Winter Ughs and Uggs

Winter coming on as a global pandemic heats up is a one-two punch to my gut. Even winters passed with dear friends in warm kitchens and cozy pubs doesn’t melt the ice between me and the jerk Old Man Winter. The bitter air, the sleet and snow, the short days and the overcast skies, and turtlenecks and fleece that make my thin hair fly out kooky away from head make me grumpy. Seasonal Affective Disorder is not fake news. I get it every year. Black Friday means red-hot shopping deals for most people, but for me Black Friday means the arrival of my winter blues.

I hate the cold months. I abhor snow flurries. And as a daily pedestrian, I abominate sidewalk skating rinks created when an Illinois winter storm can’t decide whether it prefers to drown me in freezing cold rain or bury me under the snow. I am a sun worshipping, flip-flop wearing woman who loves to sweat and to bake my skin in the heat of a muggy Midwestern summer. I like my arms free of sleeves. I want to live every day in bare feet without socks and shoes hindering the wiggling of my painted toes. I love my freckles, bursting in July and August, when tomatoes are ripe and cold beer beats the heat at a backyard cookout with friends.

Summer is my season, and Thanksgiving, otherwise known as the American launch of Christmas, marks the end of it. No more Indian summers to keep me in denial. Thanksgiving fills up my belly with my sister’s wonderful food all jacked up on carbs and calories, but it leaves my summer-loving heart bitter and empty. Every year, just as the Thanksgiving sun sets and I’m falling into a food coma, winter shows up. It watches me get all liquored and fooded up on Thanksgiving, and as if to smite me—because that’s the kind of season winter is, a smiting season—it moves in while I am weak and whining about how much unhealthy food I have just consumed. And then, that jerk throws his winter blues at me when I’m too fat to get out of the way.

I don’t have a lot of coping strategies for my winter blues. My way is to cry about the cold, badmouth sledding and snow angels, and blame winter for my bah humbugging of Christmas. All of the standard winter rituals get me down. But there is one personal winter ritual that doesn’t completely ruin my life: the rotation of shoes in my closet. I put away my flip flops and Birkenstocks and hiking sandals, because they cannot make me happy when the temperatures drop into the thirties. I pull out my embarrassingly extravagant collection of Ugg boots. When the weather turns cold and wet in the days after Thanksgiving, and the furnace has kicked on to stay on for the next three and a half months, I slip my feet into a pair of my beloved, shearling-lined Uggs.

Ahhh. Toasty and warm. Uggs give me a spirit power. Uggs are my way of sticking up my middle finger to winter. The first feeling of this ritual cuddling of my feet makes me smile. It makes my toes and my heart toasty warm. I know I will still curse the winter, swear at every flurry that flies. But I also know that my feet will be luxuriously warm all winter while I dream about next summer.

Holidays are hard without Mack. This year I also had to endure Thanksgiving without Savannah and her husband Levi, without my mom and her husband Mike, and without my friend Dan, who has been joining our feast for years. Grief is always a challenge, but in a pandemic it has tested the limits of my ability to cope. Thank goodness for my sister Tracy, who fed me, albeit in the driveway at a healthy distance from her and my brother-in-law Jason and their daughter Zoe.
I did enjoy a couple of holiday cocktails, including this gin and jam with fresh cranberry sauce and rosemary. I toasted Mack, like I always do, after curating my perfect last bite in her honor: homemade egg noodles, mashed potatoes, and a dab of fresh cranberry sauce.

Mack Memo #6: Eat Until It Hurts

Sometime between Mack’s I’m-on-kiddie-speed-get-outa-my-way phase and her tenth year, we went to an oyster bar for a family dinner. It was in Florida or southern Louisiana, I think, during one of our family escapes from a cold, Midwestern holiday. The restaurant was a cheesy, corporate-shack kind of a place with fish nets hanging from the ceiling and long communal tables covered with crisp white paper, fat paper towel rolls on metal spindles, and silver buckets for discarded seafood bodies. That is about all of the detail I remember about the time and the place, and I have no photos from the meal; but this seafood joint somewhere in the deep South was the setting for one of my most vivid (and horrible) Mack food memories.

