Tuesday, February 20, 2018

An Epic Epicenter Improvement

The kitchen might be the "heart of the home" for most people, and indeed, I adore my kitchen and am transported to a Zen-like state whenever I'm cooking up a storm on the weekends. But my home office is actually where I spend the vast majority of my time. I work at home, full time, for a law firm that has employed me for the past 25 years. I sit in my home office, the "command-central" of my life, from dawn until dusk every weekday. And for the past 17 years that I've lived in Maryland, I've been dreaming about how that office would look if I could remodel it to my heart's desire. I am happy to say that in 2018, I finally got it done.

This is how my office looked a few months after I moved
to Maryland in 2001
You know? If you sit in a room day after day, week after week for 17 years, you begin to come up with imaginative ways the space could be utilized better. I actually liked the layout of my home office quite well. When I moved into this old farmhouse in Baltimore County back in 2001, I had to hit the ground running with respect to my job. I remember scurrying to Office Depot to purchase a desk, as I had utilized a spare dining table as an office desk in previous homes, which wouldn't do in the new house. I chose a corner desk with an attached bulletin board and storage hutch and had it delivered and assembled. Amid the unpacking of an entire household, I scooted the desk into a narrow nine- by 16-foot room between the living room and the kitchen, just inside my front door. The arrangement left me only enough room to squeeze between the shorter end of the desk's protrusion and a radiator sitting beneath a side window. I hurriedly unpacked boxes of documents and reference materials, for I would need to have my computer and all my files organized and operational by the following Monday morning, when I would be flying off to northern Alabama or South Texas or some other state to meet with clients as part of my job. There was no time for aesthetics.

After enjoying the use of my grandmother's maple furniture
for almost forty years, I gifted them to Leroy for his college-
age daughter, Samantha, to cherish for the next forty years
I pressed my maternal grandmother's solid maple secretary into service in that room, just as I had in the offices of homes I'd owned in California, Nevada and Texas. Her matching corner hutch and a couple of small bookshelves rounded out the ensemble. Together with two tall metal file cabinets, I arranged all the furniture in the small workspace as best I could. I employed an old particle board computer desk and, later, added a tall, dark, wooden bookshelf. The new blond, laminate-covered corner desk clashed with the maple furniture and the other pieces, and that was okay.  Most surfaces were covered with books and papers much of the time, anyway. At least everything had its place. The office functioned, and it functioned well. I couldn't complain.

Over the years, as my collection of legal (and other) books, papers and research material multiplied,  I stacked bookcases on top of bookcases. It wasn't pretty, and it probably wasn't even safe. My printer/copier/fax machine, in it's third iteration from the bulky unit I moved to Maryland with, now sat atop the tall metal file cabinets, causing me to have to climb a wooden stepstool in order to push documents through the automatic feeder. Said file cabinets were stuffed to the gills with papers. I began to long for more filing space, more counter space, more of an orderly, aesthetically pleasing look to the entire room.
Elfie, left, and Underfoot, loved to curl up in their beds
on the radiator in my office and sleep while I worked

As much as I loved the old-fashioned hot-water radiators with their quiet, even heat which warmed my new abode, I deeply resented the space they took up in every room of my house. If only that radiator wasn't there beneath the side-window in my office, I lamented, I could add a file cabinet! I started to research alternative heat sources. The electricity to run the furnace which heated the radiators was expensive, and there was also a fuel oil bill every few months, and a rusting fuel oil tank, a potential bio-hazard whose presence in my basement wasn't even to code anymore. I'd never gotten around to putting insulation beneath my hardwood floors, believing that radiant heat might someday be the option I'd choose, and I didn't want fiberglass batting to be in the way of the installers. A traditional heating system was not an option in my 1862 farmhouse. The installation of all that ductwork was prohibitively expensive and would require cutting into antique ceilings and floors in every room.
A new Mitsubishi ductless mini-split unit was installed over
the doorway to the kitchen in my home office. Here, they had
just installed its mounting bracket. You can see in this image
how overstuffed with papers my office was. It was clearly
time for a change

Several years after I moved in I started to research whole-house heating and cooling options in earnest. Radiant heat, as lovely, silent and hidden as it was, would be far too expensive to operate over the long haul. High-velocity "mini-ducts", designed to be retrofitted into older homes like mine, from which radiators and their attendant piping had been removed, appealed to me. But my research revealed that the small ports push air so forcefully that it makes an audible noise. I didn't want to live in a wind tunnel.

