More of My Favorite Things

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My cousin gave me this card in 1986. Inside it reads "I've found a way  to enjoy loys of pasta and stay trim."

My cousin gave me this card in 1986.

BY JULIE SEYLER

Does indulgence in our favorite things keep us healthy and wise, if not wealthy? Who knows. But living that theory certainly contributes to contentment. So some of my timeless reliables of favorite things are:

Noodles.

They can’t be too wide (like fettucine), too flat (like linguine), or too short (like penne). No, as a favorite thing, the noodle must be long and stringy and thin and twist like a slimy worm and then they can take on a manifold of ingredients and flavors: cold with sesame sauce and scallions, in a steaming bowl of ramen stocked with miso and pork belly, or slathered with the juice of lemons, garlic and parmesan cheese.  While my pre-diabetes scare did put a damper on eating noodles for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, it did not put a damper on the joy that I get from slurping them up, (albeit these days I try to make them whole grain).

Traveling.

Of course if I am en route to a destination I am thrilled, but prior to the actual departure date, planning the details, finding the hotels, and figuring out the must-sees is a definite mood booster. And once I return the rehashing commences and ergo reliving what I’d seen and where I was, ergo all the recent post on Romania and no doubt more to come). Then about two months later it’s time to start thinking of the next place to go, like Detroit Michigan for a 2 day sojourn in February?  Now how fun will that be?

Art.

It doesn’t matter if I’m seeing it, reading about it, writing about it, or dabbling with painting and drawing, it delivers endorphins.

Swimming.

It’s my exercise of choice and my pleasure. I love being submerged in water.

A Martini

Made with Russian Standard vodka and a single olive.

Julie Andrews sang it and John Coltrane played it, but those are a few of my favorite things.

This is One (More Like 600) Tough Cookie

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Ripped recipe

BY DEBBIE NEELY

Every Christmas, I bake butter cookies. Not just a few dozen, but batches and batches and batches of them. Actually, I bake 50 dozen. I do this with no particular joy, nor just because I have loving childhood memories of eating them by the fistful straight out of the Charlie Chips cans with my sisters.

Cookie tools

The tools.

So why then do I spend an entire, miserable weekend every December baking? Because I enjoy creaming pounds of hard, greasy, sweet butter and sugar with dozens of painstakingly separated egg yolks? Because I experience a moment of Zen-like oneness while hand-mixing pounds of flour and bottles of almond extract into goopy, wet, yellow batter? Because I feel a surge of warm pride while pressing dozens upon dozens of delicate snow flakes, topping each with a bright red, finger staining Maraschino cherry?

Debbie dough

The dough.

No! I bake them every Christmas, and I mean every Christmas, because my grandmother baked them, and my mother baked them and because I just, well, have to bake them! It’s as if I’ve acquired a hereditary, seasonal mandate, or have some crazy genetic predisposition that, upon hearing the first tinny bells of the season, compels me to ransack the kitchen hunting down the old, family butter cookie recipe.

Debbie tins

The tins.

Though this inherited urge to bake each Christmas is a labor-intensive chore that leaves me cranky, it is also a labor of love. My family, friends and neighbors have come to expect their carefully packed tins of butter cookies delivered by a rather harried me. These cookies have become a part of their holiday memories; a part of their holiday DNA.

And so, before I change my mind, I’m back to the kitchen! Happy Holidays.

Cookies done

The End.

 

No, Bob, There is No Santa Claus

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 Jimmy (partial face on the far left), Barbara, Karen, me, and older sister Mary in the back.

Jimmy (partial face on the far left), Barbara, Karen, me, and older sister Mary in the back.

BY BOB SMITH

I grew up in the 1960s, and until I was almost 10 years old, I absolutely believed in Santa Claus.

My older brother, Jim, and I shared a bedroom that was right over our garage, so it was chilly in there on winter nights, and you could always hear the door below rumbling open when Dad got home late. Our beds were under the two windows, and during the holidays each had a plastic plug-in candle glowing on the sill. I recall burrowing under the covers on Christmas Eve, asking Jim if he thought Santa would come soon.

“I dunno,” he murmured, staring somberly at the ceiling. “I guess so.” His face was an orange mask in the electric candlelight. “Sure he’s comin’.”

Jim, 10 years old, already suspected that Santa, like the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, and Bigfoot, was a fiction.

“How’s he get in? We don’t have a fireplace,” I said, worried.

