Archive for December, 2010

Christmas Present


Things I've learned from Christmas Present:

I'm too old to sit on the floor and wrap presents.

I'm perfectly happy to let my daughter "DO" Christmas this year.

Giving away a personal treasure to bless someone else is totally different from "re-gifting."

Shrimp and Grits is (are?) the perfect Christmas Eve dinner.

Don't forget to turn off your car lights – unless you really WANT to give your automobile the gift of a new battery.

Be careful not to let the broom handle knock a sharp, heavy wall decoration down on your head. Ow.

Children and grandchildren make it all worthwhile.

I do not like a Acapella Christmas CD's.

If I'm careful, I might be able to make this last roll of my mom's Christmas wrapping paper last another year.

……Miss you, mom……

If you let them, unrealistic expectations can really mess you up this time of year. Don't go there.

Not everyone likes to play word games. Or maybe they're just tired of me beating their pants off every year.

Cherish a man who cuts down trees and saws them into logs for the fire. AND keeps it going all day and night.

It's not necessary to use every decoration in your arsenal. Nor every cookie recipe.

Embrace your inner Italian.

Stock up on the basics cause you never know when a big snow storm is coming. (Do they have eggs at CVS?)

Being present is the best present of all.

Merry Christmas to all of you wonderful guests who have graced my Shared Table this year!


Mister Jingeling, pawn shops and blue tree lights

Christmas past is past, or so it says in the intro to the holiday song, "Have yourself a merry little Christmas."  I guess that means I should stop being so melancholy for the years when my kids were little and when my parents were still alive. Perhaps a lighter look at Christmas past will help cheer me up!


My mom could never seem to get the right name tags on the right presents. I was forever opening my brother's presents and they always acted shocked when they opened their box and found a doll baby. After a while it just became part of the family tradition.

Our childhood Christmas tree had blue lights – the real screw-in kind. The effect was so calming and serene. I've wanted to re-create that tree ever since I've been married, but my family says "NO!"

The array of sweets my mom baked never varied: butter cookies, thumbprints (you weren't allowed to fill them with anything but cherry jelly), pineapple bars, and fruit cake cookies which were pretty but tasted awful. The one thing Mom never fudged on was…. the fudge. She made trays of it, always with walnuts, in fact her hand-written recipe says in big letters, "ONLY USE WALNUTS!"

Remember Mister Jingeling? If you grew up near Cleveland, Ohio you know that Mister Jingeling was an elf who came from the North Pole. He was Santa Claus's helper and "Keeper of the Keys" to Toyland's treasure house at Halle's department store. His theme song began, "Mis-ter Jing-a-ling, how you ting-a-ling, keeper of the keys. On Halle's seventh floor, we'll be looking for you to turn the key."

There was the year that we had moved cross-country and were low on funds for Christmas presents – so with three kids under the age of four we were very resourceful. We gathered up old class rings, some tarnished silverware of my grandmother's and headed to the pawn shop. Voila – Christmas! What fun we had shopping for them that year. Funny how the difficult things become the most precious memories. I think that was the year for the Strawberry Shortcake doll.

While living in Tampa, FL, the Christmas tree saga began. First year there, we waited till middle of December as usual to buy our live tree, not realizing that the trees were so dry you could breathe on them and they'd go up in flames. Enter artificial tree which I swore I'd never buy. Also enter the first of a string of years where every string of lights lasted about five minutes before they fizzled out. AFTER the decoration were on the tree. New lights – same problem, over and over. Next year we couldn't keep the tree standing, finally had to tie it to the wall. Last year we heard a crashing sound in the middle of the night, to which my husband mumbled, "It's nothing – I'll check in the morning." I investigate and find our beautiful six foot tree lying on the floor – all my precious glass ornaments broken. So far, nothing unusual this year, but we've got a couple of weeks to go.

Once driving from Tampa to North Carolina for the holidays, our large plastic clamshell thingy on the top of the car flew off and presents were scattered everywhere. And the windshield wipers stopped working in the middle of a storm. Joy, joy, joy!

