Prepping for the Party

Every year for the last 10 years, I have had a combination Holiday/Birthday party at my apartment, wherever it was at the time.  And every year it’s one of the most exciting and stressful times in my life, because I have to consider one very important thing:

What will I make to eat?

You see, I’m Italian (in case you haven’t guessed), and us Italians like to do one thing, and we do it very well.  We make food for our friends and family.  And when we make food, we make enough to feed an army.

For me, it goes back to my childhood, when my Nana and my Aunt Rita would prepare Sunday dinner for the family.  Nana would never serve store-bought, dry pasta… for shame!  Nana made pasta from scratch!  And she’d make a TON of it.

On those Sundays we’d arrive and on my Uncle John’s bed (he was a priest, and he had a bedroom for when he would come to visit Nana) there would be a huge white sheet with rows and rows of that evening’s pasta laid upon it.  Some days it was spaghetti or linguini; others it was stuffed ravioli.  Some days it was gnocchi.  Whatever it was, it was all homemade and, we knew from experience, incredibly delicious.

That tradition also carried through to our family Christmas Eve dinners, where we observed our own version of the Feast of the Seven Fishes.  There was, of course, the Italian staple, baccala, served both fried and in sauce; an anchovy-bread crumb-walnut pasta; numerous breaded and fried fish (croppi was one I remember liking a lot); as well as the standard calimari and, for starters, shrimp cocktail.  Add to that the amazing fried potato rolls with the name I can never spell, and a plethora of delicious dessert items, and you had yourself one heck of a feast.

So as I got older and moved out on my own, I kept the traditions of feeding the world alive.  My first official party was actually a New Year’s Eve party in my very first apartment in Wicker Park.  I don’t think I did a pasta dish, but I do recall making Italian Beef for the very first time.  At my first Holiday/Birthday party, however, I did make some pasta… probably Mostaciolli.  I didn’t have that many people there, because my apartment at the time was very small; but it did mark the first of many to come.

The next party was with my roommates in Andersonville – Chad, Jason and I.  Our last names started with A, B and C; so we called it the “House of ABC Holiday Party.”  I went pretty nuts for this one, as I recall.  I made stuffed shells… at least 3-4 huge pans of them.  It took FOREVER, and I was so exhausted by the time the party started… but everyone loved them.  That was the party that really started the tradition.  From there, in subsequent years, I made lasagna (again), mostaccioli, Italian beef (again), meatball bombers, and then chili.

Chili was always the favorite.  It was easy to make, comparatively inexpensive, and still had a place in my family history– the recipe was my Dad’s.  So for the last few years, I’ve been making chili, and everyone comes expecting it.

But this year I think I’m going to try something really different.  I have my ideas, but I won’t reveal them just yet.  Just suffice it to say that those who taste this will WANT the recipe.  And it’s so easy, too.

Yes, the holidays are fun and planning the party is a lot of work, but the end result is always a good time.  No matter how decorated my place is (and it will be QUITE decorated), if I don’t have some yummy treats for everyone to enjoy, the evening just won’t seem complete.

Maybe someday I’ll feel inspired (and have the money) to make 9 pans of lasagna again.  But for now, as long as it’s delicious and everyone likes it, I’ll make it easy on myself.

The weather outside is spiteful, but the year was fairly delightful.

Christmas in my Living Room

It’s December 23.  Christmas Eve Eve.  And it’s only one day into meterological winter.  

But you’d never know it with the way things have been in Chicago lately.  

No dreaming about a White Christmas this year.  We’re gonna have one.  Plain and simple.  We’ve had more snow and cold already… pre-winter… than in any year I can remember.  It’s caused tons of accidents, a few cold-related deaths, and lot of bursted pipes and radiators throughout the city. 

But thankfully, around here it’s been pretty nice.  The radiators work great, the hot water flows freely, and everything is warm and cozy.  

I guess there isn’t too much to complain about then, is there?

Truly, this winter – and the year that preceded it, has been pretty good.  Oh sure it had its rough spots (as all years do), but for the most part I look back on 2008 with a sense of happiness and fondness.  

As the year started, I decided it was time to concentrate on friendships.  I felt that I had not been a good friend to the ones I had, and did not open myself up to new friendships nearly enough.  As the year closes, I feel closer to my friends than ever before, and am proud to include a new group of people in my life as friends.  I have also reconnected with a lot of old friends (thanks mainly to Facebook), and have rekindled some friendships that never really died in the first place– but were just on hold for the past 10 or 15 years.  

Family has become even more important as well.  With the birth of my twin nieces, Abby and Emily, in February, my family has found a new reason to celebrate and love.  Their presence in our lives has given us such great joy, and watching them grow has already been so much fun.  As a result, my family is closer than ever, and it’s been incredibly rewarding.  