This particular restaurant sold all varieties of seafood, but we had come for the oysters. Despite the numerous pounds of crab legs consumed on birthday dinners at Red Lobster and the crappy fried shrimp platters at Barrelhead, the Springfield bar and grill that helped raised my girls, Mack and her sister had never had oysters before that night. We ordered copious quantities of Rockefeller (the “gateway” oyster) and steamed and raw oysters on the half-shell. While Savannah first cautiously picked around the creamy spinach and cheese of the Rockefeller oysters, Mack dove right into the hard stuff. She starting shooting those raw oysters like a drunk springbreaker trying to win a round of free drinks for her friends. In between slurping down those little suckers, she made funny little food-satisfaction noises and praised the existence of oysters in the sea. We all laughed, congratulated Mack on her courage, enjoyed her delight in the feasting, and nibbled, mostly on those wimpy Rockefellers. I do not remember advising Mack to slow down and, in fact, I think we ordered another round.

And then Mack turned green.

Her brow was wrinkled up and her thin white lips were pursed together in a disheartened grimace. She sadly looked across the table at me and expelled a little whimper before abruptly pushing her chair away from the table and bolting across the dining room to the restrooms at the back of the restaurant. Savannah made some crack about how she knew that was gonna happen, and I went to check on the oyster queen. Mack was, of course, puking out her guts when I announced my arrival in the bathroom. Between heaves, Mack kept saying, “I’m ok, I’m ok. I’m ok.” When she emerged from the stall, her big brown eyes were bulging but she was no longer green. She washed her hands and splashed cold water on her face, and we returned to our table.

And then Mack took a big slurp of her coke and recommenced the eating of the oysters.

Undaunted. Seemingly impervious to the ghastly events of the previous ten minutes. Unwilling, I suppose, to let a little vomit come between her and good food. Determined as well, she later reflected, to make a good food memory out of those first-time oysters, to remember the deliciousness and not her rookie mistake.

Mack Memo #6: Eat Until It Hurts, baby! And then go back and eat some more.

Ergo, from Mack to me, and from me to you, this is Thanksgiving message 2017: Eat until it hurts, people. Let it out if you have to. And then drink some coke and go back in for some more. Enjoy the gorge and savor the delicious. Be brave. Try something new. And don’t you dare miss out on any oysters that might be hiding in your stuffing.

Oh, and at the end of the feast, don’t forget to construct that Mack-style perfect last bite.

finish your milk

Is this baby Mack eating crayons and drinking beer?

Macksgiving

In America, Thanksgiving is about tradition, gratitude, food, and family, in various orders of importance, of course, depending upon individual traditions, particular propensities for thankfulness, the quality of the food, and the level of dysfunction within one’s own family. In our family, the Thanksgiving priority was always on the food with a double order of laughter on the side, mackoand so it was, naturally, one of Mack’s favorite days of the year. Our tradition was to travel to Charleston, Illinois, where my brother-in-law spent hours smoking ribs for Mack because she despised turkey, my sister presented an accompanying feast extravagant enough for kings, and we all ate ourselves into comas, but not before splitting seams from all of the laughter.

Without our Mack as master of ceremonies for comedy and for shoveling food into one’s face, there is a whole lot less laughter on holidays, and particularly so on Thanksgiving. In 2014 and 2015, my sister Tracy bravely continued the tradition of preparing the feast, my brother-in-law Jason remained committed to smoking those ribs in the spirit of Mack, and we began a new family tradition of creating a Mack  Perfect Last Bite. But, Thanksgiving is still not right without Mack. Nor, I think, will it ever be. So this year, we are shaking things up a little. No, we are shaking things up way more than a little. This year, Tracy is getting a break from the cooking and Jason is getting a break from the smoke. They will meet Kevin and I in St. Louis, and Savannah and her boyfriend Levi and my niece Zoe will arrive from Chicago to join us. On Thanksgiving morning, all of us will “compete” in the St. Louis Turkey Trot in glorious Forest Park before sitting down to a meal that I am preparing, a meal I have billed as Macksgiving.

