I think that the best thing about being on the right side of 50 is the riches we have accumulated in the memory banks. People who are in their 20s have so few good memories compared to us. Oh sure, they have some childhood memories, and maybe even a few teenage memories of the golden variety. But we over-50s have those, and much, much more.
We can look back at the lives we have lived, and the choices we have made. Of course there are always some regrets, but as Sinatra sang “too few to mention.” The golden memories we have include not just our weddings, but the births of our children, their first steps, their first day of school, their proms and (for some of us) their weddings. Some of us even have memories of first grandchildren.
But most of all, we over-50s have golden memories of time enjoyed with significant others in our lives. Maybe it was a spouse, maybe it was a good friend, but the memory banks are chockablock with warm recollections of days gone by. Vacations spent in beautiful places are in there, alongside quiet Sundays at home in bed. We have the blessings of having lived and loved; laughed and cried. And we can summon it up anytime we want to. All it takes is for someone to say, “Do you remember when…”
There are lots of good memories associated with this time of year. Some of them, for me, involve enjoying great works of art. Can you remember the first time you heard Handel’s “Messiah”? How about the first time you watched Linus tell us the meaning of Christmas in “A Charlie Brown Christmas”? I put these in the same paragraph because they both inspire me.
There are tons of Christmas movies around, but some of my favorites are not about Christmas, but just take place at Christmas. An example is “Home Alone.” An older example is “It’s A Wonderful Life.”
One of my favorite movies that take place around Christmas, but is not about Christmas is “A Family Man.” It was made in 2000, and stars Nicolas Cage and Téa Leoni. Writers David Diamond and David Weissman create a sort of It-Could-Have-Been-a Wonderful-Life story. Instead of getting to see what the world would have been like without him, Cage, a rich, single businessman gets a “glimpse” of what his life could have been like if he had married his girlfriend, Téa Leoni, instead of flying off to London for an internship.
It’s a beautiful and profound romantic comedy set in the holiday season. It shows the power of choices we make in our lives. It shows how memories are like dominos that can branch off in unexpected directions as life moves us inexorably forward. I recommend watching “A Family Man,” when you’re in a contemplative mood so you can get the full effect. It’s perfect end-of-year viewing.
As another year comes to an end, and something called 2014 begins, those of us who have spent most of our lives in another century can still look forward to making even more golden memories in this one. And those 20-somethings will never catch up to us. When it comes to memories, it’s really an embarrassment of riches for the over 50s.
… Wait. Cheese logs are so last year.
On December 27, 2012, I was in the midst of writing about how that “round of goat cheese encased in smooshed cranberries – a Yule Log,” tastes better than it looks.
How, I put it out year after year, and “I usually wind up being the only one eating it.” And, how much of my cooking on December 26 and December 27 usually has that leftover log in it.
“Green beans. And sherry. And cheese log! Oh my!!”
I nixed the article – no one cares about cheese logs. (Unlike cheese balls – which, perplexingly, remain beloved.)
So this year, I did not say cheese when I shopped for my Christmas-Day feast. A first. My cheese-obsession (and all that you can do with a leftover log of it), was usurped by my newfound, and really old, pressure cooker, and all that you can do with it.
But the Apple Bread Pudding with Cranberries that I got from the Fissler Pressure Cooker lady in Williams Sonoma recently, became my 2013 cheese log – it was mostly passed-up and, therefore, left-over.
C’mon, people – it’s not a fruitcake.
But a concoction that is binded by apples, oranges, cranberries and eggs. And then encased and interwoven throughout with white bread, butter, vanilla, cinnamon and cream – all pressured and steamed into a puddingy bliss – yields a perfect foil for a second go-round. Especially if you leave it out on the counter for a day. (I did for two.)
Take a section of the pudding, and shape it into a small log for two:
Fry up two to four pieces of good-quality pancetta:
Drain, set side. Then sauté only the flat sides of the pudding in the pancetta grease, on low, until browned, and warm in the middle. Be careful – you don’t want hard, crunchy, pudding (yet):
Cut pancetta, while still warm, into strips, and make a lattice around the sautéed pudding. Drizzle with honey, and top with Marcona almonds:
Serve with Prosecco or Champagne. It’s especially delicious with a Mimosa.
Just hold the cheese.
My favorite toy growing up was an air rifle. That’s probably not politically correct today, when the issue of guns, pro or con, is hotly debated, but it’s true. When I was nine, and my brother Jim was 10, we started asking my parents to buy us BB guns. Like the kid in “A Christmas Story,” the universal response was that we’d “shoot an eye out,” or worse. We promised to be extra careful, arguing that we could have fun, and perform a public service at the same time by picking off squirrels in the back yard. No dice. Air rifles were as far as they would go. Because air rifles didn’t shoot real ammunition, my parents assumed they were safe.
So when my brother and I tore into the long, gun-shaped gifts on Christmas morning, we knew they weren’t “real” weapons. But to us they were still beautiful. Each featured a brown plastic stock with simulated wood grain, and a matching forestock under the barrel. The barrel itself was metal, about a half-inch in diameter, with a sighting nib sticking up at the end. You “loaded” the gun with a charge of air by pumping the long oval lever under the trigger. It opened and closed with a satisfying snick, and you could feel the tension in the trigger as the air was chambered.
The rifle exploded with a violent, satisfying POCK! sound when you pulled the trigger. You could even feel a mild recoil in the stock against your cheek and shoulder. Click, click – POCK! Click, click – POCK! Jim and I ran around the living room in our pajamas “shooting” each other, our sisters, the Christmas tree, the cat. It was glorious.
