Thursday, December 28, 2017

Christmas in the South

When you say the word “Belgian” to an American, the next word that comes into their mind is either “waffle,” “chocolate,” or “beer.”  Fran has confirmed this from personal experience, and that’s just one of the many burdens that we as Americans have to live with.

Naturally, when we went to Chattanooga to visit my family for Christmas, we had to go to the Waffle House.

Because Waffle Houses are to the American south what McDonalds are everywhere else – ubiquitous standardized franchise restaurants serving moderately non-lethal food – and really, how can you say you’ve been to the old Confederacy if you haven’t gone to a Waffle House at least once?  You can’t, that’s how.

My side of the family decided to gather at my Uncle Bob and Aunt Linda’s house outside of Chattanooga this year.  We’d thought to stay home in Wisconsin after four straight years of traveling for the holiday, but the clan doesn’t gather in its entirety very often anymore and we had two entire nephews that we hadn’t even met yet, so we decided to drive down.  Having an exchange student to take with us on the long drive through Illinois, Kentucky, and pretty much all of Tennessee was just one more reason for the trip.  You can’t really get a sense of the scale of this country until you’ve driven through a chunk of it.

The family has gotten big enough, through marriage and children, that we can’t all stay at my aunt and uncle’s house anymore, so Keith and Kim worked out a hotel for us and we met there on the evening of the 23rd.

The Waffle House was practically next door!

The next day was Christmas Eve, and naturally that was when the back tire on our minivan decided to die.  Or was murdered by pointy object or objects unknown, either way.  Thankfully it was good for the entire ride down the previous day, and it had remained fine when Kim went to the store for some last-minute gift-wrap supplies Sunday morning, but somewhere in the following hour or so it became a sad and deflated sort of thing.  We sent the kids along ahead of us with Keith and his crew, called AAA, and settled into wait.  Eventually a cheerful bearded guy (not wearing a red suit) with the thickest Tennessee accent I have ever heard drove up, pulled the tire off, pointed to the quarter-inch hole, and said, “There’s yer problem raht there!”  That seemed a fair assessment.  He got it patched up and sent me on my way in good speed, and off we went to join the festivities.

We spent most of the next three days there, hanging out in a swirl of family.  We’re an intense but welcoming group, really.  There were several themes that played out across the holiday.

For one thing, we hung out a lot.  For many people spending the holidays with family is a source of stress, but not for us.  We actually enjoy our time together, and the holidays are one of the few times we get together in large numbers – or as large as our numbers get, anyway.  We talk.  We laugh.  We enjoy each other’s company.  And life is good.

For another thing, there was food.  Lots of food.  We’re a family that thinks in terms of its next meal even without the holidays to highlight it, and we had a grand time with that.  We kept it pretty informal, though – long gone are the days of bringing out the good china and silverware, because really the whole point of the visit is to do what you love with those you love and nobody loves loading the dishwasher no matter who is with them.  The food gets set out, everyone grabs a sturdy paper plate and dishes up, and off you go to the table to get to the main focus of conversation and consumption.

The food was good, as it always is.  We’ve pretty much abandoned the “seven kinds of fish on Christmas Eve” tradition since many people in the crowd don’t much like fish and some are allergic to it, but seafood did make its appearance so we can say we upheld the tradition in spirit.  There was also ham, turkey, pasta, and any number of sides.  There were things for vegans, things for carnivores, things for the gluten-intolerant, things for those allergic to nuts and peanuts, things for people who should be watching their salt, things for everyone because everyone is family and everyone is us and food is love.  We also brought down a box of cheeses from Wisconsin to be cut up and noshed upon, and Fran’s family sent us their recipe for bread pudding (really good, by the way) and we made that too.  We did not starve. 

I may never eat again, actually.

Another theme that played out was the incessant game-playing that went on.  There were a couple of rounds of Cards Against Humanity and its lineal descendant, What Do You Meme.  There was a Gobblet tournament that never quite got rolling but still managed a few rounds.  There was Taboo.  There was Phase 10.  There was a rousing game of spoons.  There was some kind of game played on people’s phones that somehow managed to make all of the participating phones switch to Dutch as the main language.  We are game players, we crew.

Also, it turns out that cousin Josh is a wizard with Rubik’s Cubes of many varieties.  I find this beyond impressive, since the best I have ever done with a Rubik's Cube is not cut myself on one.  He had a cube that was something like 10x10, another in the shape of a soccer ball with pentagonal faces, and a third that was offset, with facets of different sizes, that he could actually solve with his hands behind his back.  I watched him do that several times and even now will swear to you that it is impossible.

