Here are the five essential tips guaranteed to make this upcoming season the most satisfying, sustaining and delicious experience for everyone on your holiday list.
Whether they’re sitting at your hearthside table, crossing the threshold of your festively decorated doorway or banging their fists on the reinforced glass of your stenciled windowpanes screaming “LET ME IN! I'M YOUR BLOOD RELATIVE!” these tips should help smooth the lumps in everybody’s seasonal sauce.
You might have heard these before, but perhaps you’ve taken them literally and applied them only to food in your kitchen. I think they have applications far beyond granite countertops and stainless steel sinks, however, and should be invoked as the rules of engagement during all get-togethers, whether formal, casual or savage.
1. Do prep work in advance: The last thing you want is to wallow in chaos, so if you’re going to take on a large project, such as making tarts a la poire anglais or dealing with your manipulative sister, start sooner rather than later. Remember: It’s almost as tough to get a convenient appointment with your therapist in December as it is to get a supply of ripe yet unbruised Bartlett pears after Dec. 20. Remember, too, that prep work means sharpening your tools and getting your chopping block all ready, just like for a beheading. While celery, onions, carrots and guest lists can be cut at the last minute, it’s often best to accomplish these tasks swiftly and in a timely manner in order to minimize the mess. (Trust me: There’s always a mess.)
2. Check expiration dates: Some things get old, worn out and taste funny. Some things turn sour, go bad and become toxic. “Things” in these instances can range from the lightly rusted containers of ginger, cloves and turmeric that haven’t been touched since the Reagan administration all the way to personal relationships that have also remained untouched since the Reagan administration. If the single reason you haven’t already tossed what you don’t use is because you think one day it might come in handy, try to remember the last time it was an essential ingredient. If it was so long ago you can no longer recall when it added flavor, texture or something special, let it go and make room for something new.
3. While being conscious of everyone’s needs, remember it’s your kitchen: You’re the one who decides what you’re offering; you can let others decide for themselves what they take. You can no more force somebody to be happy than you can force him or her to love lima beans; you can no more demand that someone relax than you can demand they have dessert. And remember that just because somebody isn’t choosing the item doesn’t mean you’re required to remove it from the menu.
4. Accept help, assign tasks and offer gratitude: Learn to say versions of the following three statements: “Oh, yes! It’d be great if you cut those Bartlett pears into extremely thin slices because I had an appointment to see my shrink and didn’t get a chance do it earlier,” “Please, would you carry these 87 virtually antique and no doubt noxious spice tins to the trash for me?” and “Thanks a million for bringing the lima beans! Don’t worry if Uncle Nosebag starts whimpering when he sees them. He’s a little phobic. It doesn’t at all mean they shouldn’t be at the table. Really!”
5. Clean up as you go: Get into the habit of the Three Cs: Clearing, cleansing and containment. It’s easy if you do it a little at a time. Keep fresh water and clean towels handy. Spills and breakage are part of life, but do try to avoid boiling over, tearing up and destroying, irrevocably and entirely, everything precious and lovely that crosses your path simply because of the tension created when loved ones gather in a small space, whether that small space is a studio apartment or Rhode Island. But hey, if a conflagration happens, it happens. You can always wipe the slate, as well as the counter, clean.
Finally: Make sure all flames are extinguished; in other words, do not to leave unattended what needs attention.
Gina Barreca is an English professor at the University of Connecticut, a feminist scholar who has written eight books, and a columnist for the Hartford Courant. She can be reached through her www.ginabarreca.com.
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