Throughout December I started several blog posts without finishing them. There were more distractions than usual this holiday season. I decided that even though several of the unfinished post are seasonal, I should finish and post a few. So, here’s one:For a number of years I ran a Steampunk-based roleplaying game. We got together about once a month for an afternoon game. And people brought food to share, it that it was also a potluck. My husband would frequently look for period recipes that could be adapted into a good potluck dish. In the course of this research he happened upon the origin of the liqueur known as Rock and Rye. It was invented in the 1800s by a guy who was trying to figure out how to turn a large quantity of bad-tasting bourbon into a sellable product.
This requires a short digression about bourbon, particularly bourbon in the U.S. during the 19th Century. Farmers had long been in the habit of turning a certain amount of their annual grain production into alcohol. Besides being a product other people were willing to pay for, barrels of whiskey and similar spirits could be stored safely for much longer than grain could. Usually. But every now and then something would go wrong (the storage building might have gotten to hot for a period of time, or could have been flooded, et cetera) and many barrels of the alcohol that should have aged into something quite delicious would be ruined.
So, this guy had come into possession of a quantity of such bourbon, and he tried various things to make it palatable. The process he settled upon was to mix rock candy (sugar), sliced up citrus, and some spices (most notably star anise) into the bourbon, let it infuse of a month or so, then strain out the liquid. The result was a sweet-tasting booze that carried a deceptive kick (because the citrus oil, sugar, and spices masked a lot of the alcohol taste). He patented it and began selling it for its supposed medicinal purposes. Many decades later, during Prohibition, because Rock and Rye was still often sold in drugstores as a medication, it was one of the few products containing alcohol one could buy in many states.
The point was that there was a recipe for how to make batches of it at home, rather than go to a liquor store and see if they carried the manufactured stuff. Pick of the cheapest kind of rot gut whiskey you could find (it didn’t necessarily need to be bourbon or a rye whiskey), slice up an orange and/or a lemon, put it in mason jars with rock candy, star anise, and so forth. Keep it in a dry cool place. Check on it and shake it every now and then to make sure the sugar dissolves, and eventually strain it out into bottles.We tried it. And I was quite surprised at how good it was. I started experimenting some more. Any time I picked up a new bourbon or rye (assuming it wasn’t too expensive), if I decided I didn’t really like it for making cocktails, it would go on a back shelf until I was ready to make a batch of rock and rye. It’s difficult to find plain rock candy now a days—it almost always has artificial colors and flavors added—but I can usually find Lump Candy at the local asian market, which works just fine. You can also find big bags of star anise, as well as cinnamon sticks, at much cheaper prices than the regular grocery store.
What would usually prompt me to make a batch is if I noticed that I had an orange or a lemon or lime in the fruit bowl that was getting iffy. The skin was hardening and you just know in another couple of days it would start to mold. So I’d grab a couple of mason jars, whatever cheap bourbon was on the back shelf, a package of rock candy, and start assembling. For spices I tend to put three or four stars of anise in each jar, two or three sticks of cinnamon, and about five whole cloves. Sometimes if I have vanilla bean on hand I’ll slice one of those and throw in, as well.
And sometimes there would be other fruit. There was a bunch of dried apricots and dried cherries left over after my husband made solstice cake one year (and the leftovers had been sitting in the pantry for a few months at that time), so they went into a batch of Rock and Rye.For the last several years I’ve made two or three bottles (one batch is usually two mason jars, which once you strain out the solid bits, turns into one bottle of finished products) in time from our annual Christmas party. I give each batch a name, based on what it tasted like when I sipped it, and I make labels for the bottles. I’ve been picking up small plastic shot glasses that are in the shape of the red plastic cups you see frat boys drinking beer out of in movies—I can usually find them in both red and green at Christmas time. And I set out cocktail umbrellas along with the shot glasses, just for fun.
Because it isn’t the same base booze each time, and because the citrus isn’t always the same, the batches do wind up tasting very different from each other.
Last year I ended up making three batches, plus I had a lot of the 2017 favorite, “Farewell to Ballard” leftover. The three batches I made last year wound up being labeled “You’ll Get a KICK Out of Me,” “Feel the Lemon Flow Through You,” and “As Sure as There’s an X in Christmas!” Two of those are song lyrics, and one is a riff on a line from Star Wars.
Because we’ve been caught in this slow-moving apocalypse for eleven months, I didn’t make any new batches of Rock and Rye. If we couldn’t get together for a party, there would be no one to share them with. And for whatever reason, I still had a lot leftovers from last year, any way.
I typed whatever, but I know a big part of the reason. It isn’t a beverage that you drink a lot of at a time. One of my friends misunderstood the first view years we did it, and was shocked after he had been sipping at a shot for a while at how the alcohol was hit him. When I describe letting the booze infuse with the citrus and sugar, that gives some people the impression that it is juice with some booze in it. It is not diluted. It’s still a shot of bourbon, it just has flavor added. No significant amount of the juice of the citrus winds up in the liquid. You get the citrus oils, not the juice.