One year my in-laws gave my husband a brown furry vibrating pillow as a present……um, why?

My favorite memory is the last year my Dad was with us. During one of our Ely Unplugged concerts we begged him to get out his clarinet and play for us. He played a real jazzy tune and then asked if we'd like to hear some Mozart. We said sure and he proceeded to play Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. Applause. He bowed and asked if we'd like to hear him play it backwards. Of course! He promptly turned his back to us and played it again. That's my Dad!

Then there was the food: Italian feasts at my grandmother's, and the smell of cigar smoke wafting in from the living room later in the day. Later as a young mother, there was the cookie baking, gingerbread houses, chocolate mousse cakes decorated with chocolate stars, cranana daiquiris, and a dessert party, complete with chocolate marzipan mice running around the table. If I'm not mistaken, a boy mouse found a girl mouse and let's just say it's a good thing there weren't any children at the party! My husband was the culprit!

It was crazy and hectic, stressful and wonderful and magical all at the same time and the memories keep it all alive! "Those were the days, my friend, we thought they'd never end…"


Take some time this year to sit back and remember "Christmas Past." Share your memories with your children – write them down. Treasure them.


Back to the future

It never fails; every year I’m flabbergasted (don't you love that word?) at how fast Christmas rolls around. One minute we're celebrating 4th of July, then BOO! a kid dressed up like a ghost shows up at the door begging for treats. Might as well hand out candy canes because we all know how fast time flies after that. The BIG DAY is just a week or so away and I’m still in denial.

Yesterday I listened to several renditions of the renowned holiday song, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," and had to laugh at a line in the intro that says, "Christmas future is far away." Really? What part don't they get about ONLY 8 MORE SHOPPING DAYS?!

Exactly just how far in the future are we talking about here? 

Seriously, though – Christmas future? What do you suppose that might look like? Obviously there's no guarantee that I’ll make it through this one, let alone twenty or so more, so what good does it do to project? Still, I have to wonder:

  • Will there be more grandchildren (or great-grandchildren) gathered round my tree? More fun on Christmas morning but also more toys that need to be assembled and a lot more batteries! I'll need to set up a serious Christmas Club account which means I'll need to get a part-time job, or figure out a way to monetize my blog. Note to self: buy stock in Wal Mart and Duracell.
  • How much longer will I hold the title of Christmas Cookie Baker for the Ely family? Maybe I could pass the cookie cutters to someone else? Daughter, daughter-in-law (need to get one first) or grand-daughter? Let’s not have any gender bias; maybe it will be one of my grandsons. Anyone? Hello?

  • Will we ever get to celebrate the holidays in Northern Italy with my Marini relatives? Per Favore?

  • Maybe we'll move: a cottage near the ocean? Mountains? Down the street? ITALY?  Hey, if a girl can dream, so can an old lady.

  • Will there be new traditions? Cause the tradition of the tree falling over is getting pretty old.

  • Will we continue to have our annual Ely Unplugged talent show and will Roger and I re-enact the “What About Bob?” movie even when we're old and grey? Wait – we're already old and grey.

  • Will I ever actually send the Christmas cards, because that would require remembering to buy them, or remembering where I put the ones I bought on sale last year?

  • Will the annual Christmas update letter ever go out of fashion? Please? I really do not want to know the gory details of all your medical procedures. You know who you are.  

  • Will my husband ever stop buying old-fashioned Wooly Willy stocking stuffers….for himself?!

  • Will I turn into my Mom and only put up a table-top tree? YES. Next year.

  • Will I ever be able to figure out my Mom’s cryptic fudge recipe?

  • Will my heart always turn into absolute mush when I hear “O, Holy Night?”

  • Will they ever make a holiday movie better than “White Christmas?” Will any woman’s waist ever be as small as Vera-Ellen’s?

  • Will I ever lose my weird sense of holiday humor?


Not feeling much like laughing or making merry this Christmas? Writing this post helped me lighten up; I hope it brought a smile to your face, too, and remember – "God will let you laugh again; you'll raise the roof with shouts of joy!" 


