Christmas Baking and Gingerbread Bloodshed with Stephanie A. Cain

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Around the holidays, we’re surrounded by food. Family dinners, workplace potlucks, aisles and aisles of festive candy at grocery stores, not to mention all those friends who give you tasty treats as gifts to celebrate. When we’re so inundated with food (or anything, for that matter), we forget that others have different situations that lend to different holiday experiences for them. While I’ve never experienced a Christmas where I’ve had to go without, there are many in need, all over the world, and that’s why I wanted to participate in the Giftmas Blog Tour this year. December 6 – 12, we’re sharing holiday food anecdotes and family recipes to instill a little good cheer and support the Edmonton Food Bank.

‘Tis the season! I challenge you to provide a meal for someone in need, which is way easier than you think. $1 provides three meals for someone in need. Donate $5 to positively affect 15 lives. (This is the only time I enjoy math!)

And then…read today’s blog post by Stephanie A. Cain, fantasy writer extraordinaire whose creativity and storytelling follows her into the kitchen. Merry Giftmas!

And with that, I’ll turn it over to Stephanie…

Happy Giftmas! I’m joining this blog tour in support of the Edmonton Food Bank, so I’m here to talk to you about baking and Christmas bloodshed. Or something like that.

Let me start with a confession: I hate being in the kitchen.

I know, it’s weird for someone to write for a Christmas food blog tour when she hates cooking and baking. But here’s the thing–Christmas is the one time I don’t hate being in the kitchen.

My mom is an amazing cook and baker, and I seriously think her love language is feeding people. She taught me how to bake, and at Christmas, I love baking holiday cookies while listening to the Carpenters Christmas and Trans-Siberian Orchestra albums.

ninjabread-menMaking gingerbread boys has been a family tradition over the past decades–I have pictures of this going all the way back to when I was in middle school. Every year we try to get Mom a new cookie cutter. She mixes up the dough ahead of time (usually at least a quadruple recipe) and puts it in the fridge for a day or two.

Then my parents and I get together and bake. Dad rolls out the dough, I cut the cookies out, Mom handles the oven, and when they’re cool, I decorate.

You remember that Foxtrot cartoon where Jason does terrible things to the gingerbread men? That’s totally me. A couple of years ago, I got a set of “Ninja-bread Men” cookie cutters, which gave me plenty of excuses for head wounds and amputated limbs.

What? The Christmas story has its gruesome bits. Don’t forget about the Slaughter of the Innocents!

gingerwolves-and-victimsOne year I cast Lord of the Rings in gingerbread. One year my gingerbread men were the survivors of a zombie attack. We’ve also had gingerbread wolves, complete with red icing around their muzzles.  Then there was the year we thought it would be fun to make a gingerbread house. We quickly discovered how not fun that actually is, but the good news is, even an ugly gingerbread house tastes pretty good.

The recipe we use is from Mom’s battered, stained, well-used Betty Crocker Cookbook from 1972, the year she and Dad got married. (Picture the Book of Mazarbul from Fellowship of the Ring, but exchange recipes for dwarf records and vanilla-stains for bloodstains, and you’ll have an idea of how beat-up this cookbook is.)

Gingerbread Boys

1/2 cup shortening

1/2 cup sugar

1/2 cup dark molasses

1/4 cup water

2-1/2 cups all-purpose flour

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon soda

1/4 teaspoon ginger

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

1/8 teaspoon allspice

Cream shortening and sugar. Blend in molasses, water, flour, salt, soda, ginger, nutmeg and allspice. Cover; chill 2 to 3 hours.

Heat oven to 375. Roll dough 1/4 inch thick on lightly floured cloth-covered board. Cut with gingerbread boy cutter [or ninjabread boy, or gingerwolf, or…]; place on ungreased baking sheet.

[Betty recommends using raisins for the face and bits of candied cherries for other decorations. We use cinnamon red-hots for eyes and do the rest with icing after they’re baked.]

Bake 10 to 12 minutes. Immediately remove from baking sheet. Makes about fifteen 4-inch cookies.

Like I said, we usually make at least a quadruple recipe, because a lot of dough is consumed while rolling and baking (shh, I am convinced salmonella is a conspiracy cooked up–get it, cooked up–by the oven industry). We also give gingerbread boys as a present to my uncle, because they’re his favorite cookies. There is laughter and shrieking and occasionally flour fights during the making of gingerbread boys, and it’s honestly one of my favorite traditions of Christmas.

