What could be better than friends and food? My cooking club, the GINGERS (Girls In Need of Gourmet Experience Really Soon) got together recently for a Chinese meal, Southern-style. We were all impressed with the tableware our hostess used: A set of dishes her ex-father-in-law had bought in Southeast Asia decades ago. And even better was the food everybody brought to put on these dishes: Seaweed salad, barbecue chicken wings with peppers, a mushroom medley, jasmine rice, spicy cookies and other yummy dishes. I’m always amazed at how culinarily creative and innovative my fellow GINGERS are — I’m definitely the weak link and I think they keep me around only because I’m the one with the most e-mail patience when it comes to setting our meeting dates (“If Polly can’t do Saturday the 15th and Sarah can’t come on Tuesday the 23rd and Cheryl’s out of town on Monday, can everybody do next Friday, instead?”) My contributions to the evening were quick run-into-the-store additions to the menu: Chinese wine and beer, vegetable and brown rice sushi, almond cookies and some chocolate-covered Piroutte-like cookies. But I have an excuse: I was babysitting my 23-month-old grandson, Capt. Adorable. Plus, believe me when I say anything I could buy would serioulsy taste tons better than anything I could make. One of the best things one of us brought, however, wasn’t food at all. One GINGER has a granddaughter adopted from China. She brought one of the traditional gift bags her granddaughter had given her classmates to celebrate the recent Chinese New Year and told us all about what the various items represented — fascinating! So we learned as well as ate and talked and laughed. Our evening was a balanced blend of exploring authentic Chinese food and celebrating the Americanized versions we’ve all come to know and love. Now we’re trying to decide if we want to tackle Irish or not. The only thing I know about Irish cooking is that I love the fried mashed potatoes at McGuire’s Irish Pub in Pensacola, Florida — but I’m willing to learn.
This is why I love Christmas in Mississippi. Look at this gorgeous old house, with its classically festive holiday decorations of red and green — enlivened by the riot of pansies planted in the front yard. It’s like, “Christmas is here, but spring is coming!” Although I have to say that the past few days here in the South have been sort of wintry — chilly with a chance of freezing. Younger Daughter has been in Maine visiting her uncle and aunt there in the Frozen North, but I believe it’s been only minimally colder here. Then again, what do I know? Anything below 85 degrees is sweater weather to me.
I love holiday weddings! It probably goes back to my own parents’ wedding on Dec. 18, 1955. I wasn’t there but I’ve always been entranced by my mom’s description of her bridesmaids carrying muffs with holly sprigs pinned to them — how romantic and lovely is that? So I was tickled when Younger Daughter asked me to go with her to a friend’s wedding that was the weekend before Christmas. Her friends had so many sweet touches to the ceremony — a processional of guitar music, simple and classic knee-length bridesmaids’ dresses, a swirly logo on the invitations and programs — that I should have known the reception would be equally classic. It was at Locust Hill, an outstanding historic house in Tuscumbia, Alabama — a town full of outstanding historic houses. I especially was enthralled with the entryway, where a holiday-decorated antique sidebar held scrapbook pages for guests to sign plus photos of the couple. And the groom’s cake was fun with its fishing theme. Now, I can hear some of you non-Southern folks scratching your heads and wondering what a “groom’s cake” is. While it’s true that this tradition of honoring the groom with his own cake is no longer confined to states that consider Jefferson Davis’ birthday an official holiday, it’s still not a common tradition outside of the South. And I’m not even sure why it’s such a Southern thing, sort of like cheese straws and using the word “tea” to mean “a tall glass of cold iced sweet goodness.” But I’m glad weddings are celebrated everywhere. Even where nobody knows what a groom’s cake is.
What says “holidays” better than food, family and friends — especially if that food includes all the Christmas cookies you ever wanted to eat? This year my cooking club, the Gingers (Girls In Need of Gourmet Experience Really Soon), came to my house for lunch and a cookie exchange. I went with red and white and borrowed my mom’s Christmas tableware (thanks, Mom!) for an easy meal of soup, cheese, crackers and muffins. (And, by the way, I have a great soup recipe: Find a caterer or restaurant who makes excellent soup and become a regular and valued customer. Works every time.) Then it was time to distribute our cookie choices. Yum!!! Just imagine having six people each give you a dozen of the most delicious Christmas cookies you’ve ever tasted — unbelievable. We all agreed this definitely will be an annual event for us. And in honor of the Gingers coming to my house, I put up a cooking table-top tree for them. It wasn’t difficult to find miniature decorations for it — for some reason, many of the ornaments I have for our big tree revolve around food and drink. Go figure. I had some vintage cooking utensils from my mom’s antiques shop and other leftovers from when the Gingers decorated a 15-footer for the annual Christmas-tree display at our local arts center a couple years ago, so the little cooking tree came together easily. The only downside is it makes me hungry every time I look at — but that’s not a problem when you have a practically endless supply of cookies in the house.