Merry Little Christmas

Which rendition of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" will you sing this year?

Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Let your heart be light
Next year all our troubles will be out of sight
Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Make the yuletide gay
Next year all our troubles will be miles away
Once again as in olden days
Happy golden days of yore
Faithful friends who were dear to us
Will be near to us once more
Someday soon we all will be together
If the fates allow
Until then, we'll have to muddle through somehow
So have yourself a merry little Christmas now

This is how she sang the song in the 1943 movie "Meet me in Saint Louis."

Frank sang that version in 1947, but while recording A Joyful Christmas in 1957, he asked Martin for a cheerier take to match the album's theme. This is what Martin came up with:

Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Let your heart be light
From now on, our troubles will be out of sight
Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Make the yuletide gay
From now on, our troubles will be miles away
Here we are as in olden days
Happy golden days of yore
Faithful friends who are dear to us
Gather near to us once more
Through the years we all will be together
If the fates allow
Hang a shining star upon the highest bough
And have yourself a merry little Christmas now

The original lyrics, penned by Hugh Martin in 1943, were never recorded. 

Have yourself a merry little Christmas
It may be your last
Next year we may all be living in the past
Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Pop that champagne cork
Next year we may all be living in New York
No good times like the olden days
Happy golden days of yore
Faithful friends who were dear to us
Will be near to us no more
But at least we all will be together
If the Lord allows
From now on, we'll have to muddle through somehow
So have yourself a merry little Christmas now

Happy feeling gone!

An article on (Entertainment Weekly) goes into more depth about the history of this song which for years has reigned at or near the top of ASCAP's list of most performed holiday hits.  Says Author Chris Willman, "Which version you prefer may be the truest Rorschach test of yuletide temperament."


There's an intro to the song that many recording artists leave off, although my two favorite recordings, sung by The Carpenters and James Taylor, both include it:

"Christmas future is far away; Christmas past is past. Christmas present is here to stay, bringing joy that lasts."

The next three posts will reflect some thoughts on the song's intro but until then, "All I want for Christmas" is for you to leave a comment and let me know which version is your favorite and why.


All three versions of ''Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas'' by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane 1943, 1944 Renewed 1971, 1972 EMI Catalogue Partnership (successor to LOEWS) (PWH)/admin. by EMI Feist Catalog Inc. (ASCAP) Used by permission.


Are you contagious?


This is the time of year when colds spread quicker than a red wine stain on a white tablecloth and "Silent Night" is something you sing about, but rarely experience, what with all the bed-shaking, coughing and hacking coming from the person lying in bed next to you. 

I just got off the phone with a friend who's suffering from a severe head cold. In the midst of her Benadryl-induced stupor, she was attempting to finish her Christmas cards and advised me in all seriousness to use a hand sanitizer after I opened her card.

We're rightfully concerned about spreading germs but what if we were equally concerned about spreading good cheer?  Being 'contagious' is usually considered a negative thing but there are positive connotations, too, like a 'contagious smile' or 'contagious enthusiasm.' Just as we 'catch' a cold, we can 'catch' a good mood.

Take the mall experience, for example – on second thought, forget the mall, you wouldn't catch me there this time of year (or any time of year for that matter) even if I had a $500 gift certificate to Saks. Let's take a trip to the grocery store instead, about 3-4 days before Christmas. It's amazing how grumpy everyone seems, especially if the cart in front of them is blocking their progress.

I take this as a personal challenge.

You know what I do? I whistle Christmas Carols, even though I'm not as good as this guy.

And like magic, the atmosphere transforms.

It's incredible; up and down the aisle frowns and grimaces melt into smiles – people stop and talk to me, or they glance over and say something like, "You're happy!" And guess what – I am! Instead of being just another task to endure and cross off a list, shopping can be a way to spread good will. But it's a choice.


So, between writing part one and part two, I went grocery shopping and I couldn't believe what happened. I'm in the frozen food aisle and suddenly I hear a woman hollering at the cashier – mean, derogatory, finger-pointing, threatening to call the Consumer Hotline, Channel 14 and Better Business Bureau kind of  hollering. The manager tried to calm her down but this angry customer would not back off. She stomped out of the store, turned around, stomped back in and started right up again. The poor cashier just sat there, not saying a word. 