This old 275-gallon fuel-oil
tank was just beginning to
rust through when I removed it
And so it went, year after year, the daydreaming of what could be and the day-to-day continuance of the status quo. Until last summer -- when I finally decided on a new HVAC system. In May of 2017, I chose Mitsubishi ductless mini-splits. Yes, they would be all-electric, but they would be far more efficient than radiant flooring, and I would get air conditioning in the bargain, something I'd never had throughout the house. I got a couple of estimates and chose a contractor. In June the radiators came out. The old floor-to-ceiling piping through every room came out. The boiler in my basement came out, and so did the rusty old fuel oil tank, just in the nick of time, it turned out, as the bottom of the tank was beginning to seep through, a condition which, if left unattended, would have allowed fuel oil to leach into the soil beneath my home on the same side of the house as my water well. My home and its surrounding two acres would have been deemed uninhabitable and condemned, losing all their value. I narrowly dodged a rather large bullet.

Despite the expertise of Advanced Heating & Cooling, LLC, the installation of the ductless mini-splits did not go smoothly, and I am still getting used to their operation. They create a rather ugly eyesore near the ceiling in every room of my home. But for the most part I am happy. Although my electric bill has doubled this winter, I no longer have any fuel oil bill at all. I am content with my choice.

Better yet, the absence of all the old radiators and piping allowed me to finally set in motion the rest of my master plan. Without a radiator in my office, I could now utilize the space for maximum storage and... beauty!, something I had been sorely missing in a room where I spend so many of my waking hours each day.

From Thanksgiving to Valentine's Day,  my upstairs hobby
room served as a temporary home office. Cramped for space
and working out of boxes, I was overjoyed when I could
finally move back downstairs.
But first things first. If this was to be a full-scale remodel of the nerve center of my life, I would need a place to set up a temporary command post. So simultaneously with the installation of the mini-splits, I hired a handyman to convert a spare bedroom upstairs into a hobby-craft-sewing room. I was delighted with how the hobby room turned out, and regretted that I wouldn't be able to actually use it as a hobby room until after I'd finished using it as a temporary home office.

As soon as construction of the hobby room was complete, I began designing my dream office on paper. It would have lateral files instead of vertical ones, and they would be made of wood to look like furniture. Bookshelves would extend from the top of each file cabinet clear up to the nine foot ceiling on three of the four walls. A new desk, configured in the same shape as the old one but built of real wood instead of particleboard, would allow my printer/copier to sit within reach from my chair. And wouldn't an upholstered bench look nice sitting at the base of the floor-to-ceiling window facing my front porch?

My dreams almost always start with a hand drawn sketch
I was determined to employ my talented neighbor, Leroy, for construction of my dream office. A highly skilled and discerning carpenter, Leroy would use only the best materials and employ only the finest craftsmanship. I knew the quality of his work would be top-notch. Trouble was, Leroy's talents are very much in demand.  He couldn't begin construction of my office until Thanksgiving -- and then he would be available only on evenings and weekends.

I was heartbroken but resolute. Slowly I began to box up 25 years' worth of books, papers and reference materials. I stowed away a lifetime of awards, certificates and other minutiae, packed up family photographs and wall art, and began sifting though those overstuffed vertical file drawers, discarding what I could -- receipts for clothing and furniture I didn't even own anymore, old bank statements, the flotsam and jetsam of a long life.

Leroy, on the right, and his helper measure for the new ceiling.
Look at the bright green color those walls used to be long
before I moved in!
The new office ceiling lends a decidedly more sophisticated
air to the room
The week before Thanksgiving, I made the big move -- hoisting my computer, copy machine, desk phone and several boxes of  important papers upstairs into the hobby room. I didn't like it up there. Oh, it was fine for an afternoon of crafting or sewing or wrapping gifts. But to spend day in and day out in the cramped space was decidedly uncomfortable for me. Two small windows did not provide much daylight, and although the room is well-lit with light fixtures, the windows sit higher than in my downstairs office, so I couldn't see out of them while sitting at the desk. I arranged things to be at my fingertips as best I could, but it just wasn't the same. It's only temporary, I consoled myself. It's only temporary.

Leroy got right to work, installing stamped-brass ceiling panels from Shanker Industries in the new office to match the ones in the adjacent kitchen. I carefully prepared drawings of exactly how I wanted the cabinets to be constructed, and now I grew excited as I saw my dream begin to come to life. I ordered deeply cut crown moulding from Bosley Moulding Company to frame my new brass ceiling. I wanted drama. Lots of drama. This was the room in which I would be spending every workday hour. I'd been imagining the space for almost two decades. I wanted to love to enter the room and work in that environment every single day. I was finally going to have everything I'd fantasized about all those years.

