Overcoming the winter "blahs"
Christmas has officially “left the building” and, boy, does my house look…blah.
This happens every year, so I shouldn’t be surprised by the end result. But every January when the last container gets hauled up to the attic, I look around and think, ‘this is boring.’
Now, keep in mind that my level of “boring” may not be yours. I have vintage photos resting on bookshelves and hanging on walls, dried hydrangeas in vases and bowls, ceramic/pewter/stone birds on tables and windowsills, and yet…boring.
I think the mind game involves the muted colors of winter design. Once the bold Christmas hues of rich reds and green plaid and metallic golds are stored away, I’m left with wood and cream and perhaps a spot of blue. *yawn*
But then I look outside, and guess what? Winter is rife with leafless wood-toned branches, a sprinkling of evergreens, spots of tan hydrangea blooms. And that bland landscape makes it easier for me to delight in spotting a shockingly red cardinal, an orange holly berry, the purple-white blooms of a winter hellebore.
So, I’ll take it a little easier on the blah of winter interior. It’s rather peaceful, now that I’m settling into it. And when spring erupts in late-February, and visions of Easter dance across my mind, I’ll delight in those pastels…maybe bring some inside. And the interior landscape will change anew.
A light "BULB" moment
Confession: I am terrible about planting flower bulbs. I mean, I buy them—tulips, daffodils, crocus—but I rarely plant them. Then I get to find them all shriveled and wasted on the garage shelves during the winter clean out and mentally kick myself. Hang my head in shame. Total up the wasted money. This happens year after year after year…
So this fall, I came up with a way to buck that trend.
I watched a local garden center video on “underplanting”—burying bulbs in flower pots under 4-6” of potting soil and top-dressing with winter flowers or even decorations. And it hit me: It’s the process of digging six inches into the Tennessee clay that trips me up! I mean, can you name one gardener who enjoys digging through six inches of cement-hard or wet clay to plant something that lays dormant for months?? I’ll wait while you desperately think of one…just one…
Okay, maybe you came up with one. But I can’t. And I know a LOT of savvy gardeners.
Bulbs in pots serve two purposes: (1) easy planting, (2) spring surprise. Planting is so EASY because you just bury them in fluffy potting soil. It’s almost fun! And the surprise in early spring—that time in four-season areas when the days are cold and gray and depressing—as the new growth bursts through the soil is unmatched for even the most experienced gardeners!
So I encourage you to raid the bulb bins at your local garden centers this week. Yes—this week! Grab any tulip, daffodil, crocus, and hyacinth bulbs you can find and bury them in potting soil. If that’s enough to satisfy you, great! OR…
Top dress those pots with winter greenery, pansies, decorative moss, obelisks—anything that creates interest and lifts your spirits. Just about the time you’re weary of those toppings, your spring flowers will burst through and inspire you once again.
I have three pots underplanted right now, and I’m jonesing for a fourth. And, who knows? Maybe I’ll get inspired by all this planting to actually dig some clay holes. Probably not…but a gardener can dream.
Good things come in pairs
I remember the exact moment I realized I did, in fact, like goat cheese. It’s vivid to me because it was the same moment I realized red wine didn’t have to taste like gym socks.
What I experienced that night of epiphany is called a “pairing”: A lovely and informative hostess laid out a smorgasbord of sweet and savory bites, poured tastes of wine, then encouraged us to try specific foods with each taste. I was not on board from the very start.
Up until this point, my experiences with red wine had all started and ended the same: smelled bad, tasted worse, finished like a weight-lifter’s sweaty feet. I was simply not interested in sampling red wine. Ever again.
But I didn’t count on the peer pressure. And I really wanted to chow down on the food items. So I very reluctantly spread the smallest amount of soft goat cheese on my cracker and took the tiniest sip of red wine. And, voilà! The cheese and wine combined in my mouth with the most astonishing perfection. I actually said, out loud, “I do like goat cheese! And what am I drinking??”
I am now rather well-versed in pairing food with beverages. I’m still not a huge fan of red wine, but I’ve discovered some varieties—a red blend, for instance—I can enjoy with cheese and nuts. I know what goes with a nice, oaky Chardonnay (any seafood or creamy pasta), a crisp sparkling wine (berries, dark chocolate), a frosty Belgian ale (salsa, fried chicken). If I’m not certain of the pairing, I just do an internet search. It’s now that easy.
So the next time you’re in charge of the evening’s beverage or gifted with a bottle of wine that looks suspicious or simply looking for a change, try an interesting food pairing. You might just blurt out your surprise and satisfaction to everyone’s delight.
Dress your table before the turkey
Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. Why? Because it’s all about family and food. Even if your “family” is a diverse collection of friends with vastly different traditions, the food takes center stage.
How I serve that food, however, is what really interests me.