“I dunno,” he smiled in the half-dark. “Maybe he’s got a key.”

I thought that not only unlikely, but impractical in the extreme — how could Santa possibly carry enough keys to get into all the houses he needed to visit on Christmas Eve?

“We got a chimney, right?”

“Right — but it’s for the heating system,” Jim replied, clearly enjoying my dilemma. “If Santa came in that way, he’d get stuck inside the furnace.”

“How does Santa know which houses have a chimney he can use, and which ones don’t?”

“Whatta you think, Bobby?” he grumbled, tired of baiting me.

“I don’t know. Magic or somethin.”

“Yeah, okay, Bobby — that’s how Santa gets inside all the houses in the world, and delivers a gazillion toys and other stuff, all in one night. Call it magic.”

At age eight and a half, that was good enough for me.

Jimmy, Santa, me, and my older sister Mary.

Jimmy, Santa, me, and my older sister Mary.

The next year, two weeks before Christmas, I raised the subject again. By now, we’d seen “Miracle on 34th Street” and I knew Santa’s existence was a real subject of debate. I’d heard rumblings around the schoolyard too — the ranks of nonbelievers were growing.

It was a Saturday afternoon. Mom had gone to the store, and Dad was upstairs asleep. For the past few years, right after Thanksgiving, he’d taken a part-time job stocking shelves at the local toy store. He always got home after we were in bed, so on Saturday he got to sleep late.

Jimmy tugged at my sleeve, urging me down the basement stairs. Nothing amiss — Mom’s sewing machine was off in one corner, and the washer and dryer in another. In the center of the room were two long folding tables pushed together and piled with junk.

“Over here,” Jimmy whispered, pointing at one lumpy pile covered with a sheet. He lifted the bottom, peered up, and waved me inside. I could hear my breath in the dim humid space, and my heart kicked over in my chest — the sheet hid a stack of games and toys in gaily-colored boxes.

“There’s Christmas,” he smiled, triumphant. “There’s no such thing as Santa.”

It was as if he’d said the sun wouldn’t come up any more, or that grass didn’t grow in the spring. At the same time, though, it made total sense. I couldn’t deny the obvious.

A few nights later, as we slept in the orange glow, I heard the rumble of the garage door. I could hear Mom’s voice and Dad laughing about something, so I knelt at the head of my bed and peered out the window. Up close I could see the fake wax drips molded into the body of the candle, and the bulb, like a miniature sun, warmed my cheek.

Dad’s brown Fairlane was backed up to the garage with the trunk open, and he and Mom were carrying boxes into the basement.

“That’s the last of it,” Dad said, slamming the trunk lid. “I’m done with that place.”

“Till next year!” Mom prompted, smacking him affectionately on the cheek.

Dad worked for the electric company, climbing poles for a living. We lived okay, but he didn’t make enough money to buy all the toys and dolls and bicycles six (later seven) kids expected to see under the tree at Christmas. The shelf-stocking job was four nights a week, 6 t 10, and they paid him in toys.

Jimmy was wrong. There was a Santa Claus, and he was full of magic. He came into our house right through the garage door.

Santa delivered.

Santa delivered.

My Pre-Taped Holiday Music Tradition

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christmas tape

BY FRANK TERRANELLA

If you live to be more than half a century you find yourself repeating certain things over and over. For example, you may eat Chinese food every New Year’s Eve, or you may vacation at Cape May every summer. And then there are the little things. You may get a Cafe Mocha at Starbucks every Thursday or a bagel every Friday. We are creatures of habit. There is comfort in sameness and predictability.

Well if you do something on the same day every year, and year after year, it’s safe to say you have created a tradition. Traditions start out innocently enough. There is a spark of inspiration and an act that is received well by others.

“Let’s host a Halloween party,” you may have said innocently back when such parties were rare. Now, 20 years later, you are still hosting that party. It’s a tradition.

As readers of this blog know, I was married on the day after Thanksgiving in 1978. So after my new bride and I returned from our honeymoon, it was time to prepare for Christmas. Back then, the Christmas season did not actually start until Santa arrived in the Macy’s Parade on Thanksgiving. And since the official Christmas season began later, it was not unusual for people to begin shopping just a week or two before Christmas. I was just at that point.