Once the 9-foot by 16-foot room was empty, it was time to
refinish the old floor. I was eager to get rid of the harlequin
pattern a previous owner had painted. Look at how my office
chair wore away the painted floor pattern over 17 years
Leroy balked at constructing lateral file cabinets out of wood. He suggested I buy metal file cabinets and he would construct wooden bookshelves on top of them.  I acquiesced, with one restriction. I would agree to metal file cabinets as long as he was willing to construct wood faces so that the file cabinets appeared to be made of wood. Thankfully, he agreed. I burned up Pinterest, printing picture after picture of file cabinets which had been imaginatively covered with wood facades.

Carlos, of Earickson Hardwood Floors, sanded the paint
off the floor boards
I ordered trim for all the cabinet and bookcase faces, also from Bosley Moulding Company, going so far as to make an impression with a needle gauge of a panel near my front door in order to find a moulding pattern that would match the existing 1862 trim as closely as possible. I made arrangements for the the hardwood floor to be refinished, sanding away a painted tan and yellow Harlequin pattern that I had hated for 17 years and replacing it with a honey-colored stain that closely matched the hardwood floors throughout the rest of the house.

I researched lateral file cabinets and was fortunate to find a used office furniture dealer not far from my home. They had four matching secondhand black metal file cabinets in stock at a fraction of the cost of new cabinets, plus two smaller vertical ones that would form the base of my corner desk. The only lateral cabinet I had to buy new was a longer, deeper 36-inch one for the extended portion of my corner desk. I was thrilled.

Look how the new stain glows!
Then I considered the countertops for my new desk and the tops of the file cabinets. A finely finished wood surface was my original preference. Once again Leroy intervened. "Choose granite", he suggested. "You will work in this office every day. Wood will get scratched from cat claws and pen impressions and show wear over time".  I compared prices. The difference between a fine wood countertop and a granite one was negligible. So I began to look at granite colors. I had already decided that I would paint all the wood in the room glossy black, so my go-to color choice for granite, Black Galaxy, even with its fiery gold and copper flakes, would result in far too much black for the tiny room.  I made a Saturday morning visit to a granite store in Baltimore City. The sales representative, Alexandra, at Big Brothers Marble and Granite, named for the Ecuadorian brothers who own and operate the business, was an absolute delight. She listened to my wants, took a look at the sketch I showed her, and guided me into a vast warehouse, picking up a sample here, pointing out a slab there. Then she handed me a heavy piece of Madura Gold. It was gorgeous, containing all of the colors I wanted in the room: gold and black and brown and beige, even sporting a few sparkly flecks here and there. And they had a slab in stock that was big enough to do my whole room. And it wasn't the most expensive granite on their price list. And they could install it in less than two weeks. I was sold.
The granite desktop was constructed
out of cardboard first to make sure it
would fit through my front door
in one slab 

On December 4, Sandro from Big Brothers came out to the house with gigantic sheets of cardboard.  He measured the desk and the cabinet tops and then carefully constructed a template of the entire surface area out of cardboard. Once he had made his pattern, he checked to make sure it would fit through my doorway.  It would be a shame if they were able to construct a giant slab of granite in the shape of my desk and then not be able to get it into my house!

Meanwhile, Leroy was busy building and installing the base cabinets that would go between the metal file cabinets. I was busy designing bookshelves that would go above the base cabinets. I wanted drawers for storage of office supplies and gadgets. I wanted shallow shelves on two of the three walls, but deeper shelves above my desk for my workbooks and binders. I worked out every detail. Things were progressing so smoothly!
With the metal file cabinets installed,
Leroy began to construct the base cabinets
between them, as well as a support beam
for the granite expanse across my desk

I wanted library lamps to cast soft warm light downward from the tops of the bookshelves. I wanted an electric outlet in every bookshelf bay, so that I could display digital photo frames or maybe a small aquarium. I wanted spotlights over each window, especially the floor-length window I envisioned would one day be a reading nook with a bench seat. I wanted task lighting above my desk. I wanted all the lighting to be LED and I wanted it all on dimmers. For these tasks I hired Carroll Talbott of T-Electric, a very nice electrician from a neighboring county who knew just how to install what I needed.

And what about the kitty beds?!  In the old office, the cats' beds
Out in my guesthouse, which
served as my craft room until
the new one was built last
summer, I applied special
cork flooring glue to a
simple frame of plywood
and black plastic trim
One cork at a time, my new
bulletin board took shape
sat atop the radiator, warming my little pocket lions throughout the winter from beneath their plush bassinets. But there was no longer any radiator to warm my kitties. Now a slab of cold granite spanned the cabinets below the side window. So I ordered special electric heating pads to fit their little cat beds. The low-voltage heating pads would need to be plugged in. I designed a way for the cords to be incorporated into the bookshelves so they would remain mostly hidden from view.