It’s the kind of thing that you drink in small quantities. And sipping shots of flavored bourbon by myself isn’t that appealing. But I’ve invented a couple of drinks using the Rock and Rye as a base. One is a toddy: put a shot or two of Rock and Rye in a mug, top off the mug with hot water, add a slice of lemon and a cinnamon stick. It’s really good on a cold winter night. The other is a Rock and Rye and Soda: but some ice in a double rocks glass, add a shot or two of Rock and Rye, top off the glass with seltzer water. The latter is a bit better for warm weather.
I realized that I still had those bottles left over the week that we hosted the virtual version of the party. I have been trying to use them up so I can clean out the bottles and think about possibly making a batch for next Christmas. Because maybe we can have a party this year?
My husband pointed me to a twitter thread by a Muslim American who has never celebrated Christmas, before, who is letting his Quarantine Roommates teach him how to have his first proper Christmas. It’s a funny and relatively short thread that has some good commentary on the way Americans tend to observe Christmas. I like his first characterization of Christmas as being a part-time job from mid-November to the end of December. I’ll link to the thread at the end of this post.
A proper Christmas means different things to different people, and I think that’s a good thing. I remember a few years ago when I was discussing this topic with a couple of friends, that one explained that what she liked about Christmas was that she could put up pretty lights and ornaments. The other friend interjected that what he liked about it was that you get to decide what “pretty” is, and if other people comment unfavorably on whatever outlandish or silly decorations, you could just gasp and claim that this is how your family always did it, and the person was socially obligated to accept that that was your tradition (whether it actually had been a family tradition or not).
It got me thinking about what sort of informal family traditions my family had observed. Most were pretty mundane, and some were the result of other circumstances. Unless there was an overwhelming reason, we always spent Christmas morning at my paternal grandparents’ house. Sometimes Dad’s sister’s family was there, too. Because Dad’s oil field job was nomadic, how far we had to drive to get there varied most years. If we got to the town where my grandparents lived early enough on Christmas Eve, we’d get to go visit my maternal grandmother and great-grandparents this evening. Otherwise, we wouldn’t get to see them until after Christmas dinner1.
By the time my great-grandparents died, my maternal grandmother was living 1200 miles away. But then my parents divorced and Mom, my sister2, and I relocated to the same part of southwest Washington, where I found out that grandma hosted a Christmas Eve open house every year, attended by relatives, in-laws, old family friends, and others. So for the next many years one of the traditions became you’d see all the extended family on Christmas Eve3, then Christmas morning would be each individual family opening presents together.
All the Christmas trees put up by my extended family were a bit chaotic. Everyone seemed to have some special ornaments that had been passed down from earlier generations, as well as an eclectic collection of glass balls and the like. The trees would thus have a whole lot of different colors, and since any kids in the home had done part of the decorating, there often wasn’t any sort of design involved in the placement of the ornaments, other than the star or angel4 always went on top.
I think I was nine when I saw my first non-chaotic tree in the home of someone I knew. I can close my eyes and still see it: a flocked white tree decorated with dozens of identical blue satin balls and blue satin ribbons, with a blue and silver angel on top. I was really shocked, and couldn’t imagine why someone would do that. A few years later another family I knew had a tree where the ornaments were red, green, and gold, and the mother of the family had very strict rules about which size of ornaments went how high on the tree6, and that the three colors had to be as evenly distributed as possible.
Of course, many years later Ray and I did trees all in a fairly simple color scheme… but even then there was a bit of chaos, because either of us could pick any “favorites” to go on the tree no matter what the color scheme was. Just as this year’s tree at our house has mostly purple and pink ornaments, but some of the traditional ones I put on every year7, and then just about anything I could justify as being gay.
I find that I am more concerned with food at Thanksgiving than at Christmas. I have certain favorite dishes that we always had at Thanksgiving when I was a kid that I crave on that day now, but Christmas food doesn’t get me quite the same way. I don’t know if that is because as a kid that the big part of Christmas was the presents and everything else was secondary, or if the family dinners were just more flexible at Christmas. I mean, as far as I remember, anything that was an accepted side dish at Thanksgiving could appear on the Christmas dinner, so you would think I’d always have a strong craving for some of those things.
Michael and I have had the tradition since our first Christmas that we make a nice dinner for Christmas Eve, as well as a big dinner for Christmas, and a nice dinner for New Year’s Eve. And we start planning the three together a few weeks before the holidays. But we don’t do the same things each year at those three events. Mostly. I mean, New Year’s Eve is often beef… unless we had decided to do steaks for Christmas Eve or something. At this point we’re a few days out from Christmas Eve/Christmas, and the plan is that we’ll pull either the ham, or the turkey breast, or the pork roast out of the freezer for those, and the small prime rib roast I found at a not entirely outrageous price we’re saving for New Year’s… maybe9.
When I started this blog post, I thought I would vamp for a little bit on some odd traditions, and then start talking about one very specific tradition I started about five years ago. But I see that the word count of this entry is getting up there, so maybe I should save that for later.
In the meantime, you should read the whole twitter thread if you haven’t yet.
1. When I was very young, this just seemed to be the way things were. It wasn’t until I was about 10 or 11 years old that I realized that Dad’s parents (specifically his mother) always got priority over everyone else, or else.