If you’re like me, one of the first things you did as a new couple was to merge your book and record collections. And so on a Monday afternoon in early December 1978 I merged my Christmas records with my wife’s. Back then, my work schedule got me home several hours before my wife. So after looking at all the combined Christmas music, I decided that I had some time and we needed a mix tape highlighting the best Christmas recordings from our respective collections.

I wanted to use tracks from the Carpenters Christmas album because it was one that we both loved. I put the needle down on the record and heard Richard Carpenter’s ethereal voice reciting the words to “O Come O Come Emmanuel” at the start of a great instrumental medley of songs. But I didn’t want to start the mix tape out cold with a solo voice. Just then, I noticed that my Philadelphia-born wife had in her collection a recording of Christmas music by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Symphony. And as luck would have it, there was a beautiful string-heavy recording of “O Come O Come Emmanuel.” I had my opening to the Christmas mix tape. We would go from the lush sounds of the Philadelphia Symphony right into Richard Carpenter’s solo voice and then on to that great medley.

It continued that way throughout the tape. I would use an instrumental followed by a vocal of the same song. Herb Alpert’s Christmas album (one record in both our collections) provided many of the instrumentals. My collection provided vocals by Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby. My wife’s collection provided the same from Andy Williams and Perry Como. At the end, we had a beautiful mixing of our favorite Christmas music. My wife liked it so much, she put a label on the cassette box naming this “The Good Christmas Tape.”

That could have been the end of the story, but here is where tradition comes in. The next year, on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, we came home from church, having celebrated the first Sunday of Advent. One of the hymns traditionally sung in Catholic churches on the first Sunday of Advent is “O Come O Come Emmanuel.” Having that tune in my head, as soon as we got home, I put the “Good Christmas Tape” in the cassette player and the beautiful sounds of Eugene Ormandy’s version of “O Come O Come Emmanuel” filled the apartment. A tradition had begun.

The following year on the same Sunday I played the same tape, and the year after that, and the year after that. And so it was that when I played “The Good Christmas Tape” this year (transferred to a CD sometime in the ’90s), I announced it as the 36th consecutive year. It’s amazing how fast the years have gone by, and how great it is to have a tradition to herald the season. Because after all, tradition is what the holiday season is all about.

Transylvania as the ‘Game of Thrones’

Looking up at the 13th century Saxon church at Prejmer

Looking up at the 13th century Saxon church at Prejmer

BY JULIE SEYLER

I am a sucker for any thing, or place, that is 1000 years old, or older. I walk around the Metropolitan Museum of Art snapping pictures of home decor circa 500 BC and wish I could buy it today.

Greek photo

And this love for the old is just one more reason why Transylvania works for anyone who has a penchant for the past. With its brooding hills and overbearing fortresses, it does not take a lot of imagination to teleport yourself back to the HBO show “Game of Thrones,” where competing armies and enemies endlessly vie for control of the castle.

Knight wear.

Knight wear.

In Prejmer, a town that’s about an hour away from Dracula’s castle, you can revisit a world where knights in shining armor defended themselves behind fortress walls with crossbows and sling arrows and boiling oil. It is one of the best preserved medieval fortresses and fortified wooden churches built by the Saxons in Transylvania.

The foundations of the fortification were laid down in the 13th century by the Order of the Teutonic Knights. Its walls are over 40 feet high and 10 feet thick.

The exterior of the fortress and fortified church in Prejmer.

The exterior of the fortress and fortified church in Prejmer.

As you enter this self-contained complex that in essence functions as a military outpost, housing unit, and place of worship, you know you have left the 21st century behind. You pass under a gate, but this is not a mere swinging door. It is a portcullis grill, made of oak and reinforced with iron and ornamented with sharp spears to either impale the intruder or trap him inside.

Can you imagine having this gate come down on you?

Can you imagine having this gate come down on you?

The first thing you see is the church, a blend of Byzantine and gothic architecture. Inside there are flying buttresses, painted historical tryptichs and gorgeous wooden carved pews.

Inside the Church at prejmer

Inside the Church at Prejmer

Then you enter the fortress or as it is called the raised defensive gallery.P1280145_2

As you circumnavigate the dark, dank passage designed to keep the enemy down and out and look out the peephole windows you can imagine what it must have felt like to see marauders on the horizon and knew that it was time to start preparing for battle.

Inside the fortress

Inside the fortress

There is also a four-story 15th century apartment complex comprised of 270 individual units that appear to be no longer than 10 feet long and 5 feet high and 5 feet wide.

