Monday, December 27, 2010

High Tea and Books at the Peninsula Hotel

"There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea" -- Henry James


I love going to high tea during the holiday season.  The Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills has a great one.  The hotel is decked out in its holiday finery and tea is served in the "Living Room." My book club goes there for tea every December to celebrate the holidays, and so our libations are combined with lively conversation of every sort, but mainly about the books we read the previous year.  It's always a festive occasion.  We dress up; the harpist is playing; we start with champagne and strawberries, and everyone is in a heightened state of happiness.

Book clubs are truly a phenomenon at this point.  Almost everyone I know is in one, some have a leader or facilitator, others do it on their own.  I have been a member of a book group ever since studying English literature at UCLA.  I just couldn't give up talking about books.
This group was formed by myself and my friend Caren, out of a group of women at my daughters' school who wanted to meet on a regular basis to talk about books.  This is a dynamic group of women who love to read.  We have been meeting for 16 years.  Each month someone chooses a book and comes to the meeting prepared with discussion topics and background material on the author.  We read classic and contemporary fiction, as well as biographies, memoirs, and other non-fiction.

This year we read an eclectic group of books.  Here is our list:

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver
The Help by Kathryn Stockett
Sentimental Education by Gustave Flaubert
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society by Mary Ann Schaffer and Annie Barrows
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
Tattoos on the Heart by Greg Boyle
The Chamber by John Grisham
This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper
Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann 

I am always so impressed by our reading list when I see the it each year.

At our December tea we vote on our favorite book of the year. This year the winner was "The Help."  I  liked that one,  though my favorites were "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society,"  "Let the Great World Spin," and "Wolf Hall."  



For our December selection we tried something new this year.  Each member read a book of her own choosing, and then told the group about it, in the hopes of inspiring everyone with some new book choices for the upcoming year.   We all gave a little review of the book we read, and there were two that I was most intrigued with and would like to read: Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff
The Red and the Black by Stendahl.  


I would love to hear what your book club read this year, your favorite book, and what your group does to celebrate the holidays.

Friday, December 24, 2010

'Twas The Night Before Christmas

"'Twas the night before Christmas,

When all through the house not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse; the stockings were hung by the chimney with care, in hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there.  The children were nestled all snug in their beds, while visions of sugarplums danced in their heads; and mamma in her kerchief, and I in my cap, had just settled our brains for a long winter nap...when, what to my wondering eyes should appear, but a miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer, with a little old driver so lively and quick, I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick...I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight,

'Happy Christmas to all, and to all a Good night!'"


On Christmas Eve, 1822, Clement Clark Moore, emeritus professor of Oriental and Greek literature at New York's General Theological Seminary, wrote a poem about how Santa Claus flies in a sleigh drawn by reindeer and arrives down chimneys.  He wrote this for his family, never intending it to be published.  He was 43 years old.
I read this tidbit in a an interesting and fun book called "A Book of Ages, An Eccentric Miscellany of Great & Offbeat Moments in the Lives of The Famous & Infamous, Ages 1 to 100" by Eric Hanson.


Wishing you a happy and healthy holiday and a New Year filled with  joy, love, good books, and plenty of "great and offbeat moments."


Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Holiday Cheer

"This is meeting time again.  Home is the magnet...All that is dear, that is lasting, renews its hold on us: we are home again..."
Elizabeth Bowen


My annual Cookie Exchange Party is coming up, and I have been getting the house ready.  It's been raining and cold in Los Angeles, and it's been pretty cozy weather for baking cookies and getting the house ready for the party.
Each year I invite friends to bake their favorite holiday cookie and bring three dozen of them on a platter.  We put all the platters on the dining room table and at the end of the evening after dinner and lots of conversation, each guest fills up a platter with many different types of cookies to take home.  Instant cookie platter for the holidays!

Family room where everyone congregates

Cookies on the dining room table (photo from last year)

Living room mantel decorated

 "Pistachio, Raspberry, and White Chocolate Biscotti," the cookie I baked this year

Can't wait to see the cookies that everyone else baked...

Monday, December 13, 2010

"The Nutcracker Chronicles"

A scene from New York City Ballet's production of "George Balanchine's The Nutcracker"

Alistair Macaulay, dance critic for the New York Times, has been writing a series of articles on "The Nutcracker" ballet called "The Nutcracker Chronicles."  He proposes to see at least 20 productions across the country by the end of December in order to uncover the reasons that Americans love this ballet so much.  I've read many of the articles and enjoyed the gorgeous photos from the various productions  he has seen. Mostly I've been interested in his theories about why this ballet is so beloved in this country; maybe his ideas would help me understand why I love it so much.

I saw "The Nutcracker" for the first time in my twenties when I began to go to ballets and discover the music of Tchaikovsky.  I took my daughters when they were young, and they were enchanted.  It became one of our treasured holiday traditions.  We would see either the visiting Joffrey or the American Ballet Company's productions.  Now I see it whenever I have the opportunity, especially  if I'm in New York or San Francisco around Christmas.

