Tag Archives: Christmas

On the first day of Christmas my true love sent to me… a sky high electricity bill

When I was a kid, at the bottom of a hill down the road from our little cul-de-sac stood what could only be described as a bungalow on stilts. It was the kind of house whose owners had a year-round commitment to proving the old adage that you can have all the money in the world but you can’t buy class or taste. They’d built the house themselves, presumably making full use of the services of a partially sighted architect, and a landscape gardener who had tragically lost all but one finger in a horrific accident involving a strimmerweed whacker and a pair of garden shears. Sure, their home gave them a lovely view over some North East Wales hills, but I can imagine that the only upside to living there would have been the fact that you wouldn’t have to look at the outside of the house all day long.

Anyway, their lack of sophistication came to a height every Christmas. Each year somewhere around the start of December, word would spread around that the family at the bottom of the hill had put up the Christmas lights on their house. And, over the next week or so, we’d each have to make our way down there to check out for ourselves whether they had managed to surpass the garish extravagance and tastelessness of the year before. They rarely let us down.

It’s around this time of year that British tabloids like The Sun do a small news feature on the couple from Dewsbury or Weston-super-Mare who have either spent £15,000 on their Christmas lighting, or are being threatened with legal action by neighbours for erecting a ‘son et lumiere’ spectacular which plays Also Sprach Zarathustra every hour on the hour for 25 days straight. It’s as reliably annual a story as ‘Postcard Turns Up At Address 67 Years After It Was Posted’ and ‘Dog Saves Cat From House Fire’.

Living in the ‘burbs of Brooklyn at Christmas is like having a place on a winter-themed Las Vegas strip, only marginally less tasteful. Imagine Blackpool with less vomit and more inflatable snowmen, and you’re heading in the right direction.

A few specific things to note:

1. Electricity consumption in the area must go through the roof at this time of year. Eco-awareness has not yet come to South Brooklyn it would appear, unless there is secretly a crew of 36 people cycling non-stop on exercise bikes hooked up to the grid, in a church hall somewhere in the neighborhood. If you’re on such a team and you’re reading this, do reach out to me and I will lavish you with all the mince pies a man with limited baking skills can create.

2. One of the joys of Christmas (NB, other seasonal quasi-pagan/religious festivals are available – see local listings for details), as far as I am aware, is that you put decorations on your tree and around your house as a family. Imagine my disappointment on Sunday when I discovered crack teams of professional house decorators at at least five houses in the area, erecting elaborate displays that wouldn’t look out of place at Disney World. Come on people – if you want the decorations, at least put the time in yourself. Although to be fair, if I had a set of 2000 fairy lights, and it was me who had to take each one out looking for the duff bulb, I might be tempted to turn to paid assistance too…

3. Young children would do well not to learn their Christmas traditions from the decorations that they see in gardens in the area. After all, the nativity story does not – as far as I’m aware – read “And so it came to pass that a penguin was born in a tent, and the three wise snowmen did travel from afar, bringing gifts of decaying pumpkins left over from Halloween, giant illuminated candy canes, and reindeer made of wire. And then Santa arrived on his inflatable Harley Davidson, wearing Ray Bans to protect him from the millions of red, white and blue lights that shone from the trees. And peace reigned, except from the houses whose speakers did blast out Hark The Herald Angels Sing.”

E-coli all ye faithful

I’d like to think that I’m not all that particular about my food. I’m pretty adventurous in my eating habits, and will happily (if sometimes squeamishly) tuck into strange parts of strange animals if they’re proferred in my general direction. Blood, guts and entrails are all happily welcomed on the Brit Out Of Water menu, even if I do draw the line at tripe. Put simply, I’m not a picky eater – invite me to your house and I’ll eat whatever is put infront of me.

As it happens, the few things that I don’t particularly like to eat are central to the American way of life. As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t generally eat eggs. This means that on the average breakfast menu in a diner, the only item that I can sometimes bring myself to eat is the menu itself. It’s fine if you put steak sauce all over it, to be honest, although I’ve had to give up laminated menus because of high blood pressure.

I don’t eat beetroot. I don’t desperately enjoy (although will still eat) bitter greens like broccoli rabe. And while not unique to the United States, I’d rather put pureed head lice on my burger than ketchup. Apart from that though, I’m the most laid back eater you’ll ever find.

Where my culinary openness ends though is with an American tradition that shakes me to my core, and causes me to shudder at the mere thought. It’s only in season for a short period each year thankfully, but during that time you can find yourself in food hell at least once a week. Turning it down isn’t an option, unless you want to adopt an air of anti-festivity that would make Bernard Madoff look like the people’s champion by comparison.

There’s no place for potluck dinners in this day and age, if you ask me.

For the uninitiated, the potluck dinner sees all attendees bring a dish of their choosing to the event, for everybody to share and enjoy. It’s an impressive display of community which generally happens around the Thanksgiving or Christmas holiday seasons, although the seriously unhinged have been known to try it at other points during the year. And to be fair, the principle is good, allowing the party host to engage in festive frivolities without the stress and strain of making food for dozens of people.

But the problem isn’t in the principle, it’s in the execution.

For a start, unless the potluck is organised to within an inch of its life, it can lead to some unholy combinations. I mean, pumpkin curry has its place, but it’s not on the same plate as roast chicken. Of course, there’s always somebody who brings their old family recipe for stuffing, made largely from dust and toenail clippings. And who needs eighteen different types of pumpkin pie, given that even one plate of the noxious substance would be enough to keep me dry retching for at least a week?

More to the point though, it’s the lack of clarity on the food hygiene standards of eighty three different people that sets me on edge. Let’s face it, these events are only called ‘potluck’ as it’s anyone’s guess whether you’ll get away without a serious dose of food poisoning. I mean, I know that I cook in clean pans and don’t use carrots that have been dropped on the floor to be licked by the cats, but that’s not to say that everybody is so fastidious. As I stare into the gloop of a lukewarm turkey gravy cooked by Andy Onymous, I’m not thinking “mmm, look at that glorious deep and flavourful stock” but “I wonder if he had a cold when he cooked this?”

I spend most of my time at potluck parties standing around the thing that I’ve cooked, or that’s been catered by the host. I know caterers are more than capable of their own crimes against domestic health, but at least I haven’t sat watching them pick their nose on eight separate occasions in the three days leading up to the event.

Still, the potlucks are all over for another year, and it’s home cooking all the way from here on in. I hope The In-Laws are looking forward to black pudding, that’s all I can say.