And let me tell you about my bulletin board! It had long been a dream of mine to design a bulletin board to replace the one I had enjoyed with the old desk configuration. The new bulletin board would be made out of wine corks. It would be eight feet long. I'd been saving wine corks for 17 years in anticipation of this project. Months before work on the office began, I put my idea into action, ordering special cork glue from Home Depot, building a frame and then gluing corks in a herringbone pattern across the eight-foot expanse. 1,014 corks later, my bulletin board was finished and ready to install. I didn't have a new office to put it in yet, but the bulletin board was ready!
Using a needle gauge, thick foam was
measured and cut to fit the pattern of
my 1862 window framing for the
reading bench

Heidi did an outstanding job on the
cushion, pillows and valances
For window treatments, I turned to a dear acquaintance and extremely talented seamstress, Heidi Wurzbacher of Heidi's Custom Sewing, who agreed to fashion valances for my two windows and to make a cushion for my window bench with pillows to match. I found stunning gold and black upholstery fabric at JoAnn Crafts and Heidi came right away to pick up the material and take measurements. I was ecstatic. 

Christmas came and went. Half of the hobby room upstairs was devoted to my temporary workspace. The other half became Christmas Central. I made gifts, assembled gifts, wrapped gifts, and prepared gifts for shipping. It was all very cramped and claustrophobic up there. I just kept telling myself how nice everything would be when it was all finished.

Electrical outlets, telephone jacks
and internet ports all went in
beneath my desk 
Then life, and the weather, got in the way. Early January brought with it bitter cold. Pipes all over Baltimore froze in the sub-zero temperatures, and some of them burst, including mine. While I labored with the plumber to repair the pipes and insulate my basement which was no longer warmed by a boiler, Leroy's progress on the bookshelves came to a stop. His garage workshop was neither insulated nor heated. It was just too cold to work out there. And even if he could have braved the cold to build my bookcases, it was too cold to paint them. Construction of my office came to a screeching halt.
Nick added the same custom faux texturing finish to the
ductless mini-split as he did to the walls so that the
protruding unit virtually disappeared

Eventually, the weather thawed. The bookshelves got installed. The lighting went in. 16 outlets and 12 internet ports and telephone jacks got put in below my desk, with more across the room in a corner where I envisioned a guest or a visiting business associate would be able to set up a laptop and work alongside me on occasion.

It was time for paint. For this task, I employed two people. I first met Nick Pelekakis when he painted for the company that remodeled my master bathroom in 2015. Nick did a stunning job of custom texturing with three different paint colors in that room. I liked it so much I had him give my kitchen the same treatment in 2016. Now, he had struck out on his own, calling his business Creative Colors, LLC, and I was thrilled when he had time to apply the same custom textural finish to my office walls.  I didn't need much, as most of the walls would be covered by bookcases. Nick got right to work, creating just the texture and interest I needed around both doorways and on both sides of  one window frame. He even applied the faux finish to the new mini-split so the white plastic unit would be disguised. The camouflage worked like a charm.
Mike O'Leary never backs down from a challenging paint job.
It's a good thing for me he doesn't!

For the rest of the painting, I turned to Mike O'Leary of Kickstart Home Improvements. I met Mike during the summer when he was sent by the HVAC company to fix holes in the floors, walls and ceilings created by the removal of the old radiators and piping and the installation of the new ductless units. Mike had done such a good job on those repairs I began hiring him for my own painting projects. Now, he was charged with two arduous tasks: paint all the trim in the entire office glossy black, and paint the back of every bookcase with a shimmery gold paint I had found on the internet. The black proved to be the easy part. The shimmery gold paint was gorgeous but proved to be a challenge. When we couldn't get the paint to stop streaking, we finally read the fine print on the website. "Must be used with special latex extender for improved flow and leveling". Oh.

Once the new file cabinets were in, I moved all my documents
into new, hanging files. I shed thousands of papers I no longer
needed and still managed to fill every file drawer.  
It was a Sunday. It was snowing. The big box stores didn't carry a specialized formula like that. Mike texted his favorite painting rep for advice. Even though it was the rep's day off, he helpfully suggested to Mike that Sherwin Willimas carried exactly what we needed. And they were open. On Sunday! I got in the car immediately and made my way through the flurries to the nearest Sherwin Williams store. Mike experimented with how much extender to add. He eventually found the perfect blend and the gold paint went on like a breeze. Well, not exactly a breeze. It looked great in the end, but Mike said he didn't care if he ever worked with that type of paint again for the rest of his painting career (sigh).
Once the computer equipment was moved back downstairs
into my newly remodeled home office, I could begin to set
everything up again

On February 10th, I hosted a dinner party for my neighbors to thank them for their endless support and watchful care over me. The next morning, at 9:00 a.m. sharp, my dear friend and incomparable computer guru, Will Fastie, appeared at my door with gadgets and testing equipment in hand. Today we would move my computer equipment, telephone, copy machine and other devices back downstairs into the new office. This was the day I would officially reclaim my newly refurbished office as my own, a supremely outfitted command central. I would be moving back downstairs. I was excited beyond words.