And, of course, there were gifts. 

We’re not a huge gift-giving family.  It’s not the center of the holiday for us (see above, re: food, family, etc.).  But it’s always nice to get stuff and we certainly have no objections to it.  Most of the gift-giving happens on Christmas Eve, which is the bigger holiday on my side of the family.  Christmas morning is for the little kids.

For the past few years the cousins of my generation have been playing the Dice Game, which cuts down on a lot of the gift-giving headaches and is fun, so double win for us really.  You get a fixed budget and have to buy two gifts with that – one nice and one kind of goofy.  You put them in six piles.  You roll a die and pick from the pile that the die says to pick from, unwrap the gift, and then pass the die to the next person.  When everyone has two gifts in front of them, you take out several pairs of dice, set a timer, and then roll.  If you get doubles you can forcibly trade with someone else.  And then you see how it goes.

This year the next generation started to get involved as well – Tabitha, Lauren, Fran, Josh, Sara, and Annelise all took part, and it went well.  It’s one of those games that people seem to enjoy no matter what they end up with when the timer goes off.

We even got Randall to beam in by phone, because technology can in fact sometimes make life better.

We think that was one of the goofy gifts, but in the current political climate we can't be too sure.

Our big excursion was the day after Christmas, when we went to the trampoline park.

If you’ve never been to one of these things, well, you should go.  There’s a big room full of trampolines of varying descriptions and bounciness as well as pits full of foam blocks and other such activities.  You put on the special socks, sign all of the various waivers, and let people run around for an hour.


After that we went over to see the new Star Wars movie, which was unique to the series in that it had some jokes in it (“Right away, sir”).  Say what you will about Disney, but they’re good at what they do.  And what they do is they separate you from your money in exchange for an entertaining story.  Really, what more do you want from a movie?

We hit the road early on the 27th for the long drive back to Wisconsin.  It was a pleasantly uneventful trip and we arrived back home with vehicle, persons, and sanity intact.  It was considerably colder than it had been in Tennessee, of course – while Tennessee saw temperatures in the 20s F, we won’t see that here for a while.  At one point in northern Illinois the thermometer on the dashboard got down to -7F (about -20C) though by the time we walked into our house it had warmed up all the way back up to -2F!  Barbecue weather!

Today was a good day to stay home and do Not Much Of Anything.

At some point, Kim and I will finish our Christmas cards, too.


LucyInDisguise said...


QUOTE: “When you say the word “Belgian” to an American, the next word that comes into their mind is either “waffle,” “chocolate,” or “beer.”  Fran has confirmed this from personal experience …”

Being followed by various descriptions and even photos of said Belgian Waffles, but no official pronouncement as to whether or not what Waffle Houses put on the plate is actually an authentic Belgian waffle? Serious???

My wife was wandering by about the time I was scrolling thru the images, saw the table that extends through two rooms, and has proclaimed her jealousy level to be at 7.869 on a scale of 1 to 10.

Somebody owes me a table. (‘cause I’m gonna end up buying one.)

Wife got a new Lab-mix mongrel puppy for christmas. We have named him Thor. (It was either that, or ThunderPaws. Go ahead. Try it. “Here, ThunderPaws, Here, ThunderPaws …” Try whistling with it a couple of times. Name does not exactly lend itself.) Therefore hereinafter He shall be called THOR.

That’s what I get for marrying a Viking.

Gonna have to find me a new god to mock.

Merry Christmas to you and yours, and the happiest and most prosperous Nude Year ever.

(Gee I’m glad it’s legal to say that again …)


David said...

Well the War on Nudity is over! Not sure what counts as a victory there, but there it is.

I'm not even sure what Waffle House sells counts as an American waffle, to be honest. Fran liked it, and even liked the biscuit & gravy that went with it to complete the Southern experience (Lauren could live on biscuits & gravy and was the prime mover in the Waffle House trip, actually).

The table is actually three different folding tables covered in paper tablecloths, so I'm not sure how jealous she needs to be. I may have saved you a purchase!

Thor is a good name for a dog, I think.

Merry Christmas and happy New/Nude Year to you and yours as well!

LucyInDisguise said...

Well, that's a relief. Guess we'll keep the table we've got.

My wife loves Belgian Waffles, but, being a Dane, acknowledges the fact that they are a wholly American creation. I suspect that you could create a dish from leftover pizza and call it Polynesian Crepe Du Jour and find an American who would by that. All a matter of perspective, I guess.