Macauley writes that the popularity of this ballet in America says as much about this country as it does about the work of art.   The ballet's popularity at Christmas time is easy to understand:  its combination  "of children, parents, toys, a Christmas tree, sweets, and Tchaikovsky's astounding score is integral to the season."  But what makes it so popular in America, as opposed to other countries, is more complicated.  As he finishes up his "Nutcracker" marathon by the end of December, he hopes to have a better understanding of this issue.

At this point he has some very interesting theories:

He believes that more than any other ballet, "The Nutcracker" is about children. American audiences love to watch children and innocence in general.  Also, it is about travel into new terrain (the hero and heroine take a journey) and a prince giving his hand to the young middle-class heroine, feeding American concepts of exploration and equality. When the heroine arrives in the paradiselike Land of Sweets, she is welcomed and embraced.  The idea of newcomers being welcomed and embraced in a new land, this is another American idea of what this country can be.

It will be interesting to read Macauley's conclusions at the end of his journey.  My feeling is that many people remember the magical feelings of Christmas they had as children, and seeing the "Nutcracker" helps them to get in touch with those feelings again.  The music, the dancing, the spectacle, the snow, the giant tree...they all inject some magic into the holiday season.  For me, seeing "The Nutcracker" is a holiday tradition I love, adding sparkle, beauty, and joy to the season.      

Photos from the New York Times

Monday, December 6, 2010

"A Christmas Memory"

I was reminded of "A Christmas Memory" by Truman Capote last night when a friend said that her book club was reading it along with Capote's other short stories as their December selection.  I used to read it to my daughters when they were young and I decided to pull it out and reread it.  It is one of the most moving stories I have ever read, and certainly merits rereading.  This autobiographical tale of the young boy Buddy and his elderly, eccentric cousin making fruitcakes at Christmas time, in the big house where they live with "relatives" is a beautiful piece of writing.

And the description of all the luscious ingredients that go into their fruit cakes is mouthwatering  --  "Cherries and citron, ginger and vanilla and canned Hawaiian pineapple, rinds and raisins and walnuts and whiskey, and oh, so much flour, butter, so many eggs, spices, flavorings: why, we'll need a pony to pull the buggy home."  I am tempted to make one myself this year.  Doesn't this one from "Nigella Christmas" look good?

Nigella Lawson's Chocolate Fruitcake


Here are some other books I have been dipping into for holiday inspiration and "Christmas memories," with topics as varied as literary, culinary, decor, or just holiday spirit.  They have all been making me very happy.

"A Christmas Carol" by Charles Dickens
Just can't resist

"The Man Who Invented Christmas" by Les Standiford
How Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" Rescued His career And Revived Our Holiday Spirits

"Elizabeth David's Christmas"
Renowned British food writer Elizabeth David had collected recipes, essays, and notes in a box marked "Christmas."  After her death, her literary executor and agent found her file and compiled this book.  Filled with gems.

This book came out last year and has many traditional Christmas recipes, including "Sticky Gingerbread" which I want to make this year.

Nigella's Sticky Gingerbread

This wonderful book "Parties! Menus for Easy Good Times" by Melanie Barnard and Brooke Dojny was published in 1992.  It includes the "Wellesley Cookie Exchange" party, which was the inspiration for the one I give every year.

All I had to read was the opening paragraph to be hooked,

"For more than twenty years, a group of women in a quiet Wellesley, Massachusetts neighborhood have been gathering every December to exchange Christmas cookies...The guests arrive, brush the inevitable New England snow from their boots and place their cookie trays on a large, decorated table set up near the fireplace...Another, smaller table holds Laurel's antique copper kettle filled with a spicy, warm wassail.  After sipping a cup of good cheer, the guests are invited to sample the dazzling desserts set out amid glittering balls and sparkling tinsel on the candlelit dining room table."  

Here is the recipe for "Spiced Cider Wassail Bowl"

8 cups good-quality cider
2 cinnamon sticks
10 allspice berries
8 whole cloves
1/4 cup dark brown sugar
2 cups orange juice
1 Tb. lemon juice
1 cup dark rum
1/2 cup brandy or Cognac
Quartered orange slices for garnish

1.  In a large saucepan, combine the cider, whole spices, and sugar.  Bring to a simmer over medium heat and cook gently for about 5 minutes, stirring to dissolve sugar.
2.  Stir in orange juice, lemon juice, rum, and brandy.  Heat gently.  When ready to serve, float orange slices in wassail.  Ladle hot wassail into small punch cups, serving directly from the stove or placing pot on a warming tray in the dining room.

I will be making "Spiced Cider Wassail Bowl" this year.


Here is another attractive idea for the holiday season:

Elizabeth David has a solution for the inevitable exhaustion that hits everyone during the season,

"On at least one day...I stay in bed, making myself lunch on a tray.  Smoked salmon, home-made bread, butter, lovely cold white Alsace wine.  A glorious way to celebrate Christmas."

How civilized.  I would like to do this. 

 Maybe reading this memoir:

"Wait for Me" by Deborah Mitford

Or this beautiful book by Vicki Archer about her house in Provence:

In this setting...

From "French Essence" by Vicki Archer

In this house...

From "French Essence" by Vicki Archer

Whatever form your inspiration takes, may your holiday spirits be bright.