Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Chocolate, Anyone?

Is it possible to have too much chocolate? Most people would answer with an emphatic "No!" and I would have to agree with them. Oh, I know some people don't care for chocolate, and people who make chocolates can grow tired of them. Remember the famous I Love Lucy skit where she and Ethel got jobs in a candy factory? Lucy and Ethel did not end up big chocolate fans. As a general rule, though, choclate is a favorite treat and people always want more.

Ordinarily, I would want more, too, but at this moment, Michael and I have hit the chocolate saturation point and just aren't enthusiastic any longer. "How did this astonishing change of heart come about?" you ask. "Well," I answer, "it all started in October ..."

When I visited my mother in Montana at the end of October, she had just returned from a visit with my brother and sister-in-law, Bob and Lynn, in Bismarck, ND. Lynn is a pharmacist and Bob runs the Medicine Shop pharmacy they own in Mandan, ND. In addition, they own a soda fountain store and the candy-making business that came with it. Every year since they became candy tycoons, Bob and Lynn have made the kindly gesture of sending family members a box of Lindy Sue chocolates. They are delicious and much appreciated.

This year, Mother had the box of candy with her upon her return from Bismarck. A bit early for Christmas, but it's chocolate candy so who am I to quarrel? I dutifully brought the box back to Houston UNOPENED and set it aside for the holiday season. Michael and I finally opened the candy around Thanksgiving, feeling that it was officially Christmastime when Black Friday hit.

Inside, we found the usual assortment of luscious chocolates with a bonus: a layer of chocolate covered potato chips that tasted absolutely delicious. Bob and Lynn hit one out of the park this year! We were happy. We ate the chocolates sparingly so they would last until we left for our Christmas trip.

A week or so after Thanksgiving, we attended a wine and chocolate pairing event sponsored by the Washington University in St. Louis alumni group. The party cost $20 each, which was tending out of our entertainment budget, but we decided to be sports and do it anyway. Good choice as it turned out. The evening, at Chocolat du Monde in Rice Village, delivered the goods.

We started with sparkling wine and champagne truffles, then moved on through three other wine-chocolate partnerships, each one delicious. While we indulged - and the Chocolat du Monde staff were very generous with the wine and candy - we heard about fine chocolates, sampled the mouth-watering canapes, and checked out the candy in the display case and on the store shelves.

Everything looked so good. The candies on the shelves were priced. Their costs were moderate to high, in our opinion, ranging from $12 a pound to $18. More than we usually spent, but this special chocolate was worth it. The chocolates in the case, which we had been eating all evening, were not priced, but I expected them to be about the same.

"Let's get some candy for Christmas gifts," I suggested to Michael. He readily agreed. I particularly wanted to get some really good, liquored up chocolate covered cherries for Nick. I try to send him some C-C-Cs every Christmas, but last year he suggested I get him some with alcohol in the syrup. A novel idea which had never occurred to me. Perhaps this year I would.

"How much are the candies in the cases?" I inquired innocently.

"The Neuhaus are $60 per pound and the Leonidas are $45 per pound," the proprietor told me with a straight face, such a straight face that I didn't have to ask if he was joking.

OMG! I thought. Who pays $60 a pound for chocolate??

That pretty much shot down our plans to buy people candy for Christmas except Nick, for whom I purchased six Cerisse candies by Leonidas, which are brandied chocolate covered cherries individually wrapped. It is his major Christmas gift this year! (Okay, I did buy a small bag of dark chocolate-covered, salted caramel balls for Michael and I, too, but they were from a $13 a pound jar.)

Right before we left, Chocolat du Monde had a raffle and awarded several gifts of wine and chocolate. Michael had the good fortune to win a one pound box of the Neuhaus. Yes, we left with a $60 box of Belgian chocolates to add to the candy from Bob and Lynn.

Last Friday, the Houston Women Writer's Co-operative held its annual holiday party, sharing dinner and exchanging gifts. I received a lovely basket full of - three guesses and the first two don't count - chocolates! In this case, the chocolates were more diverse and included cookies and cocoa as well as actual chocolate candies, but the overall effect was the same. More chocolate!!

Earlier the same day, Michael's office had hosted a holiday luncheon and gift exchange. He came home with - guess - yes, another box of chocolates. This time the loot was Ferrero Rocher chocolates. Wow. We had a lot of chocolate in the house. And mostly a lot of unopened chocolate. We are going away for Christmas this year, so we won't even have a chance to share with guests.