Growing up, we could easily have up to 30 people—family and guests—seated at several tables for Thanksgiving. The adults claimed the formal dining table, some kids claimed the kitchen table, and other kids gathered ‘round a collection of card tables and TV trays. We ate on real plates with real silverware and actual glassware. The Detroit Lions played softly on every TV. The house was filled with laughter.
Looking back, I don’t know how my grandmother, mother and aunts pulled it off every year. But they did. Spectacularly.
I find myself wanting desperately to recreate that setting every fall. It’s not always possible now—family is scattered, in-laws make plans, children go out of town—but even on a small scale, the Thanksgiving setting can be stunning.
I start with a tablecloth. It doesn’t have to be seasonal or orange or feature pumpkins…it just needs to be cloth. If it’s a party of four, we go for cloth placemats. Then I add multiple plates. Yes, plates, plural. A salad plate also doubles as a bread plate and looks great perched atop the dinner plate. Silverware, glassware and napkins complete the settings.
Then, I add serving bowls, platters and tea lights. If the bowls coordinate with the dishes, great. If not, still fine. Once they’re filled with comfort food, no one will notice their design. A spoonful of buttery mashed potatoes needs no artifice. After that, I like to go wild.
I don’t favor that Thanksgiving centerpiece staple: the cornucopia. My mother and grandmother had one filled with the obligatory plastic fruit, but I’ve yet to find one that skews trendy and artsy. So I’m more likely to go with brass and candlesticks and all manner of dried flowers, felt pumpkins and pinecones.
Overall, the table setting should look like harvest. Fall. Bounty. It should glow, like chilly November evenings. It should whisper, “Welcome. Sit. Indulge.” If your guests feel that whisper, they’ll linger. And if they linger, you’ll hear all manner of stories and ideas and dreams.
And then the pies will come out. And the groans will commence. And you’ll know: This bounty, this beautiful, thankful bounty was indulged.
I’ve always been more of a side-dish fanatic.
Even when Wagu steak is the overpriced entree, I go for the fried corn, sautéed green beans, or cauliflower gratin. Fried chicken is a beautiful thing—and I’ve been known to tear into it whilst standing over the kitchen sink—but I can really fill up on the accompanying mashed potatoes, mac & cheese, or cornbread.
So when the chow fest known as Thanksgiving rolls around each November, my recipe research goes right to the sides.
Mind you, I’m all for most of the traditional dishes (except you: green bean casserole…gag), but my eyes light up when savvy cooks introduce clever cocktails, appetizers or desserts.
Anything pumpkin is on overdrive each fall, and in my mind you can’t go wrong with that orange goodness. (Consider the Pumpkin Martini. Yes—Martini! Or Pumpkin Creme Brûlée!) But so are the seasonal spices: cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cloves. And they work in so many recipes. Breads, dips, desserts, cookies, coffees, even vegetables can all benefit from these spices.
Not a fan of anything using pumpkin or seasonal herbs? Then would you consider a charcuterie appetizer at your gathering? Caramel corn? How about a baked side with “au gratin” in the title? I love a tasty and overlooked Waldorf salad: It’s fruit, veggies and nuts, people! Yum.
Now, I will draw the line at bringing back the ol’ Jello ring. Remember that molded salad from your childhood? Ours had shaved carrots in it. Yes…carrots. Its time has passed. Except…I just spotted a recipe for a Sangria Ring. Hmm. Creative.
But you see what I mean here: There’s a lot of room for creativity to accompany your juicy turkey. Every holiday could benefit from a little stirring up in the kitchen. Do some online investigating. Pour through some old cookbooks. Surprise your guests. Surprise yourself.
And who knows? You might just create a new Thanksgiving tradition.
When I left the farm for college, lo’ these many decades ago, I swore I would never, ever, ever again in my life eat that farm staple: chili.
I’m cracking myself up just writing that. I mean, who doesn’t like chili?? Seriously. Area restaurants are renowned for their chili, for Pete’s sake!
My only excuse for that rash statement has to be my lack of chili comparisons. At the tender, unsophisticated age of 18, I knew nothing about chili verde (pork, tomatillos, Hatch chilies), or chili con carne (Texas red chilies, stewed beef chunks), or Springfield (IL) chilli (two “l’s, ground beef, canned tomato sauce, Tabasco). I most certainly would never have heard the words “white chili” (poultry, white beans, cheese) even whispered in our farm kitchen. And don’t get me started on the crazy idea of throwing in some pasta in the Cincinnati style. Sacrilege!
Yet there I was in a restaurant, in my late-20s, ordering chili. It was an Indiana fall day—leaves changing, temperatures dropping. A co-worker said, “You have to try their chili. It’s killer.” And it just sounded good. It arrived in a heavy bowl, topped with shredded cheese and crackers on the side. I dug in and smiled. It tasted like harvest. It tasted like home.
