The beginning of December brought about preparations for my (gasp!) thirtieth birthday (yes, I am officially that old). After much thought and deliberation about what we would do to mark the occasion, we decided that we would host a small gathering at our house, in lieu of trying to all go out somewhere. Just me and twenty or so of my closest friends, which sounded perfect.
Since it was my birthday, I wanted to do as little work on the food as possible, while still having a bit of wow factor. For the menu I settled on a cheese board (with blue cheese, brie, a creamy goat cheese, grapes and crackers), roasted red pepper hummus (which is my classic hummus recipe with the addition of a drained jar of roasted red peppers and several tablespoons of pimentón) with crudités and pita, roasted shrimp with a spicy chimichurri dipping sauce (for the sauce, in the blender I combine a big bunch of both cilantro and Italian flat leaf parsley, two scallions, four or five garlic cloves, a generous third of a cup or so of extra virgin olive oil, a teaspoon of freshly grated lime zest, the juice of five or six limes, several teaspoons of ground cumin, a dash of salt, freshly ground black pepper, and as many chipotle peppers as I dare. Blend until smooth, adding a little additional olive oil or a splash of water if it is too thick to blend.), some toasted cashews, pistachios, marinated olives, and for something sweet, freshly baked chocolate chip cookies and pecan bars. Along with the food, we had an assortment of beer, mulled wine, and my “pumpkin pie martinis” (which are embarrassingly simple but always a crowd favorite: equal parts of pumpkin spice liqueur and your favorite eggnog, served with a dash of pumpkin pie spice in glasses rimmed in cinnamon sugar and graham cracker crumbs.)
Instead of a cake this year, I decided to go with some childlike fun and have a decorate your own cookie bar instead. I had homemade shortbread cookies (cut out in the shape of Christmas trees and ornaments), and an assortment of colorful candies, sprinkles and dragées, along with six different store bought icing colors (hey, there is no shame in that!), all served on this adorable lazy Susan with inset white dishes. It was almost too charming.
I have to confess to being semi horribly devastated that none of the food table photos survived for you all to see them now (after my new SD card debacle). It was really, really beautiful (if I do say so myself). The centerpiece was comprised of antiqued, blood red roses and evergreen bows, votive holders filled with fresh cranberries and unscented candles, and about a thousand little (intricately hand placed) rhinestones atop one of my favorite “special occasion” (read: dry clean only!) table clothes, which added sparkle. It was just the right amount of over the top for my taste. That along with the big white platters of food, each more lovingly garnished than the last… sigh… I can’t go on…(*wipes imaginary tear from cheek*)… it was some of my best work. But for now, we can all pretend that a description of it all is just as satisfying.
The evening started off with a big surprise as one of my dearest friends (who lives in California – you may know her from her comments here on Jacob’s Kitchen under the name Woman&Warrior… an apt description of a fantastic human being) showed up on our doorstep just as guests were arriving. It was really great seeing her, and being able to spend a leisurely weekend together, and also to finally introduce her to all of my friends here in Oregon who have heard far too many wonderful things about her that I’m sure they all thought that I was making her up. Spending my birthday with all of my friends was exactly what I needed, and her presence made the evening extra special.
The other big news, of course, was the purchase of my new Canon EOS Rebel T2i DSLR camera! Hooray! (Cue confetti!) I hope to soon actually learn how to use all of its many functions and take my food photography to the next level. I still stand behind all of my point and shoot pictures, and am a firm believer that one does not require a DSLR to create beautiful food images. Having a DSLR, however, as I am coming to realize, does much more easily capture beautiful food images. So for all of my fellow point and shoot foodies out there, keep up the great work! It’s not easy, but it can still be fabulous.
Unfortunately, my birthday weekend turned somber when my grandfather (whom you may recall suffered from Alzheimer’s and lived with us here in Oregon for quite some time after I spent a year caring for him and his wife in New Mexico, until we finally had him placed into an assisted living facility less than a mile away from our house) fell and broke his arm. At first the doctors seemed to underplay his injury as though it were not a very big deal. Less than 48 hours later, however, we were forced to make the difficult decision to begin hospice. For five days my sister and I camped out at his bedside. Though he was unconscious nearly the entire time, we played his favorite music, held his hand, read him the stories and poems that he had read to us as children, and did everything in our power to ensure that he was comfortable. He died very early in the morning, just one week after my party. I was holding his hand and stroking his brow the whole time, and my sister was right beside him talking into his ear. While he certainly suffered through a lot of pain throughout the week, in the end it was very peaceful.
I cannot even begin to express to you how amazing the entire staff at Brookstone (his care facility) was with him. The loving care, kindness and support that they showed to him, to me, and to my entire family over the last year has been nothing short of heroic. As someone who has seen a lot of care facilities in my day, I can say with absolute certainty that better care simply does not exist. Period. They have twenty nine locations across the United States. If you have a loved one suffering with Alzheimer’s or dementia and are near one such location, I encourage you to seek out their services. You don’t have to do it alone. They are there as much for you, as for your loved one. Seriously. You won’t regret it.
My grandfather, Earl Rolla Bates, (who we called “Grumpa,” because he always had a sour expression on his face) would have been 89 in March. Long after he could no longer remember my name, what he always remembered was that I bake. “How’s the baking coming?” he’d ask when we would visit “Well, keep it up. You’ve got a real knack for it!”
He was the perfect taste tester, since he loved everything, but some of his particular favorites included Ina Garten’s croissant bread pudding (with a simple brandy butter sauce), New Mexico style green chili stew, a perfectly grilled steak (which he always liked to marinate in a little bit of teriyaki sauce, salt, black pepper, and garlic, and top with a fire roasted green chili and melted pepper jack cheese), my buttermilk biscuits, apricot jam, my signature salad, potatoes in any form, and his grandmother’s rolls. (Leave it to a foodie like me to sum up someone’s life by the foods that they enjoyed!)
He was a ship’s cook in the navy, and ran a small restaurant with my grandmother for several years in his early twenties. He appreciated good food, but even more he appreciated the effort that you invested into making good food. It never went unnoticed. He was always very grateful for everything that he was given, and openly expressed that gratitude to those around him. That is perhaps the greatest lesson that he has left behind: to live a life of endless gratitude.
As an example, while in New Mexico, after dinner while I would be doing the dishes, he would often pull me aside and say something like “You know, that meal was perhaps the finest I have ever had. That salad…that salad was just so delicate, and those biscuits were just fabulous. You have become quite a young man. And I want you to know that I am really proud to have you as a member of my family.” Then, with a simple pat on my shoulder, he would turn, pick up his poodle, and retire to bed. And that would be for just any rushed, nothing special, weeknight meal. He was a hard working, funny, sarcastic, generous, ornery, little sprite of a man, and he will be missed.
Fwew! That should just about catch us up! Later this week we shall finally return to business as usual here at Jacob’s Kitchen. Between the holiday baking, my birthday, and his passing, you can imagine that this has been a particularly busy, very contemplative time for me. But with the new year comes new hope for an even more fabulous tomorrow.