Medieval apartment complex.

Medieval apartment complex.

These cubicles may have been cramped, but they served the purpose of providing shelter and storage when the village was under attack.

Inside a housing unit

Inside a housing unit

And then we emerged back to the real world.COUNTRYSIDE OF ROMANIA

Restaurant Find in the East Village

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zerza 3

BY JULIE SEYLER

One of the things I love about New York are the umpteen billion restaurants that offer every cuisine in the world. When I first moved here in 1988 my goal was to never go to the same restaurant twice. I would cut out reviews and paste them into old calendar diaries and consult them anytime there was to be an eating out experience. I still have those books with their faded yellow newsprint.

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Many of the restaurants I tried are still living and breathing in Manhattan, but so many others closed before I ever got there. There is an incredible turnover rate in New York. I still compile lists of restaurants; it’s a habit I cannot break (and which many of my friends appreciate when they need ideas of where to eat).

These days the barrenness of the computer holds my lists and I too have changed. I have become much less rigid that every restaurant I eat in MUST BE SOMEPLACE NEW. In fact these days I tend to prefer the comfort, consistency and usually the convenience of the tried and true. And because so many new restaurants seem to be ridiculously expensive and/or way too rarefied for my plebian tastebuds, less and less often do I discover a restaurant that screams “Revisit Me!”

Zerza on 6th street between 1st and 2nd Avenues did. A friend and I were en route to the usual go-to Indian restaurant in the neighborhood but looked inside and stood inside and thought “Why not?”

It is Moroccan. The interior is inviting subtle light, minimal decor and yet the motif was reverential of the cuisine’s root.

zerza 2
So far it seems to be an undiscovered gem, but I am not down there on a Saturday night when the East Village is a jammed madhouse of gridlock and it is near impossible to enter any restaurant without the expected 50 minute wait. The two times I have been there, it’s so nice because it means you can converse without shouting.

And the food is delicious. The menu includes traditional appetizers like hummus and baba ghanoush, but also others that I had never tried like bakoula, a spinach based spread studded with chickpeas and spices, garlic, cilantro, and cumin. It’s addictive. They also serve an arugula salad topped with beets, oranges, and pistachio-crusted goat cheese dressed in a perfectly balanced balsamic vinaigrette and they definitely have the best tagines around town.

beet and goat cheese and orange salad

Whether you are ordering lamb tagine jelbana, “slow cooked lamb shank in Moroccan spices, with artichoke hearts and green peas” or chicken tagine with preserved lemons and olives, the meat falls off the bones. The short rib mrouzia described as “braised beef short rib with prunes and roasted almonds” is unctuously compelling. For dessert there is homemade ice cream, maybe made with hazelnuts or figs.

It’s just so nice to go to a place that has not been franchised, does not cost $50 for an entree, and you can converse without screaming.

Christmastime in the City: It’s Palpable

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Christmas tree. Rockefeller Center.

Christmas tree. Rockefeller Center.

BY FRANK TERRANELLA

There has long been a dichotomy among Americans. Some love cities; some love the country. Over the course of the last 200 years, Americans have been voting with their feet and cities have been winning. Still many prefer the rural life, at least some of the time. But whether you’re a city or a country person, most people agree that at Christmastime our cities shine.

Tourism in our great cities like London, Rome and New York increases dramatically in late December. People flock to see the store windows, the churches and the Christmas trees. Christmas music and Christmas theater abounds. In New York, the Rockettes head up a Christmas Spectacular at Radio City Music Hall. Our concert halls and churches echo the glory of Handel’s “Messiah.” The Salvation Army rings its bells on street corners. It’s the scene saluted in the popular song “Silver Bells.”

City sidewalks, busy sidewalks.
Dressed in holiday style
In the air there’s a feeling of Christmas
Children laughing, people passing
Meeting smile after smile
and on every street corner you’ll hear
Silver bells, silver bells
It’s Christmas time in the city

I think that Christmas time in the city is magical. It is the one time of year when avowed country people are willing to put up with the city crowds. In New York they flock to Rockefeller Center, to Macy’s, Saks and FAO SCHWARZ. They marvel at the decorations on Fifth Avenue. They enjoy ice skating, walks in the park, and of course, the sound of silver bells.
And as the song says, “In the air there’s a feeling of Christmas.” I swear, it’s palpable. There’s nothing like a city at Christmas.

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