Yesterday, the mail came late and during a pouring rainstorm. Ordinarily, I would have ignored it until the rain died down, but I had to flag down the mail carrier on her trip up the other side of our street. (She had forgotten to take the packages I had scheduled for pick up that day.) While I stood huddled under a practically useless umbrella, I picked up our soggy mail. We received the usual appeals for money, sales pitches, and a large mailing envelope from my brother Bob.


Bob and Lynn sent this box with holiday greetings, so the candy I received in October apparently was not our Christmas candy. While I would never complain about receiving gifts of candy lest they be withheld in future years, Michael and I now do officially have too much chocolate. I guess we'll have to entertain more this year.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011


At Christmas, a year ago, Michael and I had an epiphany: we were free at last. We no longer had children at home on Christmas morning. This is more significant than it might seem to casual observance. When we married, on December 21, 1976, I already had a child, Alexandra, who was two and a half. Our first Christmas together, four days later, focused primarily on her, on the wonderful, magical elements of wrapping paper and bows, stockings and their stuffers, and toys.

And that has been Christmas at the Devereux home for all the years since. Because I love Christmas, the elements of magic remained long after our children could have given them up. And we adopted Victoria when Alix and Nick were essentially grown, giving the magical a new lease on life. For thirty-three years, a child woke us up on Christmas morning, anxious to see what loot awaited under the tree.

Last year, our 34th together, we awoke late in a childless house. No one cared if we got out of bed. This is not to say we awoke to a home devoid of Christmas magic. Santa had come in the night, proved by the stockings brimming with stuffers, and our gifts, those opened with the kids the previous evening and those from each, other lay scattered under the tree.

As we celebrated, low-key and relaxed, the epiphany struck home. We could do anything we wanted at Christmas now that all three children were grown and gone. It was at that very moment that we conceived the idea of going on our dream trip to Costa Rica in 2011 to celebrate our 35th wedding anniversary.

Michael and I discussed the idea on and off for a couple of months until a chance conversation with a friend over lunch revealed the fact that she and her husband, as well as two other couples we knew, had gone to Costa Rica the previous year on a wonderful tour they highly recommended.

The rest of that story is pretty straightforward. I told Michael about it, we did our research, and, by March, we had reservations for a 10-day Christmas-time tour to celebrate our wedding anniversary. Deposits were made, plane reservations were made, a Fodders Guide to Costa Rica was purchased, and we started getting excited.

The excitement has built in the last nine months, our trip anticipated like the birth of a child. We had many conversations about what we would see, where we would go, and what clothes we would need. We talked about finally using our passports, applied for several years ago in the hope of overseas travel. We talked about how to conserve luggage space so we could bring back gifts for our family. What didn't we talk about?

Now, the birth is imminent. On December 23, a mere ten days from now, we are boarding a plane for Miami, where we will board a plane for San Jose, Costa Rica. We will be leaving the country for a place that is not contiguous with the United States. We will be embarking on a trip we have talked about since George W. Bush got elected president the first time.

I have most of my Christmas shopping and wrapping done. Presents are in boxes waiting to be sealed and mailed across country. I am finishing up my Christmas cards and putting up a few Christmas decorations to give the place a bit of holiday cheer. Michael and I have a plan for making our traditional cookies. And underneath all this seasonal normalcy, is a buzz of excitement and thrill. Our trip is almost here!

In a perverse way, I would like time to stop right now, for this moment of anticipation to linger forever. In three weeks, our trip will be over. Yes, we will have memories and photographs, but the buzz will fade away. I love this buzz. I especially love the fact that Michael and I are sharing the buzz so intimately, as a kind of connubial bliss.

I know already that one result from this trip will be the planning of another trip or event of comparable magnitude. It is way too much fun to be a one-time deal.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

What's Not to Love about Christmas?

I love Christmas. This is not to say I am religious or even Christian. As a Unitarian Universalist, my relationship to Christ is not as Lord and Saviour, but rather as mentor and wise guide. I don't celebrate the birth of Christ as a religious event, but I love to join in on "Hark the Herald Angels Sing."

In part, my love of the trappings of Christmas is a reflection of my childhood, of every Christmas pageant I participated in at St. Mary's and Holy Family, the elementary schools I spent second through eighth grade attending. (By high school, at St. James, pageants had lost their inclusive nature and morphed into performances by the choir and band, leaving me behind in no uncertain terms.)