Since then, I’ve been a loyal taster of restaurant chili. Generally, I like the hearty, meaty, Springfield kind. My husband Jimmy makes a delicious Texas variety. I specialize in a—wait for it—very non-farm white chili. It comes together fast and explodes with comforting flavor. I always serve a side of Jiffy-mix cornbread straight from the oven, slathered in butter.
Now, I’ve kept my youthful vow of never again eating other farm foods—succotash tops the list, followed closely by ketchup-based meatloaf, liver and onions, and vegetable stew. But savvy cooks and clever recipes have changed my mind about pot roast, scalloped potatoes, pork chops and…chili. Turns out, those farm staples just needed a “tweak”!
I hope chili is high on your meal-plan list these days. If it’s not, I encourage you to scan online recipes or take a look at mine on our YouTube channel. Try something simple, something different. Make enough to invite someone over, then turn on a football game and pop open a cold beverage. You really can’t beat a bowl of fall, farm goodness.
My Grandma Schaub was what we called an “everyday” grandma. She was part of her grandchildren’s near-daily lives—card game player, Jiffy muffin mix overseer, Bugle snack supplier, S&H stamp collector, raspberry/blueberry/strawberry picker...and tea party planner. That’s me in the photo above with cousins Kelly and Tina, and three lucky barn cats.
Grandma loved to have just the right dish for every occasion, which is probably where I inherited my dish obsession. She collected all kinds of glassware during winter garage sales in Florida. She never met a large vase she couldn’t fill from her own gardens. And if eBay had been a thing during her lifetime, she would have cleaned up.
She wasn’t precious about her nice things. When the extended family gathered each Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter, we ate on bone china—multiple sets of it with matching serving pieces. She never said, “Now be careful with that…it’s expensive.” She just expected us to respect her things. And we did.
So I suppose that’s why I so enjoy using and loaning out my vast stockpile of beautiful tableware.
Years ago, a local middle school wanted to put on a High Tea, so I packed up every fancy cup, saucer and plate in my cabinets. The moms were nervous, but I assured them, “These kids will elevate their behavior to the beauty of the occasion.” And they did.
My wedding reception went old-school with cake, olives, nuts and a wine buffet. We used every glass luncheon plate I owned. The guests loved it! Not one piece was damaged.
Recently, friends decided to throw a bridal tea for their sister. I volunteered my entire glass, china and linen collection. The ladies stopped by, thoughtfully selected every item they might need, and left with a carload of beauties. Every piece came back in pristine condition.
Now, raise your hand if you were ever the guest or host of a childhood tea party. I see those hands! Weren’t they fun? Didn’t you feel special? Maybe even elegant?
Your delicate lovelies are meant to be enjoyed. Sure, they look great in the cabinets, but why have them if we’re not gonna use them? Yes, that china belonged to your beloved grandmother. I assure you, she wants you to actively enjoy it. I believe that tea set cost a fortune on eBay. Why did you pay that if no one gets to party with it?
Steep the tea! Fill the creamer! Set out the plates! Then call up some people who might need a little dose of loveliness in their lives. They’ll never forget your thoughtfulness and generosity.
I get asked on occasion if there are cardinal rules to hospitality. The answer is: Yes! And no.
Hospitality is a gift. But it’s a learned gift. My hospitality skills started in childhood, improved in young adulthood, and are constantly evolving in mid-life. (See my early-June blogpost “Let those candles burn” for a one-time, legendary C grade in hosting.)
The basic starting point for successful hospitality simply involves friendliness, generosity and an inviting environment for letting the good times roll. After that, we’re just tweaking! Read on for my personal rules to make any guest feel special and any gathering successful.
Rule #1: Get yourself ready looooong before there’s even a chance your first guest will arrive. No one wants to ring your doorbell and be greeted by silence because you’re blow drying your hair upstairs. You can still be prepping in the kitchen, but you must personally be dressed and ready.
Rule #2: If you’re not extremely confident in your cooking (i.e., you don’t cater meals or people don’t rave about your kitchen skills), stick to one of your best main dishes. Ask your guests to bring sides. In fact, when guests say, “What can I bring?” …be ready with suggestions.
Rule #3: Have an appetizer standing by for guests who trickle in. In the mid-South, nothing starts on time. In fact, a starting time is just a “suggestion.” My go-to appetizer is a plate of olives, cheese and crackers—simple!—served with a pre-dinner cocktail. Add in lovely cocktail napkins for extra pizazz.
Rule #4: Dial down the spices. Your family may think “the hotter the better!” …but nothing will stop a party in its tracks like choking guests. Follow the recipe’s spice guidelines and have hotter spices at the table for individual tastes. You can always add spice later, but you cannot take it away.