That "Nude Year" thaing was created whole cloth out of my computer's Autocorrect program; I just decided to let it go, being as it is probably an accurate representation of where we may all be in a few months. (Besides, it sounded like something I would have said anyway)

Smiles all around.


David said...

Well, I'm up for it, autocorrect or no. :)

Americans have an odd relationship with foods supposedly from abroad - we seem to create our own version of it (Taco Bell, anyone?) and then react with puzzlement or (in the case of actual Chinese food) blank horror when confronted with the original. Or we just invent things out of whole cloth and ascribe the to others (I would agree that somewhere in America somebody is selling Polynesian Crepe du Jour to people who get a free lei with every purchase). There was a time when I worried about authenticity in food, but these days I mostly just want something that tastes good.

I don't care if there really was a General Tso or not - I want his chicken! Extra spicy! No, not "midwest spicy." Actually spicy!

LucyInDisguise said...

I have always loved spicy hot. but after I discovered, quite accidentally that sweet & sour sauce is a natural Hot Spice Fire Extinguisher, I have found myself venturing further and further up the Scoville Scale (and enjoying it immensely, I might add!) without experiencing undue extended discomfort.

Is that actually cheating? (I think not ...)

Wait - how did we get from Belgian Waffles to General Tso's Chicken?


David said...

I love spicy hot food, but I have toned it down in recent years. After a certain point it just becomes hot and not tasty and food should be tasty. I've been to shops that sell nothing but hot sauces and of course they have samples, and at some point you stop tasting anything. That point is a lot hotter for me than for most, I suppose (though probably not as hot as you), but still. As long as you're enjoying it, I say good for you! That's what matters with food.

But hot is good. And whatever helps is good too, so no, sweet & sour sauce is not cheating in my book. :)

LucyInDisguise said...

Oh, yeah. Let us be absolutely & clearly in agreement on the Flavor Element. I love hot - but hot for hot's sake is not good. I do loves me some pain and agony with my food, but it's only worth suffering through it for the flavor.

Shit tastes like shit, and there exists no sauce, hot or otherwise, that can disguise that simple fact.

Which brings us back full circle to Belgian Waffles - haven't had one yet that wasn't way to doughy for me. I'm a French Toast man myself.

Is French Toast really from France?

(I could do this all day ...)


David said...

I am a great fan of French toast, though I have no idea where it came from. Probably the same place they got French fries, which I somehow doubt was in France.

I do know that they make Swedish pancakes in Sweden, so there's that. :)

Ewan said...

English muffins: an unknown concept to the English. And some of my favourite doughnuts were "American style" from tesco's - never seen anything resembling them in the US.

Gaming: if I cannot yet entice you to the Mystery Hunt, consider WBC - much closer to you.

David said...

Why do I think that "American style" meant "excessive amounts of 'creme' filling and/or frosting"? But then that would be something you'd find here, so perhaps not.

I love a good donut - an affectation passed on to me by my dad, who was a true aficionado of the genre. They're going through something of a renaissance these days, which is nice to see. I was in Madison in December and took the chance to stop at Hurts Donuts in Middleton, and my, my, was that rewarding.

The WBC looks interesting though likely above my pay grade as a board game player. But thanks for letting me know!

Ewan said...

WBC welcomes all, quite sincerely: one of the friendliest groups I know, and very family-based (a big change from the start, when it was very heavily stereotypical middle-aged male geeks): some of the most killer players are the teens who smile as they knife you in the back :).

The doughnuts were jam-filled, heavily deep-fried, sugar-coated. And yes, here we have Cider Belly and for a long time I assiduously avoided learning their actual location, only eating them when others brought them to lab. Dangerous. Especially as I just this week started the 23andMe weight loss study!

David said...

Sounds like a jelly donut to me! Let me guess - cherry filling (or at least bright red). Fried. Coated in crystallized sugar that crunches when you bite down on it. About as big around as your palm (or half again as big, perhaps) and maybe 2" thick?

Definitely commonplace here. I loved those as a kid, though they're probably a bit too sweet for me now. Mmmmmmmmmmm, jelly donuts...

My favorites right now are the cider donuts that the local apple orchard has every fall. They're cake donuts (as opposed to yeast donuts), ring-shaped, made with apple cider as the primary liquid ingredient, and coated with crunchy sugar.

Now I feel a deep need to go out and get donuts.

I didn't know 23andMe had a weight loss study - I thought they were just DNA testing. I should attend to the issue of personal weight loss myself, though how I will square that with donuts I don't know.