I sang religious Christmas carols at school and secular carols with the Girl Scouts on door-to-door caroling expeditions. Caroling, in the cold countries it developed in and the cold country I practiced it in, is quite a testament to the power of the season. Who decided that trudging through snow in bitter cold and sing at the neighbors' houses constituted fun? We used to get hot chocolate and cookies at the last house, but a lot of frosty toes and red noses preceded those treats.

And speaking of treats, how about the seemingly infinite variety of Christmas cookies? I grew up baking fancy cookies with my mother. We made marzipan cookies shaped like apples, pears, peas, strawberries, and oranges. We made thumbprint cookies with gumdrops pressed into their hot centers just before they came out of the oven. We made almond crescents, delicate, crisp cookies, moon-shaped and rolled in powdered sugar, which melted on your tongue when you bit into them. We made peanut blossoms, peanut butter cookies with a Hersey's kiss pressed into the center, a Reeses's peanut butter cup without the wrapping. We made cut-out sugar cookies, frosted and sprinkled to perfection. We made Spritz cookies, extruding them from a metal tube in the shapes of stars, Christmas trees, and wreaths.

Mother and I baked all these cookies and put them in tins, then into the freezer. And after the baking was finished for the day, we made chocolate chip cookies for the other kids, masking, in theory, the smells of the not-to-be-eaten Christmas cookies, thus protecting them from marauding. I say in theory because it didn't take a genius to know that Mother would be making Christmas cookies and it was certainly no secret that she froze them in tins in the big, basement chest freezer.

Years of filching from the freezer taught me, and I presume my siblings as well, to regard frozen cookies a delicacy. As an adult, I discovered the practicality of having tins of assorted, frozen cookies available for the unexpected guest or for an after dinner treat. Frozen cookies stayed fresh and thwarted the casual impulse to snack that can decimate a jar of cookies practically overnight.

The same principle applied to Girl Scout cookies, I found, which could be purchased in quantities and consumed over weeks instead of days. It astonished Michael the first time a stack of Girl Scout cookie boxes disappeared overnight. ("They're in the freezer!?!? Why are the Girl Scout cookies in the freezer?") I really wasn't hiding the cookies from him, simply storing them for later use. And if I was the only one who appreciated the sharp snap of biting into a frozen cookie, well, then, more power to me for having a broad skill set in cookie eating. (Adaptation being a human survival technique, it is true that all my loved ones eventually developed frozen cookie eating skills.)

Back to Christmas in all its glory. What isn't to love about it? On Christmas Eve, we opened gifts one at a time in order of age, piles and piles of gifts in a family of nine, and then attended midnight Mass. And on Christmas morning, we awoke to stockings stuffed with tangerines and apples, candy and other small treats, and gifts from Santa Claus. I love Christmas gifting and I love Santa Claus. He still visits my home, often bringing gifts that would be verboten from anyone else.

Michael understands that household appliances are not suitable gifts for a husband to get a wive, but Santa may gift the family with appliances all he wants. Parents may disapprove of the latest hot gift item, considering it over-rated, inappropriate, or just plain silly, but Santa can give such gifts regardless of their deficiencies. Santa even provides children with the sugar cereal and soda pop and candy their cruel parents deny them. Santa Claus is a powerful reason to love the Christmas season.

I haven't even started on Yule food. And where would I start? So much food, such lovely place settings, such fine, hand-crocheted tablecloths, a glass of champagne by every plate, even of the youngest child. We ate and ate on Christmas Eve afternoon and opened gifts when the dishes were all done, a great motivator to the women and girls working in the kitchen. Which is one Christmas tradition I haven't kept; everyone who eats helps clean up. No gender-based chores.

As a child, I only knew about the Christian celebrations that take place at that time of year. As I got older and met a more diverse group of people, I discovered Hanukkah, the Jewish celebration that coincides seasonally with Christmas. It has its own assortment of delicious foods, gifts, and rites, well worth investigating. I have had the pleasure of eating latkes, collecting gelt, and spinning dreidels. The idea of eight days of gifts is appealing, although my Jewish friends tell me that the gifts are not as elaborate and plentiful as in Christian celebrations.

I love Christmas. Saturday night I attended a Christmas party, the only one on my social calendar this year. I spent a charming evening at the home of a friend, surrounded by friends, eating delicious food prepared by friends, and drinking a variety of festive beverages. How much better could it get, the sharing and caring of the winter holidays? I may not be Christian, but I am Christmasian, and expect to be for the rest of my life.