2. My half-brothers and half-sister remained with Dad and their mother, of course.
3. And you could use Grandma’s party as an opportunity to deliver gifts, but generally opening presents that night was frowned upon.
4. Almost everyone had either a star or an angel. I mostly only saw the spire or steeple style tree-toppers in stores or on neighbor’s trees. As an adult, for a while it was always either a star or one of the spires. Until we started getting more creative. This year, for instance, we have a flying fairy5.
5. It is most definitely not an angel.
6. Largest at the bottom of the tree, medium sized in the middle, small one near the top.
7. I have three small glass ball ornaments—one red, one pink, and one green—which belonged to my great-grandmother. I have three sets of crocheted bells that were made by my grandma. We have a pair of December Diamond Goom Mermen that were a present from a group of friends on the occasion of our legal wedding on the first day we legally could in our state—which happened to be in December. The two of them go on the tree side by side no matter what the theme is8.
8. This year they just happen to fit the Gay part of the theme.
9. I an totally blaming the pandemic on why we are less decided on the meals at this stage than usual10.
10. I mean, we’ve also got a beef brisket in the freezer, and we were talking about doing in on New Year’s… and then the prime rib could get shuffled to one of the other days11.
11. And I still need to run to the store before the holiday because I know we’re missing some ingredients for some of the side dishes we’ve discussed… and I might find something on sale that would completely change our minds on the other possibilities.
There is something very relaxing about making a cup of tea, then sitting down with a book (or my Kindle or the iBook app on my iPad) and reading. It was especially nice to do that out on the veranda when the weather was warmer. I still go out there with a mug of tea, but I wind up drinking the tea faster because it’s getting cold (and I’m chilled). So I come back inside once the tea is done. Besides, now that we get frequent visitors to the bird feeder, I feel guilty being out there and scaring the little guys off.
I do sometimes sit in front of the window and watch them. Which means I don’t always get much reading done. But it’s all good.
It has only been a few weeks since I changed the format of my Friday round up of links, and I have to say that the much shorter list has made Thursday night feel much more relaxing. I wish that I had been self-aware to realize that the old long form version was such a stressful chore, but that’s okay.
I’ve mentioned that I began questioning how much effort was going into the process because the number of people reading the round up had gone way down. What I didn’t mention was the timeline. If I look at the stats on my blog, I can point to a very specific time when the readership dropped: the first Friday after the Inauguration. They didn’t drop all the way to the recent lows right away, but the drop off was noticeable.
Now, long before then, the round up had always included a stories about unpleasant topics. And I dare say the ratio of bad news to good news was about the same. But I totally understand how exhausting it is to be reminded about this bad stuff since there is now so much of it, and it’s hurting everyone, and it feels as if there’s nothing we can do about.
So, that’s another motive for the change: I don’t want to contribute to other people’s sense of exhaustion or hopelessness, and I don’t need to wear myself out, either.
This doesn’t mean I’m not still reading as much news as before. Nor does it mean that I’ll stop calling my congresscritters and adding my voice to the throng. I’m just not spending as much time aggregating the news for other people.
There are other habits I’m trying to get into to try to limit how often I’m having to think about unpleasant topics. That’s part of the reason there is a lot less activity from me on Twitter, for instance. I still find reading my friends, acquaintances, et al on Twitter useful, I’m just limiting how much time I spend on it.
I’m behind on my writing goals (NaNoWriMo notwithstanding; there are things that I meant to have done before November that I didn’t get done). But there’s a lot of stuff going on, and I just have to accept that some of my energy is going to go into other things. And some of those other things are about taking care of myself and my husband.
Like curling up with a good book and a nice warm cup of tea.
One of those things we’re doing this week specifically along that line is we are not going to drive down to see family for Thanksgiving. I don’t need the stress of the drive each way. Neither of us needs the stress of constantly biting our tongues around my Trump-voting, Bible-thumping relatives. It will do wonders for the blood pressures of several of my relatives, too, truth be told.
Which means that instead of figuring out what dishes I can make in advance and transport down there, we’re doing a whole dinner! So far it’s just the two of us; which will be fine. And since I love talking about food, here’s our current menu:
- Relish tray (many many olives, pickles, pickled carrots, pickled green beans, pickled asparagus so far…)
- Turkey (my hubby found a 10-pound one, so not too big!)
- Green bean casserole
- Creamy sweet potatoes
- Sweet potato pie
There will likely be other things added before we’re done.
Also, the official cocktail of our holiday will be a Spicy Manhattan. Based on the recipe suggested at Central Market, this weekend, but after trying it, I have to change it so:
2 oz of your favorite bourbon or rye
1.5 oz of sweet vermouth
Several dashes of orange bitters
Tillen Farms Fire & Spice Organic Maraschino Cherries
Chill your glasses. In a cocktail shaker with ice, mix the vermouth and bourbon, stir at least 45 seconds. Shake a generous number of dashes of bitters into the cocktail glass, strain the contents of the shaker into the glass (turn the glass while he do so to mix the bitters better). Garnish with two of the spicy cherries.
Cheers! And happy holidays!
(Also, feel free to leave your menu or your favorite holiday food in the comments!)