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October 2007

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           One of the greatest gifts my mom gave us kids was access to the kitchen. When other moms were shooing their children out of the room because they were “underfoot”, my mom always seemed to work around us. Some of my earliest memories are of watching my mom in the kitchen peeling potatoes, checking on a pot roast, or packing lunches for school. When we got older, and expressed an interest in cooking, we were given carte blanche as long as we “cleaned up after ourselves.”


           I fondly remember a particularly complicated gastronomic endeavor undertaken by myself and a high school girlfriend (the eldest of 7, she was never allowed in her own kitchen except to do dishes). We decided to make fruitcakes for Christmas gifts. At the time I didn’t realize that nobody, with the possible exception of Uncles named Wilbur, liked fruitcake! But with earnest hearts and a sense of adventure, we began a month before Christmas, diligently chopping candied fruit, and mixing the concoction in several huge bowls. There was batter everywhere as we filled and baked 12 cakes. We doused them with brandy, wrapped them in parchment paper and cheese cloth, and stored them in my mother’s linen closet to “ripen”. Never once did my mother complain about how messy we were or chide us for embarking on such a monumental venture. As far as fruitcakes went, I’m sure they were delicious, although I happen to find the commingling of the plethora of fruits unnatural and inedible. Grandpa seemed to like his, but he also liked blood sausage, so he might not be a reliable critic! Anyway, the most important lesson learned was that the kitchen was a room of discovery and adventure, not to be feared or avoided. I lost contact with my high school friend, but I hope the frequent times she spent in our kitchen gave her the same appreciation.


           Later, when encouraging my three children to pursue their own culinary curiosities, I realized that when my brothers and I “helped in the kitchen” we probably created lots of extra work for Mom, but that didn’t stop me from allowing my children in the kitchen as soon as they could drag a chair up to the counter. They began by “assisting me” but were soon turning out their own edible creations! Even in high school my daughter and her friends were forever in the kitchen baking, which often involved simply throwing together brownie batter, then sitting around the kitchen table, eating the raw dough, while discussing that evening’s dates. They cleaned up after themselves, but I always needed to revisit the counters and floors, after they moved on to a new activity. At these times I often found myself thinking fondly of my mom. Today, all of my children know their way around the kitchen, often using our family’s recipes, but adventurous enough to “throw something together” at the last minute. My youngest son and his wife often use the recipes collected at our family’s website, adding new recipes they’ve discovered. My oldest son mostly wings it, turning out very edible endeavors!  


           And the cycle continues…the other day I was in the kitchen baking a cake for my granddaughter’s first birthday. She was busy on the floor making her own concoction, transferring potpourri tarts from one bowl to another while mixing them with bright red “Kool-Aid” spoons. Her three year old sister was sitting on the counter next to me, mixing the cake’s dry ingredients into the butter and eggs. Finally, my 4 year old grandson was at the dining room table working on his own project. His job was to place break-a-part cookies on a baking sheet. While I smiled at the hum generated by three content children busy in the kitchen, my grandson casually commented on his job. I was half listening and I gave a pat “Sounds great” comment. It took a moment, but I finally processed his words. They were, “Gammy, my job is to lick all the cookies.” I turned around and looked at him. Sure enough, there he sat, taking each cookie in turn, licking the sides and bottom before he placed them on the cookie sheet. Not to panic, right? Teachable moment, right? I said, “Hey sweetie, most people don’t like their cookies licked by other people. Why don’t you just put them on the baking sheet? You can lick your own cookie when they’re done.” So, I baked the cookies, knowing full well it was about a 50/50 crap shoot as to whether or not someone got a licked cookie. My suspicion, however, was that the licked cookies probably tasted a little sweeter!


Kids belong in the kitchen.  Not only do they learn great life skills and family traditions, they also practice reading and perform complex scientific experiments! As an added bonus, they’ll be accomplished cooks later in life when they have you over for dinner! 


            I am a seeker of all things traditional. I’m not talking about traditional furniture or even traditional values, although I certainly embrace them, but rather the establishment of family traditions. I’m always looking for events that can be named. Let’s face it, once you name something you feel a sense of ownership. If you’re a parent you totally get this. There is something magical that happens when you cross over from referring to your child, whether in utero or that red faced shar-pei look alike snuggled in your arms, as “the baby” and start calling it Rose or Byron. They become real and yours. It’s the same reason our trees have names, along with all the nooks and crannies in our yard. By calling an area “The Vancouver Garden” (long story there) or the cement bench under the Linden tree “The Serenity Garden” they become bona fide destinations.