If you decide to have fun with our recipe, make sure to take lots of pictures, and email me the results at stephanie@stephaniecainonline.com! And remember, as part of our 2016 Giftmas Blog Tour, we’re soliciting donations to the Edmonton Food Bank to help someone else have a happy holiday!

stephanie-a-cain

Stephanie A. Cain writes epic & urban fantasy. She grew up in Indiana, where much of her urban fantasy is set. She works at a museum and dreams of living somewhere without winter. A proud crazy cat lady, she is happily owned by Strider, Eowyn, and Eustace Clarence Scrubb.

Hello Homesickness

Arizona

When Bryan and I moved to San Diego, California, this summer, the transition was strangely easy for me. I’d lived in Phoenix, Arizona, for 30 years, my whole life. I was ready for change, ready to escape my roots and experience something new. That desire coupled with the promises of urban, downtown living, beaches mere minutes away, a smorgasbord of incredible food, craft beer culture, June Gloom (which I love), and the beauty of Balboa Park equaled unbridled excitement for me—a new adventure. I was happy to leave my desert hometown in the dust. When we pulled our U-Haul truck out onto the I-10, I didn’t look back.

I’ve traveled back to Phoenix a few times since our initial move—for weddings, baby showers, quick trips to see family and friends—and I’ve always driven or flown back to California alight with the feeling that I’m returning home. And why shouldn’t I? I’m a California girl now. And San Diego is an exceptionally easy city to fall in love with and to call home.

But this last trip, this one was different.

Bryan had to travel back to Phoenix for work this past weekend/week, and I asked him to extend his trip so I could tag along, burn up existing vacation time, and we could visit with friends and family for the holidays. I was excited for five days of fun!

The first night, we met up with a small group of friends for authentic, beautiful Moroccan food at Couscous Express. This little establishment, on McDowell near the 51 entrance/exit ramps, is the most unassuming gem of a restaurant. The owner is friendly and welcoming, and all he wants to do is to feed you; it’s the most honest hospitality I’ve ever experienced. Together with friends, we ate lentil soup, garbanzo beans, tagine, and date shakes while French jazz music played in the background. And there wasn’t a quiet moment as we caught up, discussed the latent poignancy of Aziz Ansari’s new Netflix series Master of None, talked through the algorithms of Pandora radio, geeked out, and shared the love. At the end of the meal, the owner of Couscous gave me a headdress traditionally worn by belly dancers and everyone at the table received argon oil soap. It was the perfect, eccentric end to a perfect, eccentric meal.

GameThe next morning, we went to church at City Square, which never feels like a religious gathering and instead feels like a family gathering. Immediately, we were pulled into hugs and asked how our lives are in California. Later, as our guest pastor drew a connection between joy and pain, the beauty and volatility of nature, and the happiness and sadness of the season, I teared up—both because her message was true and beautiful and because, surrounded by so many wonderful people, I was feeling that joy she was speaking of.

After church, we played Betrayal at the House on the Hill with the Kemp-Schlemmers, the family we were staying with. We dramatically read horrifying cards and joked about creepy kids and enjoyed chile-infused beer—ever mindful there was a traitor among us! (Play the game; it’s awesome.)

Mom and meThat night, we had an early Christmas dinner with my mom. She completely spoiled us with incredible food (including homemade crème brulee, which is my favorite dessert ever!) and truly thoughtful presents. It’s very apparent your boyfriend has become a part of the family when your mom buys you both socks, heat-building undershirts (for outdoor archery, of course), and Amazon gift cards to quell our ordering addictions. My mom got a little emotional when she opened the scarf I’d knit for her, and we helped her put her new wine lovers case on her phone. We took lots of pictures, and of course, like moms do, she sent leftovers home with us.

On Monday, I had to work from home. I dropped Bryan off at work, swung by one of my old coffee haunts, Lola, and ran into a good friend I haven’t seen in many, many months. Over mugs of coffee, we talked about writing, relationships, and impending adventures before I had to head back to the house and log on to my laptop.

Mid-morning, there was a knock on the door and an invitation to go downstairs and do mommy and me yoga with Summer and Josie. And I can’t even begin to describe how fantastic an experience it is to down dog with a two-year-old who smiles and giggles and always wants to hand you your water bottle (gotta stay hydrated, after all!).

That night, we invited basically all of our Phoenix-based friends out for a group dinner. Despite some crazy restaurant mix-ups, our friends showed up in droves. What we thought would be a group of 10-15 people quickly turned into a group of 20-25. We virtually took over NYPD Pizza. And it was overwhelming to see everyone come out to see us. I uploaded a collage of pictures to social media with the simplest hashtag: #joy—because that tiny word captures everything going on in that room.