Now wait a minute, you say. Mack would never have approved of such physical exertion on the most important eating day of the year. And in so saying, you, my friend, would be absolutely correct. But this year, our feast will feature a long list of Mack’s favorite foods, most of which are a million miles from healthy, many of which are gut-busting comfort dishes that each alone would set you back a day’s caloric intake, and some of which are not even really food at all. Therefore, I believe that Mack would applaud our efforts to run off a few calories before sitting down to Macksgiving in her honor, and I KNOW she’d approve of this menu!

Macksgiving

Appetizers:
Sushi, Thai Spring Rolls, Deviled Eggs

Main Courses:
Baked Smoked Ham, Mack ‘n Cheese with Bacon, Texas Cheesy Potatoes, Homemade Noodles

Sides:
Green Bean Casserole
Spicy Roasted Brussel Sprouts
Roasted Broccoli
Hawaiian Rolls

Desserts & Snacks:
New York Cheesecake with Raspberries
Powdered Miniature Donuts
Flamin’ Hot Cheetos
Funyons
Candy (Laffy Taffy, Sour Punch Straws, and Warheads)
Blue Gatorade

On Macksgiving, Mack  will be with me as I run. She’ll be in my ear, cackling away, slinging gentle insults about my slow pace. Her laughter will whisper in the wind, and her spirit will reside in my own. On Macksgiving, Mack will be with me for every bite, as I enjoy the foods she loved so well. I will prepare my traditional perfect last bite, think of Mack, and offer gratitude for the twenty  years she graced this earth with her beautiful presence. But on Mackgiving, I will still keenly feel the absence of my girl, who was the soul of this indulgent holiday and whose chair for me will always be empty.

A Thanksgiving Tradition for Mack

Thanksgiving is a perfect American holiday because it is a holiday for all Americans, it transcends religious and cultural divides, it encourages gratitude, it focuses on the family table, and it celebrates food. For all of those reasons, Mack loved Thanksgiving, but mostly she loved it for the food. Every year as we drove to my sister’s house for our annual family feast, Mack would say something like: “Thanksgiving is da best, because I can eat three plates of noodles and no one will judge me.” (I can certainly attest that Mack could definitely put down some noodles!). Sharing a meal with Mack was delightful, because her love and appreciation for food was infectious; and Mack’s enthusiasm for food and her joy of eating always enriched our Thanksgiving dinners together. All holidays without Mack are difficult, but I feel her absence more keenly when food is the focus, and so Thanksgivings without her will always be particularly sad days for me.

In bracing myself last year for my first Thanksgiving without Mack, I wrote a blog about Mack’s love of food and her unique philosophy of eating. At most every meal she ever ate, Mack saved a perfect last bite for the end. It was a bite that epitomized the best qualities of the meal. A bite for which she would close her eyes to more deeply savor the food she had just enjoyed. A bite that would linger on her tongue and remain in her brain. Since writing that Thanksgiving blog, I have frequently finished a meal with a Mack-perfect last bite. It is a small and quiet way to honor my girl, but it is also a reminder to me to stop for a moment to appreciate the simple joy of good food. Thanksgiving is a holiday of food and of gratitude, and so it was a Mack-perfect holiday; and a Mack-perfect last bite is a perfect holiday tradition that I will always observe. So go break bread with your families. Go gorge yourselves on noodles (no one will judge you and Mack will definitely approve). And then, end the meal with a perfect last bite to savor, to appreciate, and to remember.

For inspiration from Mack’s perfect-last-bite philosophy, please read last year’s Thanksgiving blog: https://macksmommabear.com/2014/11/26/the-perfect-last-bite/. I think you will see that Mack’s joyous approach to food was, indeed, an inspiration. Love and cheers to you all and my best good wishes that your perfect last bites this Thanksgiving will be memorable.

Ireland 8

McDermott Family Cheers in Ireland, 2002. (Mack is reppin’ the Yankees in her motherland).