter Solstice/Yule: Even though the solstice occurs at 7:04am on December 22, per http://aa.usno.navy.mil/data/docs/EarthSeasons.html , any proper celebration would be tonight, so think of this, the shortest day of the year, as the beginning of the return to the light.

December 21: Look At The Bright Side Day: Always look at the bright side; there is no other side. If you dwell on the dark side, you will only hurt yourself.

December 21: Underdog Day: Some records indicate both December 17 and December 19 as “Underdog Day.” I think the most important thing is for those who seem to be underdogs to turn themselves into Superdogs. No more victim mentality. Just become a winner.

December 21: World Peace Day: With the problems in the world today, I pray daily for peace. I put my political voice forward for peace. I put my social voice forward for peace (and have received physical threats for this). Stand tall, stand bravely, and promote peace.

December 22: National Date-Nut Bread Day: Date-Nut Bread is yet another type of Quick Bread. While I have not provided an explicit recipe, you can easily adapt “Bret’s Basic Quick Bread” to include dates as the dominant fruit. YUM! (and good for you, too).

December 23: Roots Day: Our heritages, our “roots,” as it were, are important, but how we interact in our current multiethnic, multicultural societies is just as important. Do not let our differences outweigh our similarities.

December 24: National Egg Nog Day: I probably enjoy one cup of eggnog per year, usually at a friend’s home. I love it, but it doesn’t love me. Everything in moderation.

December 24: Christmas Eve: A Christian holiday, which I hope Christians remember for its true meaning, not the commercial meaning.

December 25: Christmas: see my comment for Christmas Eve.

December 25: National Pumpkin Pie Day: I tend to think of pumpkin pie associated with Thanksgiving, but given the vitamins present in pumpkin, use any excuse to eat it. In fact, I have some terrific pumpkin bread recipes in this month’s Simple! Sensible! Sensational!® recipes. Enjoy!

December 26: Kwanzaa begins: Kwanzaa is a celebration of all facets of African-American life. I have recently had the opportunity to explore the diversity of first generation African-Americans in Chicago while working on a book project for Slow Food Chicago, and I continue to be awestruck by the ignorance of myself and the majority of Americans of this huge continent. Meanwhile, to learn the specifics of Kwanzaa, visit: http://www.officialkwanzaawebsite.org/ .

December 27: Holocaust Remembrance Day coincides with the end of Hannukah this year, which I think is symbolic. Anyone who survived the brutality of the Holocaust is a miracle, just as that last day of the lamp burning was a miracle, leading to Hannukah. Do not forget the Holocaust, and do not allow history to be rewritten by those who claim the Holocaust was fiction. Those people are vile racists.

December 27: National Fruitcake Day: I happen to love fruitcake. A friend of my parents made the best fruitcake, and my mother would soak it in bourbon, and it was a special treat for months to come. I feel sorry for those who don’t have happy memories of fruitcake.

December 28: Card Playing Day: I have no use for card playing in my life. 25 years ago, I was told I would never survive at college if I didn’t know how to play bridge. When that was proved false, I left all cards behind me. Do what you want.

December 28: National Chocolate Day: See my comments for December 16.

December 28: Call-a-Friend Day: Stay in touch with all of your friends. I am shocked people who leave friends by the wayside out of laziness. Don’t be one of those fair-weather friends!

December 29: Pepper Pot Day: Pepper Pot is a Caribbean (particularly Jamaican) stew occurring in many versions. Some use tripe, some use pork, some use beef or chicken, some only shrimp. Some confuse it with callaloo, and some call it American. Whatever you call it, consider this an opportunity to celebrate comfort food.

December 30: Relaxation Day: Relaxation is what GOD-DESS is all about, living your life so that you can enjoy it! If you are having problems relaxing, give me a call. I’m an expert at relaxation!

December 31: Unlucky Day: There is no such thing as unluckiness. There is only the opportunity to learn. The quicker you learn, the luckier you will be.

December 31: New Year's Eve: this is a time when people party, and make New Year's resolutions. Perhaps that is one reason that it is also “Make Up Your Mind Day.” I would encourage you to focus on positive things to add to your life, rather than removing negative things, as resolutions. Sure, it is good to eliminate bad habits, but it is even better to live your life positively. You would be surprised how many of those bad habits disappear on their own when you truly live your life positively. Celebrate in moderation.

January 1: The new year. A new beginning. Resolve to be positive throughout 2004.

On that note, I would urge everyone to do everything they can to engage in some Sensational Living®. Life is too short to not make the most of it. Don’t wait until tomorrow. Start today!