            And so it was, 17 years ago, that our family hosted The First Annual McCombs’ Pumpkin Carving Party. The minute you slap the name “Annual” onto something, you’ve not only created a new tradition, but a family commitment that secures ownership and demands responsibility. Although the size and shape of the party has changed over the years, ranging from 135 guests (soccer teams upped that one!) to 18 attendees (a very challenging family time) we’ve never missed a single year. The Annual Pumpkin Carving Party turned into one of our family’s most treasured traditions, not only because we love the fall, and this certainly helps celebrate the season, but it also marks the beginning of “The Holidays”. (As a bit of an aside…at some point my children had a Holiday Intervention with me and I was (I can’t put this in any milder terms) FORBIDDEN to listen to Christmas carols until after Halloween!) So, as you can well image, while preparing for the Annual Pumpkin Carving Party, I also begin assembling my imposing collection of Christmas CDs! (Oh, how I long for Dean Martin!)    


            But back to the Pumpkin Carving Party…As I said, there have been a few changes over the years. For one thing it is no longer called The McCombs Annual Pumpkin Carving Party but rather The McCombs/Wise/Bonney Annual Pumpkin Carving Party. As the family grows and new surnames emerge, we may have to give it an abridged name so it fits on an invitation! Small price to pay for the addition of so many new and wonderful family members! Plus, and I’m not sure why I get a big kick out of this, our invitations have evolved. You’ll often hear me say that I have to be dragged kicking and screaming into change, however, I love the technological changes that have occurred over the past two decades, and our invitations are a testament to the advancement. We began by purchasing Halloween Party invitations, moved on to creating our own on Personal Publisher, then we began sending out invites in the form of emails. Our most recent requests were sent out via Evite which allows us to create our own invitation, do a mass mailing, and encourages invitees to RSVP on line. Isn’t technology ever so clever?!


            I’ve just realized I’m coming to the end of this blog and haven’t specifically talked about the party itself (must work on compulsive meandering). Okay, imagine if you will that you were invited to our party. You arrive at 6 ish…given there isn’t some silly Big Ten football game going into overtime…along with your costumed wee ones, a dish to pass, pumpkins and carving tools. You are greeted by the aroma of hot mulled cider simmering in a large crock pot and Celtic music playing in the background. As you make your way to the food table to set down your side dish, you realize that about 6 other people also had the inimitable idea of preparing baked beans. (Each year there is ALWAYS one food that everyone decides to make! Must be some kind of cosmic force or something) Anyway, you skirt around until you find one of the hosts or hostesses. They tell you that there are games in the basement set up for children, that a bonfire is blazing in the backyard, and that there is Hot Damn or Apple Barrel Schnapps available if you wish to enhance your hot cider. You find the Styrofoam cups, (big time sorry environment!) write your name on one, and pour yourself a toasty warm glass of liquid ambrosia as you contemplate the enhancement possibilities. Soon, children are running around, connecting up with a myriad of other short, costumed attendees, and you find a cozy little group to chat with. Around 6:30 you make up a plate for your child then grab a hotdog, 3 different scoops of baked beans and some slimy green concoction that an obviously misguided cook prepared. (You’ll be pleasantly surprised in moments when you realize it actually tastes good!) Desserts abound and you start on your second glass of grog! Everyone then moves outside to carve pumpkins and you are surrounded by giggles and “yucks” as pumpkin innards mound on table tops and children’s clothes. After the dastardly task of carving pumpkins is complete, they are lined up, lit, and a perfect photo op presents itself. At this point, families with young children usually collect up their things and load their entirely spent children into the car. Those sans children usually settle in around the bonfire or indoors, and the party can linger into the wee hours.


            Admittedly, clean up is a bit taxing. (Pumpkin innards almost instantaneously adhere to anything they touch) But with everyone pitching in (okay, truly wishful thinking…seems the family is much more committed to setting up for the party than clean-up duty!) the effort is definitely worth it. So, until next year, the tradition is secure and the family has one more cherished memory to store!