Needless to say, by the time I made it to the check-out aisle, the cashier's line was backed up, so I headed to the other line, but I couldn't stop thinking about what had just happened. I glanced over and the customers in her aisle were quiet, not saying a word, just as if it had never happened.

As soon as I paid my bill I headed over there.

"I'm so sorry for all the abuse you just took," I said. She looked at me with a smile that lit up her face, shrugged and said, "Oh, it's alright."

Now, was what I did contagious? I don't know; but I felt better. I hope the cashier did, too.


I hope you will consider spreading some Christmas cheer as you go about your holiday shopping the next two weeks. Before you head out of the house, try saying something like this:

"Lord, please help me to have your joy, your peace and your patience as I go about my errands. Remind me to think before I speak, to be grateful  and to be a light in every situation. I thank you for all you've done for me and I pray that you would use me to help spread your joy to those who cross my path."




God with US

I am in awe this Christmas season as I consider Jesus, who born in such humble circumstances accomplished so much in so short a life. I am struck by how limited are our ideas of "Success." How without a web site or a blog or even a fax,  he impacted forever His world and ours. A humble King…what a concept.

God with US

Another baby born that night, just one tiny infant, who as a man,

Would turn the temple tables upside down

Turn the world upside down

His simple message transforming the souls of men

Servant-healer, story-teller, truth-speaker

His words piercing hearts

Like the sword that would penetrate his side

He foresaw the suffering

Yet embraced it for love

His name was called "Emmanuel" – God with US

All of us, cynical and burdened, calloused and hard

Unloving and unlovable, his love reaching

Into the hearts of men

Softening, massaging

Kneading a hunger into the jaded palate of all

Preparing us to acknowledge and receive His sacrifice

by Susan Ely


Which came first – giving or receiving? 

It's more blessed to give than to receive, but first we have to receive. In order to receive we must believe that God gave his only son for us. We demonstrate our belief when we give our hearts to Jesus, and receive his gift of salvation. Then he promises to give us the gift of his Holy Spirit. When we receive his gift, we become like a child again,  jumping up and down with excitement. We give him praise!

Christmas brings out the child in us!



Cranberries and Chocolate?

What do you do when a friend gifts you with five pounds of Callebaut Chocolate? I don't know about you, but I've been on a 'this would taste so much better if I just add some chocolate' kick. This cranberry nut bread recipe from Bernard Clayton's Complete Book of Breads (sans the chocolate) was a holiday tradition at our house when the kids were growing up; half of a bag of cranberries left over from Thanksgiving compelled me to dig it out again. Everything tastes better with a little chocolate, don't you think?

                              New Again Cranberry Nut Bread

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 cup sugar

1½ teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

¼ cup shortening

¾ cup orange juice

1 tablespoon grated orange rind

1 egg, room temperature and beaten

1/2 cup chopped nuts

1 cup fresh cranberries, coarsely chopped

1/2 cup chopped bittersweet chocolate (optional)

One large (9×5) or two small (7½ x 3½) loaf tins, greased or Teflon. If glass, reduce oven heat to 325

In a large bowl, sift together flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt. With a pastry blender or two knives cut in the shortening until the mixture resembles coarse cornmeal.

In small bowl combine orange juice and grated rind with the beaten egg. Pour the liquid into the dry ingredients and mix just enough to dampen. Don't beat. Carefully fold in the nuts and cranberries.

Butter pan well, line the long sides and bottom with one length of wax paper, butter paper in place, for easy removal of the loaf. The mixture will be stiff and must be pushed into the corners of the pan with a spoon or spatula. Form it slightly higher on the sides to compensate for the rising crown.

While oven preheats to 350°, allow the filled pan to rest.

Bake in the the oven until the loaf tests done – when pierced in the center with a metal skewer or toothpick. If it comes out clean and dry, the loaf is baked. If moist particles cling to the pin, return the loaf to the oven for an additional 10 minutes. Test again.