NYPD

On Tuesday, I surprised my ex-coworkers at Nationwide with an unannounced visit. And you should’ve seen the looks on their faces! Again, the hugs. Again, the inquiries about California. A few hopeful questions about whether I was back for good. “Just for vacation,” I said.

After the visit, I met up with my friend Rachel, who is basically my chosen older sister. We lunched the way we used to, discussing the Phoenix dance community, our goals and successes, and the goings on our favorite TV shows.

When Bryan got off work that night, we went to Cherryblossom Noodle Café, our go-to for Japanese food in Phoenix. We drank sake and green tea, and I had some killer Pad Thai.

We got home to find Brian watching The Voice on Hulu, so we sat down to watch and talk music and unwind for the night.

Yesterday afternoon, we arrived home in San Diego after a grueling and tiring car ride. We unpacked the car and went upstairs to find a very naughty dog on the furniture—and yes, she knows she’s not allowed there (bad, Biscuit!). We straightened up, fed the dogs, took them on a walk, and then Bryan went to Aikido as I settled in for a relaxing night at home.

I reheated my leftover Pad Thai, turned on Mad Men, cracked open a beer—and felt terribly, terribly alone. That’s when I realized that for the first time ever, I was homesick.

But not for Phoenix. Not the city itself or the desert or anything tied to a specific geographical place. I was homesick for the people who live in Phoenix. The people who are the very definition of community. The people who show up in overwhelming numbers when we say we’re going to be in town. The people who accept us as family, even when we’re gone for a long time. The people who open their homes and their hearts to us. The people that make Phoenix my home.

If you’re one of those people in Phoenix and I saw you this trip, know that you gave me the very best Christmas present this past weekend—you. I love you and I miss you. Always.

 

Postmodern Jukebox’s Show is a Reminder of the Good in This World

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Yesterday, I spent an embarrassing amount of time practicing deep breathing and convincing myself that everything was going to be okay and it was irrational to let my anxiety take hold. You see, my boyfriend and I had tickets to see the incredible Postmodern Jukebox (PMJ) at the House of Blues in San Diego. And even though I was ridiculously excited to see PMJ live, I was also a little terrified.

In light of the horrific attacks in Paris and San Bernardino in recent weeks, I’ve been on edge in public, heavily crowded places. It’s safe to say my anxiety has gotten the best of me a number of times. I find myself regularly scouting exits, determining how I’d escape in case of an emergency. My talent for imagining worst case scenarios shifts into overdrive. When this happens, I instruct myself to down a rationality cocktail—calm down, think clearly, turn off the newscasts, live in the moment.

That last part of the cocktail, live in the moment (and sometimes “live your damn life, Tiffany!”), is the most important ingredient. It’s generally what gets me out of the house and out into the world. Because you can’t live behind closed doors paralyzed by fear, especially when people and music and performance and the bustle of city life are the things that make you happy.

Vintage dress

Because I’ll take any excuse to wear this gorgeous vintage dress from Bad Madge – and red lipstick, of course!

So, I put on my vintage, sequined, 1950s-style frock, hooked my arm in my boyfriend’s, and strolled the few blocks downtown to the House of Blues, where a line for the show wrapped around half the city block. The show had sold out. And I wasn’t the least bit surprised.

If you haven’t heard of PMJ yet, I’m about to introduce you to your new obsession. The brainchild of the incomparable Scott Bradlee, PMJ is an antidote to the over-produced, Auto-Tune-dependent, repetitive music that you generally hear on the radio. It’s also a time machine. PMJ takes Top 40-style hits, changes up their arrangements so they sound like something from yesteryear, and then pairs dynamite singers with dynamite musicians (and sometimes dancers, too!) to bring the re-envisioned song to life. Guns N’ Roses “Sweet Child O’ Mine” morphs into a New Orleans soul song. Ariana Grande’s “Love Me Harder” turns into a James Bond theme. Maroon 5’s “Maps” gets a vintage 1970s soul makeover. Rihanna’s “Umbrella” transforms into a Singin’ in the Rain-style tune—with tap dancers and umbrellas! Jason Derulo’s “Talk Dirty to Me” becomes a vintage klezmer—with a rap in Yiddish.

Often, I like PMJ’s covers more than the originals. And it’s not just the gimmick of this concept, the novelty of the act. The songs are thoughtfully crafted and brilliantly executed. And holy crap, the talent involved in this project is off the charts! PMJ works regularly with dozens of insanely gifted and dedicated musicians, and their videos (which premiere on a weekly basis) and concerts feature a revolving door of talent.