With the collapsing economy, I have become ever more thankful for the presence of work in my life.  I am thankful I am employed, and by such a good company.  I am treated fairly and paid well.  I can’t complain about that at all.  It’s a blessing to be employed.  

Money, however, has been my one major shortfall this year, and that is of my own doing.  In the next year, I need to trim the fat and live leaner and more within my means.  It’s going to be hard, and may require a lot of sacrifices, but I absolutely need to do this in order to survive into the next year with my head above water.  

All along, this blog has been there.  And while I haven’t been writing as much as I used to, it’s been a comfort to know that I can put my thoughts here and share them with you.  Thank you for all of your kind words and encouragement over the years.  I really appreciate you, too.

So with that, I am signing off for 2008.  There’s lots of things going on between now and the New Year, so I don’t anticipate that I will post again until 2009.  

I wish you and your families and your friends a safe and wonderful holiday season, and a delightful new year.  Salute!


Definitive Holiday Songs

Each Holiday season, we are inundated with new releases by semi-new or washed-up artists trying to capitalize on the Holiday music phenomenon. And each year, many of these recordings either fade into the woodwork of bland reproductions of the same tired carols. But sometimes a shining star emerges and, while the entire album may not be full of hits, there is one beautifully performed number that stands out. Over time, this performance can emerge as what I like to call the “Definitive” version of that song.

Here, then, is my current list of Definitive Holiday Songs – the versions that, unlike no other, are the ones that make the song a true Holiday classic. Of course, this list is purely objective; so I encourage you to share your own personal list of Definitive Holiday Songs.

Here we go, in no particular order (links go to iTunes, unless otherwise noted):

1. The Christmas Song – Nat (King) Cole: The ultimate. Nothing can or will top this version, though many have tried. Cole’s soothing, silky baritone, coupled with the cascading strings and cool jazz band make this a holiday classic that can never be topped. One listen, and you know – it’s Christmastime.

2. O Holy Night – Johnny Mathis: As religious-themed carols go, this one is particularly majestic. Mathis’ soaring tenor, against Percy Faith’s stellar orchestra, define the beauty of this carol, yet they do it without being overly treacly or sappy. I’ve loved this version since I was a kid, and it still gives me goose bumps even today.

3. Jingle Bells – Ray Conniff and the Singers: It’s pretty simple sing-along fare, but I have yet to find a more complete version (4 verses!) of this song, and something about the arrangement just perfectly conveys the joy of jingling along in a sleigh when the snow is on the ground. Not that I’ve ever done that before, of course…

4. Silent Night – Mannheim Steamroller: The Steamroller has gotten a little rusty over the years, but this, from the first of their Christmas offerings, is probably the most moving and stunning versions of the carol I’ve ever heard.

5. God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen/We Three Kings-  Barenaked Ladies and Sarah MacLachlan: This bouncy, free-spirited mashup came out a couple years ago and was the big hit of the season– and there’s a good reason why. It’s melodic and catchy, and still defines for me what the songs represent. Plus the joining of BNL and MacLachlan is perfect. I wish they’d do more together.

6. Merry Christmas Darling- Carpenters: The story goes that Karen and Richard Carpenter were students of Frank Pooler in the 1960s, and he gave the lyrics to “Merry Christmas, Darling,” which he had written in the 1940s, to Richard in hopes he could write a melody that suited them. The result is a beautiful Christmas classic that has long stood the test of time and will stand for many years to come. Karen’s vocals are stunning here. Frankly, anything that can help secure the legacy of the Carpenters is a gem in my eyes.

7. Step Into Christmas- Elton John: In the mid-70s, Elton John could do no wrong… so why wouldn’t he write a Christmas song? While some parts of the songs are a tad outdated (“Hop aboard my turntable,” for instance), the song still sounds fresh and fun even today.

8. Sweet Little Jesus Boy- Mahalia Jackson: Reverent and stirring, this spiritual carol is at once sparse and yet full of joy and wonder. Ms. Jackson’s voice is rich and booming; powerful, yet soothing. The chorus behind her is a little saccharine, but Mahalia makes up for it with her power.

9. Star of Wonder- The Roches: Relatively unknown, I first heard this song when I sang it with the Windy City Slickers a few years ago. The harmonies are stunning and thrilling- reminiscent of Imogen Heap- and the melody is beautiful. This SHOULD be a Christmas classic.

10. The Little Drummer Boy- Harry Simeone Chorale: The original and best, and no matter how many times this song is covered, none will ever touch this version.

11. Sleigh Ride – Arthur Fiedler & The Boston Pops: Originally written as an instrumental by Leroy Anderson in 1948; the Boston Pops version is, and will always be, the definitive version of this song. The lyrics, written two years later in 1950, suit the song well, but I prefer to hear it without the lyrics. I get a better image of the song’s meaning that way.