Did y’all have a great Labor Day weekend? Lots of cookouts and picnics and getting together? Bet you didn’t have as much fun as I did — I spent the whole weekend (and I mean the whole weekend, from Thursday morning to Monday afternoon)babysitting my 17-month-old grandson, Capt. Adorable while my daughter and son-in-law went to DragonCon in Atlanta. And besides all the incredibly good snuggle time I got with the Captain — and the chance to watch endless episodes of Sid the Science Kid, my new favorite TV show — I fell in love all over again with my daughter and son-in-law’s house. When my son-in-law, a high-school art teacher, got tenure this past spring, they decided it was time to move out of their apartment and into a real house. Frugal young family that they are, they had a budget and were determined not to budge from it. Their must-haves: A big fenced-in backyard for the Captain, three bedrooms, two baths and good storage space. It took awhile, but they found it — and under their budget. It was cute and in a good neighborhood and had a fantastic backyard. The bad news? Total square footage was less than their apartment. However, after living in it for a few days, I can attest that this house seems so much bigger than it actually is. The secret is a combination of design and decor. I love the archectural details that make this compact space live bigger: The soaring ceilings, the tiled entry way, closets tucked away in unexpected but efficient places, the big airy windows. It would have been so easy to have let this be a cheap and boring house, but no. And the kids have done everything they could to enhance the feeling of expansiveness — they added white beadboard to the eating area, knocked out some useless kitchen cabinets to create more open space and used paint to their advantage with the Captain’s bed- and bathrooms in bright oranges and yellows and the other rooms in soothing and calm neutrals. Adorable!
And a note to any other grandparents contemplating days of move-in babysitting: Line up visits from friends and family. I could not have made it without help from so many people who brought us food and new toys and drove over just to visit us. Thank you!!!
My friend Susan Cantrell and her daughter-in-law, Freda Brewer, have opened the most wonderful store in Sheffield, Alabama. Called Upscale Resale, it’s a furniture and home-decor consignment shop — but it’s so much more than simply a place to find a fantastic bargain. Both Susan and Freda are so creative and imaginative — there are delightful surprises everywhere you look: A basket of shells, an old door used to highlight hanging shelves, a row of colorful bottles that catch and reflect the light. And Susan and Freda emphasize the frugal use-what-you-have approach that helps you appreciate what you’ve already got. “We’re eclectic and a little bit funky,” Susan said. “We like to think that along with recycled furniture, we have unique investment items that will go up in value for the home — items you will not find at large import stores. Also, we do think it is a great idea to recycle what is already available on the planet. Remember: Reduce, reuse, recycle!” This is the place to find a whimsical painting that’s perfect for your kitchen, a pottery bowl that just fits on your coffee table or a simply chic chair that brightens the living-room corner. Or, do what I do and go to Upscale Resale for some conversation and relaxation — a visit always cheers me up and inspires me to actually decorate instead of arrange. Upscale Resale is open from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Mondays-Fridays and from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays. Call the store at 245.381.7773 for more information.
My friend Evelyn wowed us the other night when we arrived at her house for our monthly book-club meeting and discovered she’d been busy redecorating. Our jaws dropped — I mean, literally, I stood there with my mouth open. Before, Evelyn’s living room was a cozy and comfortable gathering spot, but she said she wanted something completely different — and she got it. Now the room is rich with color and texture and looks about a million times bigger with the emphasis on those gorgeous windows that really you didn’t notice so much before. Evelyn used a professional decorator, with she and her husband, Steve, picking out the oh-so-soft sofa themselves. She said she learned to trust the decorator — many times the decorator would pick something out and she and Steve would think, “Uh, that’s just not going to work,” but once the room came together they understood the vision. I believe this is my new favorite room. Ever.