Last night, Casey Abrams, Haley Reinhart, Ariana Savalas, Joey Cook, Maiya Sykes, Blake Lewis, and Sarah Reich opened the show with Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy,” performed in the style of the roaring 20s. I was immediately smiling from ear to ear. The anxiety that had sat in my gut all day drained out of my body. And I danced, because I couldn’t keep still. The music and the energy were so infectious.

During their individual performances, Casey wowed us with his luscious man bun, gravelly vocals, phenomenal upright bass-playing skills, and, of course, his New Orleans-style take on Sam Smith’s “I’m Not the Only One.”

Haley flirted with us through a swanky version of Britney Spears’s “Oops, I Did It Again,” and then completely slayed a cover of “Creep,” the PMJ video I believe she’s most known for.

Ariana won me over with her hilarious antics (this woman is the definition of a modern burlesque performer—humor, sex appeal, pipes, character), not to mention that Jessica Rabbit-inspired performance of “No Diggity.”

Joey delivered the damn cutest rendition of “Hey There, Delilah,” complete with ukulele and accordion accompaniment (and yes, she played both). Her performance reminded us all what it feels like to fall in love the first time.

Maiya took us to church singing “I Believe in a Thing Called Love” and then catapulted Adele’s new single, “Hello,” into another stratosphere.

Blake attacked “Radioactive” with gorgeous vocals, beat-boxing, and enough dapper flair to inspire us all to go out and buy a pageboy cap.

And then there was my dance/girl crush, Sarah Reich, who is giving voice to the art of tap dancing and making it relevant again. She is a consummate performer, making the most difficult steps look easy and flawless, a huge smile on her face at all times. And when you can match a drummer beat for beat (yeah, she can and she proved it during the show), you know you’ve got one hell of a tapper on your hands.

Scott Bradlee took the stage halfway through the show to thank us for supporting PMJ and promised they’re just getting started. He asked if he could play a little piano for us, requested artist suggestions from the audience, and performed an impromptu piano mashup of Michael Jackson, Queen, Billy Joel, Elvis Presley, and MC Hammer.

And I can’t fail to mention the infamous Tambourine Guy, Tim Kubart, who intermittently exploded onstage, tambourines rattling, and performed with the exuberance and joy commonly reserved for “hyperactive” kids—a joy I feel like we’re told to abandon as soon as we reach a certain age, because it’s silly or inappropriate somehow. Personally, I think we need to bring that joy back. I’m happy Tim and his irresistible energy are an integral part of PMJ’s show.

The full cast brought it home with a cover of “Such Great Heights,” and the song swelled in the House of Blues as if these six singers were, in fact, a full chorus. Scott came out onstage and attempted shuffle stomps alongside Sarah. Casey whispered something to Haley between verses and she laughed. The whole crowd swayed and danced.

And I can’t remember the last time I felt that happy.

I didn’t realize how deeply I needed last night’s PMJ concert until I was slow dancing with my boyfriend to their encore, a sweet, simple version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” happy tears streaming down my cheeks. After weeks of being on edge and sinking slowly into a state-of-the-world-inspired depression, my heart was light. I felt joy bubbling up in my chest. There was suddenly a place for this holiday season in my heart, which is usually “the most wonderful time of the year,” but has seemed overshadowed by sadness recently.

Last night, PMJ was a beacon of hope for me—and probably many others in the audience—an important reminder that the human spirit, the good in this world, going out to live your life, and the unity inspired by music are far more powerful than fear.

Buy a Book, Impact a Life

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As the holidays near, it’s easy to get caught up in buying presents, visiting friends and family, and building the best snowman anyone has ever seen (out of snow if the climate permits and marshmallows if it doesn’t). It’s easy to forget that there are others out there who can’t get caught up in holiday cheer, because of, well, hard doses of life.

Today, my short story “Devour” is published in an anthology titled Christmas Lites V.

I know what you’re thinking. Another plug for your work, Tiffany? But what about all the feels in that intro paragraph? You sound all kinds of entitled right now.

While this blog post is a way for me to share the news of the publication of “Devour,” it’s also a call to action. Because every cent of the proceeds of Christmas Lites V goes to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV).

According to their website, “NCADV is the voice of victims and survivors. We are the catalyst for changing society to have zero tolerance for domestic violence. We do this by effecting public policy, increasing understanding of the impact of domestic violence, and providing programs and education that drive change.”

The NCADV works with the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery to financially assist survivors of domestic violence who may not be able to afford reconstructive plastic surgery. They memorialize the victims of abuse through their Remember My Name project. They provide tool kits, in conjunction with The Feminist Women’s Health Center and the National Organization for Men Against Sexism, to help bridge the gap between the fields of reproductive health and domestic violence, educating others about reproductive coercion. They provide financial independence materials to survivors to help them rebuild and maintain financial stability. In short, they do really important work.