Rule #5: Unless you’re hosting an outdoor picnic or gathering around the fire pit, use real dishes, silverware and glassware. I cannot stress this rule enough. I had to stop myself just now from using all caps and type-shouting it. Almost 70% of homes in America have a dishwasher—and I’d wager you’re living in one of them. Load it up and let it run!
Rule #6: And while I’m ranting… Use placemats or a tablecloth, and napkins that are not paper towels. Yes—even if your guests will be sitting at the kitchen counter. Yes—even if you’re moving the party to the deck. These affordable items are everywhere—estate/garage sales, discount stores, groceries. And repeat after me: Paper towels are not napkins. Say it again! Paper towels are not napkins. Chant it. Live it.
Rule #7: Unless you want your guests to clear out so you can go to bed, resist the urge to start cleaning up in the midst of the party. This is a tough one for me, but my husband Jimmy is great at reminding me to sit down and enjoy our guests. The dishes will still be there when our company leaves.
So there you have it: 7 basic hospitality rules. I have other, pickier rules—but those are specific to the type of party and guest and season. I guarantee if you follow these rules, every gathering you host will at least start out as a success. I mean, no one can predict what your crazy uncle might blurt out during dinner…am I right?
Make time to chuck the list
I am constantly surprised at how easy it is to improve someone’s day.
I’ve discovered that if I listen, really listen, I’ll find all kinds of opportunities to make a difference. And you can, too.
I know what you’re thinking: ‘But I have work. And chores. And errands. And kids. And a list.’ Yes you do. And so do I. But I vowed 20 years ago the LIST would never be more important than a person.
Now, this was a bold move for me because I looooooove my lists. I thrive on lists. Sometimes I add items to a list after completion just so I can gleefully cross them off. Truth! One particularly hectic time last month, I had a list for every day of the week. And I crossed off each bullet-pointed task on those lists like a crazed list Nazi.
Oh—and I also love a detailed calendar with days broken down hourly. I document appointments and addresses and notes and phone numbers—in pencil—like I’m a dignitary’s social secretary. Tucked between those calendar pages are my lists. I checked just now and counted six lists nestled in this week’s pages. Six!
Yesterday’s list was long, but I got a last-minute request to ferry a friend from a doctor’s appointment to home. That errand came with an invitation for lunch and coffee and, undoubtedly, snorts of laughter. I put the list aside and had a delightful few hours with a wise and funny woman.
Monday’s list was even longer, but I had a hurting friend who needed some joy. So I put the list aside, loaded up my car with fall flowers, and planted every one of them in her porch pots as she sat with me and gushed over their beauty. Two hours: worth it.
Friday’s list is ridiculous, but a friend is moving. She’s excited and sad and overwhelmed and exhausted. So I will attack that list until 2:00, when the moving truck arrives at the new house, and it’s time to unload and unpack and organize. That should put a spark into the process. It will be multiple hours of hard work and immense satisfaction. Ahhh…
So I invite you to start listening more to needs, spoken and unspoken, around you—real opportunities to say “no” to the list and “yes” to people. You may discover, as I did, that a line through a completed task has nowhere near the delight as a smile of gratitude.
Mum's the word!
I don’t know how many fall chrysanthemums—45? 60?—I'd dutifully tossed when they’d bloomed out each October before someone suggested I transplant them into the landscape. Uh…what??
Yes—hardy mums are…wait for it…hardy! As in, you can move them into the ground in September, October, November each year and they will happily return each spring double or triple their original size. I kid you not.
I tested this theory a few years ago by transplanting two bright yellow mums between two deep yellow lantanas that surprised me when they returned in spring. And sure enough—it was a wash of shockingly yellow blooms that fall, greeting me each time I pulled into the driveway.
I distinctly remember thinking Southerners were ridiculous for planting fall pansies my first year in the mid-South. I may have even snorted. I mean, flowers don’t survive the winter! Hello! Uh…they actually do.
So now I’m a mum-planting, pansy-planting maniac. I mean, who can turn away from a purple pansy fighting its way through ice and snow in the short, grey days of February? Not I! And who could possibly be discouraged by seeing new growth at the base of that brittle, dead-looking mum in April? Only the Scroogiest Scrooge.
This year, I’m enjoying perennial blooms in yellow, orange, maroon, purple, and white. They even bloom at different times—like I planned that! But I didn’t. But I let people assume so. Even though I didn’t. Que será, right?
Those $5-$10 mums have more than earned their keep in my gardens. And they will in your gardens, too. So when the last blooms have shriveled up into brown or black nubs, give your potted mums a long and fruitful life in a sunny part of your landscape. Then fill those empty pots with a $10 flat of pansies. You won’t regret it. I promise you.