Diner: Consuming the Holidays

CityBeat writers share tips for giving and food-related holiday memories

Woodrow J. Hinton

Food and drink are intimately entwined with the year-end celebrations. For this holiday issue, we asked CityBeat's dining writers to conjure up some thoughts, recommendations or memories about dining, drinking and the holidays. It's a mixed bag of insights — satiric, cynical and sincere ­ a bit like opening unanticipated presents. Salud!

What's Your Wine?
Everyone has one: the stockpiled gift item for unexpected situation. "You can never have too many," the giver muses. My mother delights in matching wind-up toys with personalities; I derive joy from selecting the perfect wine bottle to befit the recipient.

Restaurant servers sometimes find themselves, in idle moments, talking about the guests, whispering and snickering, making up stories about their childhoods, love lives, professions and phobias. Bets are often made about the wine they'll choose. My server friends helped me come up with profiles of several wine-personality associations. Perhaps these shameless stereotypes will help you pick a bottle as a gift this holiday season.

Chardonnay. Opulent and creamy, this wine is a natural accessory for those who adorn themselves in fur and gold jewelry. For them, rave is a hair product, not the last time they did ecstasy. They celebrate Sweetest Day and remember the names of their stylist's children. Love: Kathy Lee Gifford, unconditionally. Despise: People who don't.

Pinot Grigio is a magnet for eccentric personalities. Drinkers still wear fanny packs (and refer to the butt as a "fanny"). They carry duck-head umbrellas and always forget what day of the week it is. Love: Gilligan's Island reruns, exotic pets and the shape of their bellybuttons. Despise: Sports and breakfast foods.

Pinot Noir drinkers wear all black and have thick-rimmed glasses. They include their middle initial in their signature. They sleep in the nude and are suspicious of anyone who smiles too much. Love: Film noir, thunderstorms and cracking their backs. Despise: Screaming babies, bowling alleys and bad grammar.

Merlot drinkers only have sex in the missionary position. They make their beds as soon as they get up, wear all-cotton underwear and always wish for world peace on their birthdays. Love: Blue. Despise: People who dye their hair blue.

Zinfandel in a glass is best gripped by a callused hand. Zin drinkers are rock climbers and skydivers. They smoke Marlboro Reds and carry pocket knives. Love: Garlic, dogs and near-death experiences. Despise: People who didn't know that zinfandel could be red.

Syrah/Shiraz's leathery texture attracts quiet, spiritual creatures. They wear moccasins and long underwear. Listen to Coltrane, drive old Volvo station wagons and are still living on canned goods from Y2K. Love: The sound of the teakettle whistling. Despise: The sound of their voice on the answering machine.

Cabernet Sauvignon, round and full-bodied, is the wine of choice for those who say "you only live once" after everything they do. They wear custom-made suits, drive fast cars and get pedicures year-round. They have too many hobbies and are experts on everything. Love: Cigars, mahogany and expensive electronic equipment. Despise: Asking for directions. — EMILY LIEB

The Ties That Bind ... and Gag
None of us are deterred by the sign on the front door of my parent's house: "If we are drinking heavily by tomorrow night and insist that you stay a few extra days, please remember we don't mean it."

Holidays are family days and, for better or worse, provide the best memories. I'm the oldest child in a family of 10 (not Catholic, just fertile) who reside all over the U.S., so it's a rare event for us all to connect in our hometown of Cincinnati. When we do, with extended families in tow, it resembles a farce that Woody Allen and Monty Python might have teamed up on and abandoned mid-production, hence the sign on the front door.

The stage is set with a main dining table for 20, plus a half dozen additional card tables set up in various corners. The tables are laden with a bounty of food that my parents remember as our "favorites": broccoli that can no longer be called "fresh" as it is now limp, pale yellow and expired under a sea of Cheese Wiz; canned green beans and almonds dry-heaving in bread crumbs, pearl onions and peas in white sauce (rather a pale blue from the skim milk); Ambrosia, the marshmallow, coconut, mandarin orange and pineapple salad (referred to as "Amnesia" in our family because of the diabetic coma and subsequent loss of memory from more than one helping); and the guest-of-honor: a 32-pound turkey that has been roasting for a week in the oven so that all potential bacteria are annihilated.

It's the cast of characters that makes the play. There's my brother who announced he wouldn't be joining us for The Nutcracker because any guy wearing tights is "fagola," and we are all "homo-lovin' queers" for attending. A fight broke out later when we discovered my grandmother thumbing through an issue of Blueboy that she found under his bed as she was retrieving her hidden stash of Jaigermeister.

How about my 10-year-old nephew who shaved the dog with a Lady Bick. Or my 16-year-old, light-fingered niece who convinced us to find unique hiding places for our valuables. And my aunt who hid hers in the cavernous ass of the turkey. My cousin who gave everyone beautifully gift-wrapped boxes of primo marijuana. And me, a chef who decided a bitchin' batch of brownies was just what the family needed for a little healing.

My parents insisted we all stay, and we still laugh about how we inhaled the leftovers and played charades for 48 hours. — DONNA COVRETT

Rolling with the Memories
My holiday cooking commenced last week with Mom's recipe for Thanksgiving dinner rolls. My itty-bitty kitchen became a miniature bakery. I look forward to it; but this baking, like so many things about the holidays, is tinged with emotion.

Holiday cooking can be both fun and redolent with memories (the two don't necessarily go together). Making the rolls this Thanksgiving was hard for me — not that the recipe is complex, they're just standard yeast rolls. But reading the recipe is a little painful, written in my dead mother's beautiful handwriting, which evokes her so vividly that I sometimes tear up just looking at it.

Also the recipe itself is a literal transcription of the verbal instructions Mom's own mother gave her. It begins, "Sweetheart, I take about a cup of milk ..." and goes on from there. It's the kind of homey cooking they did in the old days — for example, we're asked to mix things until a certain texture is achieved, rather than issued any very specific measurements.

But the biggest difficulty I had making the rolls for Thanksgiving was remembering the last time I made them: Last Easter, here in my little galley kitchen and in the company of my sister-in-law, Camilla, who died in June.

"Sianie, let's make your mother's rolls for Easter," she said enthusiastically, although I was skeptical she had enough energy for such a prolonged and tiring endeavor. But she was cheerfully adamant, and so she came over and gave me instructions, leaning her bony body wearily against the counter, watching me mix, knead, and bake. Then we sat together in my dining room and listened to Joni Mitchell records while the apartment became perfumed with the scent of fresh rolls baking.

Camilla fills every corner of my kitchen, to this day. She outfitted it for me this spring before I moved to town, just a few months before her death. She found me the apartment and stocked it liberally before my arrival: towels, cleaning supplies, furniture, food in the fridge, down to salt and pepper, napkins and extra light bulbs.

When I cook in there, she frequently comes to mind. But she'll be with me in force when I get out the milk and flour and mixing bowl and that old recipe to make the rolls. Maybe they'll taste better for being spiced with those bittersweet memories of loving family cooks. — SIAN GIBBY

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