So Christmas Lites V is more than a book. It’s a way to support an incredibly worthwhile organization. While you read “A Tale of Two Urchins” by A.F. Stewart, “The Krampus Tree” by Douglas Wynne, or “Keeping Christmas” by Alana Lorens, know that you’re not only enjoying great fiction (donated by each and every author) but also helping to support NCADV’s important programs.

And I’m pretty sure there’s something for everyone in this anthology. All genres are represented – romance, fantasy, horror, action, children’s stories, stories written by children, and more.

Of course, I wrote a horror story. I tried to write something light and lovely for the holidays, but it simply didn’t work. Instead, I wrote about love that’s begun to fade, dark, foreboding woods, and the dangers of skepticism. Here’s a little excerpt from “Devour”:

“Through the Plexiglas of the phone booth, Melody Halliday peered into the dark of the wood – into its empty boughs and dead promises, beyond its gnarled, labyrinthine birch wood limbs, deep into the very heart of it – and felt nothing but utter skepticism. And pity, too. Pity that the provincial town of Einn in Iceland found debilitating fear in something so banal.

‘I’m surprised they haven’t burned the woods to the ground,’ Melody said into the receiver. ‘They say the mannaeta’s spirit lives in the bark of the trees, hibernating all year until Christmas Eve rolls around. Then, it take half-human, half-wood demon form for one night to feed on someone in Einn. Happy cannibal Christmas.’

‘How very jolly,’ Eddie Beckett, Melody’s boyfriend, said from across the Atlantic Ocean. His voice sounded honeyed. He’d been drinking. Pub drafts, no doubt, frothy ones laden with hops. Melody salivated at the thought of a crisp pint. There was no beer in Einn, not around this time of year.

‘It gets better. They systematically starve themselves here,’ Melody said. ‘Begins the first day of December. They eat as little as possible. They don’t want to entice the mannaeta with their wobbly bits.’

“Well, yours certainly entice me,’ Eddie said, humor in his voice.

Melody choked on an empty chuckle and cleared her throat, embarrassment and frustration warming her cheeks. Why was she so bloody uncomfortable? Her boyfriend of three years flirting openly with her should have sent her over the moon. Throttling through space with joy. But it didn’t. Instead, his frisky jest made her stomach twitch with nervousness.”

And you’ll have to purchase a copy of Christmas Lites V to see what happens to Melody, Eddie, the sleepy little town of Einn, and its resident wood-demon, the mannaeta.

If you want a hard copy, CLICK HERE!

If you want a Kindle copy, CLICK HERE!

Purchasing this book to support NCADV is the best Christmas/holiday gift anyone could give me. Thank you in advance for your generosity and support.

Happiest of holidays to you all!

Thanksgiving at The Top of the World

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We weren’t sure if we’d make it to Thanksgiving dinner. The morning of, there was talk of snowfall and tire chains, things you generally don’t associate with the holidays in ever-sunny California. But up in Running Springs, where Uncle Wally has an enormous, beautiful, mountaintop cabin nicknamed The Top of the World, snow is something to consider.

I did a load of laundry and watched Mad Men in my pajamas while I waited for my dad to take a drive down and back up the mountain to determine if the route was safe. At 9:30 AM, we got the go ahead. “The sun came out, so the roads are clear. Come on up. We’ve already got pitchers of margaritas going.” I immediately set about boiling water for pasta. Bryan had made pumpkin mushroom sauce the night before, but we were waiting for the all clear to cook the penne.

I bundled up in a turtleneck sweater I’d purchased the day prior at Old Navy as part of a Black Friday sale. I made sure to wear my black knee-high boots of which a rock star would surely approve, not because they’re bad ass (bonus), but because they provide great traction on slippery terrain. As I applied makeup, I started to sweat in our little San Diego apartment, dressed for 30-degree weather when it was a sunny 60-something outside.

At the gas station by our place, we checked the air pressure in Bryan’s tires and bought snacks for the road. Even though a Thanksgiving feast was imminent, a road trip of any length is damn near unbearable for me without white cheddar popcorn and Cherry Coke Zero.

On the way north, we watched the outside temperature dip on the digital readout as we reached higher elevation. I responded to my mom’s sporadic text messages about Christmas wish lists and clothing sizes. We listened to podcasts for entertainment since radio reception can be spotty from city to city.