Remove bread from the oven . Carefully turn from the pan, peel the wax paper away and cool on a metal rack. An easy way to remove the loaf is to turn the pan on its side, tug gently at the leading edges of the wax paper to work the loaf loose. Allow the loaf to age overnight before slicing.


Remember it's better to give than to receive. Double the recipe. And about that recommendation to let the loaf age overnight? Good luck with that!


Jacob’s bowl of lentils

In my experience, there are two kinds of people in this world; those who would practically kill for a steaming bowl of lentil soup and those who turn up their noses and head to McDonalds.  Essau sold his birthright for a bowl of lentils. What does that tell you?

I was a wannabe hippie, just starting college back in 1972 when  I made my first pot of lentil soup. It seemed like a good hippie kind of thing to do. I followed a recipe in those days, but now that I'm an old hippie, I never make it the same way twice. Here is the basic starting point if you're just beginning to cook, or thinking of becoming a hippie. Ideas for making it your own are at the bottom of the post.

                                     Jacob's bowl of lentils

1 pound lentils, washed

10 cups water

1/4 cup olive oil

1 large onion, chopped

2 carrots, chopped

2 ribs celery, chopped

1 large potato, chopped

2 large cloves garlic, minced

1/2 teaspoon fresh ground pepper, or to taste

1 package (10 ounces) fresh spinach, stems discarded and leaves chopped, or 1 package (10 ounces) chopped, frozen spinach, thawed

Juice of 1/2 lemon (about 1 tablespoon)

Grated Parmesan cheese, minced celery tops (optional)

In large kettle, bring to boil lentils, water, oil, onions, carrots, celery, potato, garlic, and pepper. Simmer 40 minutes, or until lentils are tender, stirring occasionally. Add spinach and salt to taste. Cover and simmer for thirty more minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in lemon juice. (If soup becomes too think, add a little boiling water.) Serve in warm soup bowls. Sprinkle with cheese and celery tops, if desired. Makes 10 cups, or about 8 servings.


Change it up with these suggestions, or come up with your own

  •             1/2 to 1 cup chopped, canned Italian tomatoes
  •             1 cup cooked small pasta, such as ditalini
  •             1 cup chopped fennel
  •             Sliced smoked turkey sausage
  •             Tiny meatballs (ground lamb – yum)
  •             Cook soup in ham broth
  •             Try bay leaves, or oregano, chopped fresh mint, curry powder

* Then Jacob gave Esau some bread and lentil stew. Esau ate the meal, then got up and left. He showed contempt for his rights as the firstborn.     Genesis 25:34     


Tomato soup my way

At least once a week when we were growing up, mom served us kids Campbell's Tomato Soup and grilled cheese sandwiches – CHEEZ WHIZ, that is. I thought that's how everybody made them – how else was the cheese going to melt?!

Now that I'm all 'growed up' I make tomato soup with fresh tomatoes when they're in season, but on a winter afternoon after a busy day, I have no problem whatsoever making this soup that's based on a good old can of Campbell's Tomato. My friends always say they're amazed I make tomato soup from scratch. I just smile and say, "Umm, umm good!"

roasted tomato celery soup

3-4 ripe plum tomatoes, cut in half lengthwise

3 tablespoon good olive oil

1 tablespoon butter

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

Fresh ground pepper, to taste

1/2 cup chopped onion

1/2 cup chopped celery

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 teaspoon parsley

1/4 teaspoon dried thyme

Optional: 1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes

1- ten ounce can tomato soup

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1 teaspoon sugar

Toss the tomatoes with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and pepper; place on a baking sheet and roast for 40-45 minutes. Cool slightly, then chop or puree in blender, depending on the texture you prefer.

In a 4 quart stockpot on medium heat, sauté onions, garlic and celery with remaining tablespoon of olive oil and one tablespoon butter for 5-10 minutes – do not brown. Add optional red pepper flakes. 

