Every Christmas Eve, my Aunt Tess used to prepare the Feast of the Seven Fishes, a marvelous meal for about 24 family members. Right after 6:00 AM mass, she would go home and get started cooking in her modest kitchen, using the back porch as a sort of extended refrigerator. She would chop, dice, slice, sauté, boil, and bake all day until family members began to arrive around 6:00 PM.
Finally, there was some help to bring up the extra chairs from storage and set the table with white tablecloths, china and flatware. The room was so crowded that Aunt Tess had to serve the squid stew from the stove, passing the soup plates along for the first course.
The feast would last for hours and the dishes would be washed just in time for my aunt to slip into an acceptable dress to go to – you guessed it – Midnight Mass, where most of the gluttonous relatives would slump into their food and wine comas to welcome Christmas Morning. Those were the good old days, right?
Certainly, holiday cuisine can be symbolically meaningful as well as delicious and nutritious. We share and enjoy our abundance in happy fellowship. But too often, we overindulge in food and drink, crossing the line into the territory of stupor and hangovers along the highway of regret, as the celebration fades into memory.
When you are the holiday host, you will want to be able to enjoy the experience as well as make it a good time for your company. Find ways to enjoy the anticipation of seeing friends and family and greet them with a joyful, relaxed perspective. Whether you are hosting a gathering to celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Winter Solstice, New Years’, or all of the aforementioned, you have choices to make. Consider some ways to create a beautiful time for friends to share while being kind to yourself as well.
Ten suggestions for lightening the workload
- Plan the gathering at a time that is most comfortable for you and your guests. Don’t try to go to too many events in one day. Make sure you are able to be rested and enjoy your company.
- Let traditions delight you, not imprison you. Do you have special recipes for the winter holiday? Enjoy those once-a year specialties if you can, but don’t add the stress of chasing impossible ingredients. Consider all of the costs in time, effort, and money before you conclude that you can’t use an alternative to the whole white Alba truffle or the saffron stock. (If you do decide to go for broke anyway, the Co-op stocks saffron in bulk herbs.)
- Subtle lighting and relaxed atmosphere are always the best, but sometimes overlooked. Dim the lights and use candles and festive background music to bring good cheer. If you have a guest who is an audiophile, you can ask that person to bring a nice playlist and be in charge of the sound.
- The crock-pot is your friend. Plan and serve one-pot meals and accept offers to bring food that fits in with your theme. Don’t be afraid to request certain items, making sure that the menu is balanced. If you are having a sit-down dinner, place the large dishes on the table and enlist guests to help serve. Be minimally wasteful and use real plates and flatware, and set the table with cloth napkins and a tablecloth. It is just as easy to throw them all in the washer afterwards as it is to take out the trash. This approach also adds to the ambiance by setting a tone of respect, for your guests and the Earth.
- Use the best ingredients (from the Co-op, of course!) and cook ahead. Many dishes, like stews and casseroles, are most flavorful after a day of the herbs, spices, and other various flavors marrying.
- Offer some simple dishes with fresh vegetables and refrain from insisting that everyone “live a little” by trying foods that they do not normally eat. A guest who seems just fine most of the time may have a serious sensitivity. According to an article in The Mighty, “Certain foods may aggravate the symptoms of those with chronic illness. Common culprits are gluten, dairy, sugar, soy, yeast, alcohol, and processed foods. These trigger foods increase inflammation which can cause a significant increase in symptoms that may last for hours or days (sometimes weeks).” So, let the guests decide just what foods they choose.
- Offer adult beverages if you wish, but don’t make them the focus. Skip the full bar and feature one delicious drink to savor.
- Many hands make clean-up easy. If guests offer to help, accept. Some of the best holiday conversations are held while drying the dishes. If you can, hire a neighborhood teenager to help with set up, clean up, serving, and entertaining the children. Or, leave the dishes until the next morning when you can clean them at your leisure, remembering the precious moments of the party.
- After the party is over, take a few days off from cooking while enjoying the leftovers.
- Remember to have fun! (Why not send yourself flowers secretly on the day of the event!)