Two hours later, at the base of the mountain, Bryan and I took a collective breath. I told him to be careful and did a little yoga breathing to quiet my anxiety. The distance uphill was only 13 miles, but it felt much longer as we zoomed and turned and barreled and turned some more. As we got closer to The Top of the World, little tufts of snow appeared on the side of the roads. The tufts grew thicker and thicker until the sporadic patches had morphed into a fine blanket of downy white.

We pulled to the front of a very, very long line of cars just upwind of a steep driveway that puts most sledding hills to shame. “You guys ready for a little exercise?” As we panted up the hill, I peered out into the serene canyons of San Bernardino National Park, which looked like something right out of a Bob Ross painting. Happy little trees and fine winter mist and layers of color everywhere.

Inside The Top of the World, it smelled like butter and sage and baked rolls – in other words, it smelled like home. The women of the Stevenson family bustled about the kitchen, tending to ovens and crockpots and serving dishes. Cousin Terry gave me the warmest of hugs and announced that I looked completely different than the last time I’d seen him. And it’s true. I haven’t been to California for a Thanksgiving in a long time.

“And who the hell is this?” I introduced Bryan, and we were ushered upstairs to join the rest of the family. “We’ve got some Shirley Temples ready for you.”

In the living room, cousins and uncles and aunts piled on a small, cozy sofa in the corner, watching a football game. A wooden bar stretched across one of the walls, promising cocktails of various persuasions and bowl after bowl of bar snacks. Bryan and I made the rounds, hugging, introducing, reintroducing, catching up. I helped myself to a White Russian – the first I’d had in God knows how many years but it felt festive somehow – and my dad gave Bryan and me a tour of the house.

There are great accommodations at The Top of the World. Each of the six bedrooms boasts its own bathroom, spirit animal at the door (my folks stayed in the moose room), whimsical, fun artwork, and beautiful views. There was a full-sized Dracula-like figure in the study and an outdoor hot tub off the master bedroom. Newly fashioned snowmen adorned the sweeping outdoor patio.

Back in the living room, Wally taught Bryan and me how to play shuffleboard, and a half hour of friendly, family competition ensued. Afterward, we snacked on queso at the bar and talked with cousins about jazz and brushes with customs during the infamous U.S. Ebola scare. Every once in a while, shouts would erupt from the corner where many were watching the game.

Rumors trickled out of the kitchen. Apparently, the microwave was out of commission, the breakers overloaded. And perhaps the turkey hadn’t been cooking the whole time it had been in the oven. I heard later that one of the crockpots was moved temporarily to an unused bathroom to take advantage of the available power source there.

Of course, the Stevensons wouldn’t allow a little thing like downed power interfere with Thanksgiving dinner. Not long after Bryan and I played a few games of Pac-Man and Burger Time and Galaga on Wally’s old school arcade game, dinner was ready.

And now I understood why I hadn’t seen some of the Stevenson women since our arrival. There were three different kinds of sweet potatoes. A roast turkey and a glazed ham. Two different kinds of gravy. My step mom’s infamous mashed potatoes, the spuds for which were skinned with knives because they couldn’t find a potato peeler. Deviled eggs, creamed corn, green bean casserole. Our pumpkin pasta.

Everyone grabbed plates and ate together. The couch in front of the TV remained vacant while the family shared a meal, fitting into every nook and cranny of The Top of the World. We all commented on the dishes we loved and went back for seconds, maybe thirds. Stories of past Thanksgiving grocery store run snafus were shared.

Then, it was time for a picture. All twenty-something of us tried to cram into the stairwell to commemorate this Thanksgiving on film. There was much speculation and strategizing as we assembled. Would we fit? Should we spread out across two flights of stairs? Was everyone accounted for? In the end, a neighbor managed to snap a picture on three cameras, and then an iPad was passed down through the throng of family for one final shot.

Bryan and I were the first to approach the dessert table (surprise, surprise). All the traditional treats were there – pumpkin loaf, pumpkin pie, a few berry pies, brownies for the chocolate lovers – along with two full pineapple upside down cakes and a rum cake that was light on the cake and heavy on the rum. With extra rum sauce on the side, of course.

Not long after finishing dessert, it was time to head down the mountain and back to San Diego. The sun had melted a lot of snow throughout the day, and as the sun set, that snow would turn to ice. Bryan’s car tires aren’t exactly made for cold weather. And our dogs would be impatiently waiting for their own dinner when we got home.

“I’m so sorry this felt like hello, goodbye, but thanks for having us.” Wally said now that Bryan and I understood the rules, we could play more shuffleboard when we came back for another Thanksgiving. We made our rounds, said our goodbyes, and held tight to the railing on the way back down that rollercoaster-steep driveway.