12. Little St. Nick – The Beach Boys: Who would have guessed that The Beach Boys- the surfin’ guys from California- would have created such a Christmas classic? It’s one of those songs that just can’t be done by anyone else without sounding like a really bad idea.

13. Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree- Brenda Lee: This song was probably controversial and even banned when it first came out, but today it’s as much a classic as “Silent Night” or “Jingle Bells.” Which reminds me, this one is often paired with….

14. Jingle Bell Rock- Bobby Helms: Although more “Rockabilly” than “Rock,” this has become a massive classic, and has been covered by countless artists over the years, including Hall and Oates, who had a minor hit with the song in the 80’s. But nothing compares to the original.

15. Mele Kalikimaka- Bing Crosby: A Hawaiian Christmas song? Of course! I’ve always enjoyed this sweet tune, and of course, nobody sings it like Bing (with the Andrews Sisters!)

16. White Christmas- Bing Crosby: The Voice of Christmas himself still owns the title to the definitive version of “White Christmas.” Nobody else can deliver those lines with such power.

17. The Twelve Days of Christmas- John Denver with The Muppets: The first time Miss Piggy sings, “Five… Goooolden… Riiings… Badum Bum Bum…” you know you’ve got a classic on your hands. This song is dreadfully boring without the voices of Jim Henson, Frank Oz and the rest of the Muppet Crew holding it up and making it FUN again!!!

18. Christmas Time Is Here- Vince Guaraldi: A Charlie Brown Christmas and its soundtrack have become such a staple of Christmas music, it’s hard to imagine there was a time before it ever existed. Guaraldi’s jazzy, quiet arrangements and his incredible piano work are heard throughout the special and this album, and make this one of the all-time greats of Christmastime.

19. Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow! – Doris Day: America’s sweetheart sounds particularly sexy and sultry here… a tinkling piano and a jazzy arrangement make this holiday standard about more than just snow – it’s about romance and cuddling up with someone special. Now to find that someone special…

20. Santa Baby- Eartha Kitt: When it comes to sultry and sexy, nobody does it like Eartha Kitt… and nobody does Santa Baby like Ms. Kitt, either. The song was written for her and it shows. Growl!

And just for good measure…

21. Little Jack Frost- Chicago Gay Men’s Chorus (featuring a solo by Rick Aiello): (Amazon only) This holiday swing classic, first recorded by Frankie Carle in the 1940s, is done by CGMC with a vocal arrangement by Patrick Sinozich and a solo by some guy who writes in his blog every once in a while.  🙂

So that’s my list. There are others which could easily have made it, but I’m interested to hear what you have to say. Enjoy the music and have a Happy Holiday! 🙂

Christmas Baby

I was a Christmas baby.

“Oh that had to suck!” people tell me all the time. “Did people forget about your birthday?”  “Did you get birthday/Christmas presents a lot?”  “Did your parents combine your birthday and Christmas?”

The answers to these statements and questions is:  No, it wasn’t that bad; No, No, and NO.

I was pretty fortunate.  My birthday was, is, and always will be December 12th.  That’s almost exactly two weeks before Christmas, so there was plenty of time between my birthday and the “big holiday.”  My parents were always good about separating Christmas from my birthday, and family and friends never combined my gifts into one.

As far as I was concerned, my birthday was always a prelude to Christmas.  An appetizer, if you will.  The tree was always already up, and my gifts were placed under it.  The house was decorated in red and green and there was usually snow on the ground outside.  Christmas carols played on the stereo, and everyone was in relatively good cheer.

Other birthdays didn’t have the pizazz that mine did.  They didn’t have the colors, the lights, or the festive atmosphere.

As far as I was concerned, I considered myself LUCKY to be a Christmas baby.

Of course, as the years went on and I got older (and older), birthdays didn’t matter as much.  Family parties were long a thing of the past.  It got too hard to coordinate everyone’s schedules for a party for cake and coffee and the traditional opening of gifts.  So those parties turned into phone calls or emails, and maybe a gift card sent in the mail with a birthday card.

And that’s OK.  Birthdays are something to celebrate, but the festivity around them should be reserved for kids.  After all, you may not remember what anyone gave you for your birthday last year or the year before; but I bet you remember getting your first bicycle, that special dollhouse, or that super-special toy you just HAD to have when you were a kid.

So as I celebrate the end of my 37th year, and the beginning of my 38th, I want to thank everyone that I’ve come into contact with in the last 37 years;  for the friendship, love and support; for the good advice, the kick in the ass when I needed it, and the shoulder to cry on when I had nobody else to turn to; for the wild and crazy times and the quiet, reflective moments; but most of all, for being part of my world.

Because that’s the best gift anyone can possibly give.