Has the Christmas spirit lost its sparkle?
Here at the Ritchie Resort and Sunshine Sanitarium, we have stopped waiting on the sparkle. We're more into plan-ahead techniques to ward off exhaustion in a week where there is one day only to create and clean up a feast.
Still, the administrator at the sanitarium and her four-legged snapper-up of all goodies dropped to the floor, Lola, have come to a sort of truce with Christmas.
Years ago, this column featured a story about making gullets, the Christmas cookie of choice from the Belgian side of the family. My mother used to make untold dozens of them on a small iron that opens like a book to the size of a man's hands. The mountain of gullets grew and the addicting smell of vanilla and hot brown sugar drifted through the house.
Oh, they are wonderful things, gullets. They are a scrumptious combination of everything bad for you _ a whole pound of butter, two pounds of brown sugar, a half dozen brown eggs and flour. The key ingredients are vanilla and whiskey.
You roll the dough into cigar-shaped pieces the size of your little finger and put them, two at a time, into the sizzling gullet iron and top it with a brick or, in my case, a three-pound sledge hammer, to squish the cookies into the tiny checkerboard pattern. There, they brown atop the stove on one side for about 40 seconds before you flip the iron to the other side.
This iron is not electric, so the baker has to keep the whole thing going at a consistent pace for the five or six hours it takes to make a full batch. Failure to keep turning the iron regularly results in one side getting hotter than the other, and then you have a burned side and a raw dough side.
Before my mother died 26 years ago, my sole job was to eat those rascals by the stacks. After her death, her gullet iron and recipe came to me, and there began the trouble. For five years, I couldn't get them right. Which kind do you want, I'd ask family members. The kind that doesn't taste like hers or the mutilated ones that stuck to the iron?
The first year, I just stood there and sobbed. We control freaks want everything to be perfect _ I'd wanted Christmas to be just like when Mum was here. At the age of 35, you'd think I'd have known better: Nothing would be the same again. Deep down, I guess I knew it, and that was the real reason for the blubbering.
This year, for the first time in a decade or so, the gullets again developed a mind of their own. Close to a third of the cookies stuck in the little cast iron squares, and I got to dig them out with the point of a knife.
Frustration was building when I reminded myself that this is a First World problem. I thought back to Christmases at my grandparents' farmhouse as a child and realized that every memory has to do with being together, with unexpected visitors at the kitchen door bringing cheer, with Pappy hitching up an unsuspecting pony to the sleigh _ and yes, we actually had an antique buggy that converted to a sleigh in winter. It was all a bit Norman Rockwell. No thoughts of cookies or expensive gifts intruded, only being with family and carrying food to others.
So, I went back to the gullets, drifting from memory to memory. Suddenly, gullets didn't loom so large. My 95-year-old aunt texted her thoughts on gullets from Pennsylvania, "Never did like making those things." She offered to cuss them long-distance for 15 or 20 minutes. I laughed. She'd do it, too.
Gullets are a great tradition, but tapping into what really matters and letting go of the rest is the real key for the holidaymaker of the family.
So, hang in there folks. Take a deep breath. Rest yourself. Do something for the less fortunate. Let the holiday flow.