I have found it immensely helpful to keep a journal of party details, especially if you plan to turn the festivity into an annual event. Recording the supplies you bought and helpful aids (like a couple of 3 holed outlet adapters to handle crock pots and electric baking dishes) will make planning next year’s party much easier. Of course, there will always be “tweakage” as you make slight adjustments to accommodate the expected number of guests and variant activities, but in general, documenting the event is invaluable!  


            When you opened the front door of our house, you stepped into the foyer. To the right was our living room, which I always TRIED to keep company ready, (okay, frequently the overflow from the rest of the house osmosed into it) a hallway that lead to the kitchen, and the stairs that lead to our bedrooms.


            One morning I had a scathingly brilliant idea. (By the way, my life is littered with almost as many scathingly brilliant mistakes!) I decided to remove the wall-to-wall carpeting that ran up the stairs and into the hallway. There was a rational thought process involved here. Since cleaning is not high on my list of favorite pastimes, and vacuuming the stairs involved precariously balancing the vacuum cleaner while I tried to clean the 13 steps, it seldom was done. The corners of the steps became low rent housing for domestic spiders, carelessly dropped “O”s, and vintage dust. The plan: remove the carpeting allowing me to simply sweep the steps whenever necessary, and tah-dah, efficiency in housekeeping. (My parents didn’t waste money on MY home economics degree!)  


            Okay, I wasn’t imagining anything quite as grand as the stairway in Gone with the Wind, but I was more than a little surprised at what I did discover. After cutting the carpet away, and giving a mighty pull, I was staring down at what I realized was construction grade stairs. It was painfully apparent that these steps were never meant to be viewed and the obvious intent was to keep them well hidden under wall-to-wall carpeting. The stairs were made of bonfire worthy wood. You could see the footprints of construction workers that must have made a point of stepping in all sorts of gooey substances before walking up and down the steps, thus leaving their mark for posterity, which rivaled the opulence of Grauman's Chinese Theatre. And, surprisingly, at least to me, very little thought was given to precise measurements…obviously stair building is an “ish” thing. I could see my basement through gapping cracks, tackless installation strips were firmly attached to each step, and gobs of hardened, afore mentioned, gooey substances poxed the surface. General housekeeping note: Once you cut and rip carpeting off your steps, you can never put it back and expect it to look like anything other than a haphazardly laid drop cloth…kinda the same premise as refolding a map. Since the cost of recarpeting the stairs wouldn’t be in our budget, for, say, hmmmm, months, if not years, I had to think fast.


            Fortunately, I’ve always been a rather make-do-with decorator so I rolled up my sleeves, gave an exasperated sigh, but was sufficiently delusional to be optimistic. It did take the rest of the day to remove the tackless installation strips and scrap off the larger gobs of stuff that I thought might actually trip us. With demolition complete I began to think about what I wanted to do with the stairs. That evening when my then husband came home from work, I was in the kitchen cooking. He always wore shoes with hard heels, and I realized as he ascended the stairs that they had become bongo drums, amplifying each step he took. Probably as a penance for my impulsiveness, for the next several years, I was awaken each and every morning to the sound of those shoes hitting those stairs, mocking me, as if to say, dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb. To his credit he said nothing about this new household development, which I think said more about the frequency of these types of decorating debacles than personal restraint on his part.


            The next morning, with a vision firmly fashioned, I was good to go. I painted the risers of the stairs the same cream color I had throughout my house and then the steps my comfy colonial blue. I did need to install some moldings to close off the gaps to the basement, but all-in-all, it turned out to be a relatively simple project. I was quite pleased with the results, although when standing back and looking at the steps, I did feel that something was missing. Another idea! Thank God I have a million of them. I asked myself, what do I want my foyer to say to people? We’re talking first impressions here. I wanted my foyer to say, “Welcome, come on in, relax, stay awhile, and make yourself at home”. How to do that? I simply stenciled the word “Welcome” on the riser of every step. I tried stenciling every other step but you kinda got the feeling some of the steps were being antisocial, so I stenciled them all.


            The effect was perfect. When someone came over, not only were they greeted by a friendly face, they were extended a personal welcome from the house. Frequently, when my children’s friends came over, I’d listen to them read the stairs out loud, using a rhythmic head bob, “Welcome, welcome, welcome, welcome, welcome”, and they were!


Your foyer is your house’s first impression. What does yours say? Look around your entry. Does it say “welcome” to visitors? What can you do that will make people feel comfortable and welcome?