“Okay, enough already!” Dad bellowed from the dining room table where he sat musing over a giant mug of coffee, the floor around his feet littered with tattered wrapping paper and toys. He was badly hung over, which was something of a Christmas tradition for him. Mom seized the opportunity to shut us down – from that moment, we were forbidden to ever shoot air rifles in the house.
Fast forward to spring: the first warmish day with the sun shining and tender blooms starting to peek out on the trees. Jim and I put on our jackets, slung the air rifles over our shoulders, and headed out to do some play-hunting. We snuck up on some sparrows in a bush, and POCK! sent them flying. We stalked the wily squirrel, but couldn’t get close enough for a decent shot.
But then the game changed. I’m not sure, but I think Jim was the first to lean on his gun with the barrel pointed toward the ground. The dirt was soft and moist from the recent snow melt, and a plug of mud snugly filled the opening. Because he had already cocked the lever, it was already loaded with a charge of air, so when he pointed it at me, I instinctively raised my arm in defense. He fired, and the dirt plug exploded out with a menacing CHUNK! sound, spraying a hard splat of mud across my shirt and upraised arm. It hit with surprising force, particularly at close range. And the mud was pebbly – homemade buckshot.
Like splitting the atom changed modern warfare, our air rifle play-fights instantly went from tame to terrifying. We didn’t have BBs, and the dirt bullets wouldn’t kill any squirrels, but we’d still figured out a way to take an eye out with that thing.
Around this time of year, New York gets dressed up for the holidays. The shop windows proclaim the symbols of the season. Otherwise dull office buildings are decorated with wreaths and holly. Tourists flock to Rockefeller Center, and the many other public displays of Christmas. In fact, people come from all over the world to spend Christmastime in New York.
I think the first time I ever was brought into Manhattan was for the Radio City Music Hall Christmas Show. It was probably the late 1950s. I remember standing on a long line in freezing temperatures. But it was worth it. Once we got inside, I was in awe of the jaw-dropping majesty of the hall. And then a man appeared in the corner of the stage and began playing a marvelous organ that had bass notes that rumbled in my stomach.
After a while, the curtain opened and there were the Rockettes dressed as toy soldiers. And wasn’t it just so cool the way they fell down! Needless to say I practiced that move with my cousins at my grandparent’s house on Christmas Eve that year. It was a lot of fun, but we found out just how hard it was to fall slowly like the Rockettes did.
After the Rockettes, there were some Ed Sullivan-type acts like jugglers, ventriloquists and singers. Little did I know that I was seeing the death throes of vaudeville right before my eyes.
Next there was a big Christmas-themed musical production number that usually featured snow men, reindeer and of course, Santa Claus.
And then there was the grand finale – the living Nativity. Camels! Real, live camels walked across the stage led by Wise Men along with shepherds. And at center stage was a manger with Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus. After seeing this, I remember thinking that what our school Christmas pageant needed was camels!
As if all of that was not enough, soon after the stage show ended, the lights went down again and we saw a movie. All this for $1.50. No wonder there were lines around the block.
But wait, there was more. We always ended our trips to Radio City with a visit to the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree. We watched the skaters glide across the ice as Christmas carols blared from speakers. And then finally, we walked to get some food. Where? Why the automat of course!
Horn & Hardart’s coin-operate diners were a fascinating place for a kid to eat. Just putting in the nickels was fun. I don’t remember the food being particularly tasty, but I remember having a piece of blueberry pie that was my first ever. I would never have ordered it, but I remember the little door holding the pie was at my eye level. It must have been pretty good because blueberry pie is a favorite of mine still.
The automats are long gone, but the Rockefeller Center skating rink and tree are still with us. And fortunately, Radio City Music Hall is as well. Of course the movie is gone, and the prices are competitive with Broadway, but they still have a stage show with camels!
Today I work in Manhattan, so I am there practically every day. It would be easy to be cynical about all the commercialism, and take all this Christmas finery for granted. But I find that even after more than 50 years, when I hear the jingle of silver bells on a street corner this time of year, I’m still the wide-eyed child marveling at the wonder that is Manhattan at Christmas.
It’s Christmastime in the city, which means it’s time for annual pop-up Christmas tree shops. The day after Thanksgiving, mini-marts stocked with Christmas trees small enough for a 350 square-foot apartment, and large enough to fit an apartment well over 3,500 square feet, emerge on city blocks. An arbor of evergreen reminding us, through the power of scent, that the year is drawing to an end. Again.
And like every other business that seeks to grow, it has expanded beyond Christmas trees. On 2nd Avenue, between 19th and 20th streets, there is a an outdoor mall stocked with wooden soldiers, ornaments and every other accessory for the city-dweller to create the perfect domestic pitch of joy to the world!
By necessity, the shops are manned 24 hours, even when it’s 25 degrees outside. Years ago, I had a friend who ran a Christmas tree shop. He set up an electric heater, and three or four beach chairs because friends frequently stopped by to keep him company. While it was cold and lonely at three in the morning, from a certain perspective it turned out to be not such a bad job. It was steady work for a mere 30 days with guaranteed pay, and today this guy is a super successful entrepreneur. Is there a connection? Plus, now that he’s on the right side of 50, this youthful feat of braving the cold night and day to sell Christmas trees makes a great story.
These days, most places come with a heating cube and and air mattress, but that doesn’t mean the sales force can be lax. One morning on my way to work, lured by the glitter and lights, I decided to buy a gift for a friend. I knocked on the heating cube and Patrick, bright eyed and bushy tailed, came out. His shift, which had started at nine the night before was just about over. He had not sold too many trees, but he was sublime and optimistic. A shipment had just arrived, and he was pretty sure that by the run of the gig there would be only a few left. He helped me select the perfect ornament.
So here’s to the ritual of Christmas-tree commerce, because whether you choose to have a tree or not, you still get to experience the greenery that marks the holiday season.