Add the can of tomato soup, 1 soup can water (or equivalent chicken broth) thyme leaves, parsley, lemon juice, and sugar. Stir. Add roasted tomatoes, stir and allow to simmer for 5 minutes – any longer and the celery will lose it's crispness.

First the onions and celery – don't overcook!

Can't stop nibblng the caramelized tomato skins!

The perfect bowl.

Now all you need is the grilled cheese sandwich!

THE LAST COURSE: If you're not yet comfortable playing around with a recipe, this one is a good place to start.

In the Mood for Italian? Top each bowl with a handful of fresh baby spinach leaves before serving. Or add frozen cheese or chicken tortellini, a dash of Italian herb blend or a can of drained cannellini beans. Don't forget the Parmesan cheese.

Make it Mexican: Replace thyme and parsley with Mexican seasoning blend (chili powder, cumin, oregano) and fresh, chopped cilantro. Add some shredded rotisserie chicken, and/or a can of kidney or pinto beans, and top with tortilla strips, grated cheddar and a dab of sour cream.


Soup of the evening, beautiful Soup!

When do you make soup?

When the temperature drops, I make soup. When my budget shrinks, I make soup. When I want to treat friends to a casual meal, I make soup. When my fridge and pantry is full of odds and ends, I make soup. When my wallet is bulging with bucks, I make seafood chowder. It's been a while!

I make a lot of soup.

What is it that makes soup so comforting? Eating soup is like getting a hug from mom. It can be down-home or uptown and you can eat it with a spoon. It warms you up when you're cold and lifts your spirits when you're down.

According to food historians, our present day restaurant industry is believed to be based on soup. Restoratifs (where we get our word 'restaurant') were the first items served in the public restaurants in 18th century Paris. Many of the soothing soups we know today such as broth, bouillon and consomme were created during this time period.

I like to keep the pantry and fridge stocked with soup fixings, so I can just cook up a big pot whenever it strikes me. There's nothing worse than having the sniffles and thinking, "If I had some noodles, I could make chicken noodle soup, if I had some chicken."

Like a good Girl Scout, I prefer to Be Prepared. Some staples I like to keep on hand for a quick and easy soup meal:

  • Stock – beef, chicken or vegetable ( try to buy high quality stock; I find the cartons to be better quality than canned). If you have the time, make your own.
  • Frozen vegetables
  • Rice, pasta, barley
  • Canned beans and dried beans
  • Canned tomatoes
  • Frozen tortellini
  • Baby spinach
  • Onions, celery, carrots
  • Ham hocks in the freezer
  • Potatoes

My go-to dish for holiday gatherings? You guessed it. Soup. 

A big cast iron pot of hearty peasant-style soup simmering on the stove, and a batch of cornbread coming out of the oven, is a great way to say 'welcome.' When I want to dress things up a little, I pour the soup into a pottery tureen (my idea of dressy) and place it at the center of the buffet, surrounded by small bowls of add-ons, so guests can create their own 'signature' soup. If I'm serving the soup as a side, I ladle portions into espresso cups so people can sip. No matter what the occasion, I've never failed to please people when I serve soup.

So for the next few days, I'll be serving up some recipes for soup here at The Shared Table. Tomorrow: Tomato Celery.

Till then, enjoy Lewis Carroll's ode to soup:

BEAUTIFUL Soup, so rich and green, 
Waiting in a hot tureen! 
Who for such dainties would not stoop? 
Soup of the evening, beautiful Soup! 
Soup of the evening, beautiful Soup!

Beau–ootiful Soo-oop! 
Beau–ootiful Soo-oop! 
Soo–oop of the e–e–evening, 
Beautiful, beautiful Soup!

Beautiful Soup! Who cares for fish, 
Game, or any other dish? 
Who would not give all else for two 
Pennyworth only of Beautiful Soup? 
Pennyworth only of beautiful Soup?

Beau–ootiful Soo-oop! 
Beau–ootiful Soo-oop! 
Soo–oop of the e–e–evening, 
Beautiful, beauti–FUL SOUP! 

The Last Course: "A bowl of soup with someone you love is better than steak with someone you hate"

Proverbs 15:17 New Living Translation