We survived the trip down the mountain. Though it seemed faster descending than ascending, I don’t think I let out my breath till we got to the bottom. Then, Bryan and I sang along to Disney Pandora all the way home.

Our trip was much too short. It took two hours to get there, we only stayed about two-and-a-half hours when all was said and done, and it took us another two-and-a-half hours to get home.

But the trip was completely worth it.

Because while Thanksgiving is seemingly all about the meal that we spend hours upon hours making, there is no celebration, no gratitude, no point to it if you don’t have your loved ones seated at the table beside you. After years away, I’m so grateful to have been welcomed – with Bryan by my side – to Thanksgiving dinner at The Top of the World.

Eating Christmas: A Place at the Table

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This week, I attended Chow Bella’s Eating Christmas event at Crescent Ballroom, an annual reading during which local writers share their personal tales involving food and the holidays. And it was awesome. So awesome that I left Crescent wonderfully inspired to write my own Eating Christmas anecdote. So, here it is, all wrapped up in feels and a pretty bow for you as we get closer and closer to Christmas. (Word to the wise: This blog post will be best enjoyed if accompanied by a bowl of piping hot ramen.)

A Place at the Table

By Tiffany Michelle Brown

My boyfriend has explained repeatedly that he comes from a food family, but I don’t think that fact truly sunk in until the coolers from California arrived. When Bryan and I moved in together earlier this year, his parents scheduled a visit to Phoenix. We’d only been in the house a few days, so our lives were still tightly packed in cardboard boxes and our refrigerator contained around 50 styles of hot sauce, but very little food.

“Should we go grocery shopping?” I asked. “We don’t really have anything.”

“No, we won’t need to shop any time soon,” Bryan answered.

And he was right. Because moments after hugs and hellos were exchanged, Bryan’s mom started unloading two huge coolers of food that had traveled the nine-hour drive with them. Within minutes, our freezer and fridge were completely stocked with foods I’d never heard of before—mushroom balls, shao bing, bean curd skins, and scallion pancakes.

The next day, Bryan’s mom sat at a fold-out card table for nearly an hour hand-rolling spinach and tofu dumplings. When she’d filled two large cookie sheets, the little pockets of heaven were deposited in the freezer, but she said she still had dumpling wrappers and filling left over, so she’d continue the next day. Though we’ve eaten those dumplings liberally throughout the course of this year, I’m pretty sure we still have a few in our freezer, because her beautiful, cooking-weathered hands crafted so many of them.

When Bryan and I first started dating, a whole new world of food opened up to me. Since his father is Cantonese and his mother is Shanghainese (very important distinctions, by the way), I got a crash course in traditional Asian food and knew immediately that my days of eating Pei Wei and P.F. Chang’s were over. Honestly, now that I’ve been properly educated, those chain restaurants seem like imposters. If chicken feet or traditional ramen or fish sauce aren’t on the menu, I don’t want to eat there. (And yes, I’ve eaten chicken feet; there’s photographic proof.)

Eating Christmas 2Now, when Bryan and I go to Ranch Market at the Chinese Cultural Center on the weekends to pick up jackfruit or Enoki mushroom or mochi, I’m excited, because odds are good that the lady who makes Taiwanese pancakes will be there, her cart steaming and giving off the aromas of pancake batter, coconut, vanilla custard, and red bean. I burn my mouth every single time on the hot filling, but it’s totally worth it.

On the birthdays of friends and family members, Bryan and I always make sure to eat noodles together, because noodles symbolize long life in Chinese culture. Recently, we’ve started bringing home noodles for our dogs, too, so they can partake in our birthday tradition.

And I love celebrating moon festivals, because there is always moon cake. And even more exciting than the prospect of buttery cake filled with pineapple or melon or mung bean are the ancient stories that accompany the tradition of eating moon cake.

One of my favorite stories is one that dates back to the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368 AD), a time of difficult, oppressive government and a resulting zeal for revolt. An uprising of the people was imminent, but it was difficult to pass messages between the resistance forces. Naturally, the Chinese came up with an ingenious solution…that involved food. Members of the resistance would hide messages in cakes, because what could possibly be threatening about a delivery of pastry? For added security, the rebels would read the messages by the light of the full moon, which is why full moons and new moons are celebrated in Chinese culture with—it all makes sense now!—moon cakes.

Last year, I found out that Bryan hadn’t been home to Lancaster for Christmas in about six or seven years.

“It’s time,” I told him and we packed up our suitcases and drove out to California for 10 days.

I found out that we’d be enjoying a traditional hot pot for Christmas dinner. A hot pot is kind of like eating fondue—but way better. Vegetable, beef, or chicken broth simmers in a pot in the middle of the table and everyone adds meat, veggies, seafood, wontons, dumplings, and more. As your food cooks, it absorbs all of the flavors of what has been cooked before, plus the flavor of the broth. And there’s customized dipping sauce, too. It’s a hearty, satisfying, interactive umami explosion.

Last Christmas, I went crazy over thinly-sliced Korean beef, which was both delicate and decadent. I tried pork kidney and didn’t completely hate it. I gorged myself on fresh vegetables. And my mouth was burning from the spicy dipping sauce I’d made myself.

But my favorite moment of dinner was something that Bryan’s dad said. Bryan’s parents—and Bryan, too, for that matter—are really happy that I’m an adventurous eater. They understand that I won’t necessarily like everything, but that I’m game to try it. And it goes a lot deeper than having a daring personality or an insatiable inner fat kid.

Bryan’s dad believes that if people from different cultures could share a meal together—without judgment, without sneering at cultural food differences, with an openness and respect for each other—the world would be a better place.

Yeah, I’m a girl who can recognize a moment, and that was most definitely a moment. Over the steam of the hot pot, Bryan’s dad was acknowledging that despite our different backgrounds, cultures, and views of the world, we were the same.

And I think he’s right about the global impact of sharing food. Can you imagine dignitaries and presidents and world leaders sharing a hot pot? Personally, I love that mental image. Because for me, food is love. It comforts you, fills you up, and though we all prepare it (or show it) a little differently, it nourishes both our bodies and our souls.

That Christmas, I’d been invited to the table—and it was covered not only with food, but love.

One fish, two fish, crawfish, whiskey!

Crawfish

This past weekend, I went to a crawfish boil put on by good friends from Louisiana who understand the power of community in connection with amazing food. It’s an event that I look forward to every year, because there is nothing like it on this planet! Here’s why it’s so flipping fantastic.

Beer

The annual crawfish boil has become a full-fledged holiday. It has all the ingredients for a proper yearly celebration: food so good it’s likely to make you cry; homemade beer; scores of local musicians playing impromptu sets throughout the day; backyard games; folks who are happy to share a fifth of whiskey with whoever would like to partake; friends, new and old; and palpable, positive energy in the air. It’s a party, people.

It’s become a way to mark time. At my first crawfish boil a few years ago, I was crushing hard on my boyfriend, but we weren’t technically dating. Next week, we move in together and start the next chapter of our lives under one roof. Jonny Church Band was an idea passed around at previous crawfish boils. This past weekend, we played an impromptu set in the shade of some trees, a fully-realized group that’s opened for country star Jimmy Wayne. And there were babies everywhere this year! Couples have grown into families and we celebrate it with fun, food, and friendship. I can’t wait to see what’s changed and progressed a year from now.

Parasols

I made at least six new connections this weekend. I can’t necessarily recite names back, even though we were wearing nametags. I’ll blame that on whiskey brain. But I did readily introduce myself to strangers at the boil, strangers who genuinely wanted to talk to me and build camaraderie. It was community building. I feel like life is so full of technology and missed connections anymore. It was nice to talk face-to-face, to be social, and to meet genuinely good people.

 

Sometimes, you need an event like this to slow down and realize that life is beautiful. The past few weeks have been some of the most stressful of my life. I’ve been negotiating the sale of a house. I’ve been packing and signing leases for a new place. I’ve been trying to figure out how I’m going to combine my life with someone else’s. Add my 9-to-5 onto that and financial stress…Yeah…But Saturday, I let go of everything that’s been hanging heavy over me. I sang with friends. I ate Boudin sausage and homemade beignets. I enjoyed the perfect Arizona weather. It was honestly one of the best days I’ve had in awhile, and it reminded me that, in actuality, I have it pretty good.

Wut and Mike

I got to hang with my people. Musicians are an interesting bunch. And I love them. I love being around them. Being surrounded by other artists feeds my soul creatively, spiritually, and emotionally. I mean, how can you not be happy and inspired with guitars, washboards, spoons, keyboards, and saxophones floating around all day?

 

The initial batch of crawfish was dropped into the boiler as musicians played “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Our second round of food was accompanied by Wut singing the blues. Late into the night, random musicians who’d never played together before combined for an epic jam session. There was a soundtrack for the entire day and it was magical.

Beignets

Have I mentioned the food? Crawfish flown in from Louisiana, Boudin sausage, corn, potatoes, onions, garlic, French bread, cornbread muffins, mushrooms, homemade beignets, chicory coffee. I mean, seriously.

Yeah, you better believe I already have my calendar marked for next year. Wouldn’t you?