This might be my favorite image of the new office. The cats
are happily ensconced in their heated beds and I have beloved
photos of family and friends on every shelf.
The move was not without hiccups, of course. I had been allotted "three free holes" drilled through the granite by the granite company. But the hole for the telephone cord did not allow for the size of the right-angled jack to the transformer. The path I had plotted for the copy machine cord to weave behind the file cabinet did not take into consideration the jagged edges left behind by the drill-bit penetrating the metal cabinet -- which immediately shredded any electrical cord pulled through it.We improvised. We made several trips to Best Buy for different transformer jacks. We compromised. Six hours later, we had everything hooked up, checked out and operating. I was exhausted but ecstatic.  I moved 25 boxes of books and papers and office supplies from storage into my living room. I could finally begin to unpack those boxes, fill the bookshelves, outfit my office, set everything up the way I had long envisioned it.
I even designed a guest
workstation with a
hidden, pull-out shelf
that expands to hold
a laptop for visitors

It took several weeks, but by the end of February my office was finally finished, fully decorated and functioning optimally. Everything now has its place. Each morning when I descend my staircase, enter my workspace and sit down at my desk to begin work for the day, I am overcome with joy. This is the home office of my dreams. This is the natty nerve center of my life. My new office is everything I hoped it
A place for everything and everything in its place. I am so
happy with how my new office turned out
would be -- and so much more. I sit at my desk, tapping at my computer, whilst my two furry fluffbuckets sleep contentedly in their heated beds beside me. Everything is at my fingertips. A lifetime of papers are organized. Digital frames displaying iconic trips to Europe, Ireland and Australia flash snippets of memories before me throughout the day. I am surrounded by photographs of friends and family which warm my heart. What little wall space there is features art which inspires my soul. This space, of my very own creation, is truly the heart of my home. I am a lady in love with my workplace. I couldn't be happier.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Neighborly Hearts

"Spike", a hand-hewn reindeer
gifted to me by neighbors after
my Christmas display was
vandalized, is now a permanent
fixture on my front porch
Those who follow my blog know that I have been throwing an annual dinner party in celebration of Valentine's Day for several years now, a tradition begun when I grew frustrated over the crowded conditions and less than satisfactory food and service received at restaurants on and around February 14th. A chilly February evening seemed like a perfect time to offer my three-course all-fondue dinner. This year's weather did not disappoint. We had cold in spades in Baltimore County, Maryland, on February 10, the date I chose for my fête.

Thirty days before the party, I created pretty invitations and fastened the envelopes with sealing wax stamped with my initial. My guests of honor this year would be some of my wonderful neighbors, all of whom look out for me in so many ways throughout the year. Despite the fact that I could have issued invitations via email or phone, or by shouting over my back fence, written invitations sent through the mail seemed appropriate. And festive. And fancy! I wanted to let my neighbors know that they were in for something special.

My neighbors truly are remarkable people. Allen and Jackie across the street, for instance, never fail to prepare a fabulous home-smoked North Carolina-style pork roast each year for my annual summer potluck; Allen lets me borrow all his ice chests and even his pickup truck for the event so I can haul home dozens of six- and eight-foot tables which are stored off-site. Jackie has been my trusty pet-sitter for many years now. She does so much more than bring in my mail and feed my cats when I travel! No matter what calamity befalls the house while I'm gone, Jackie has always stepped up to handle it for me no matter how complicated or challenging the issue. In August 2012, when a derecho left my community without power for eight straight days just after I departed on a ten-day trip to Southern Ireland, Jackie hand-watered my 22 window boxes, hanging baskets, and herb and vegetable gardens every day in a desperate attempt to keep my plants alive in the summer swelter with no electricity to run my automatic drip system. During a two-week trip to Europe last July, Jackie enlisted her husband to get my well-pump working again when it suddenly failed for no apparent reason. And while I was in Dallas this past Christmas, Jackie fired up my shop-vac to pump water out of my unfinished basement when torrential rains overran my foundation. Her efforts to take excellent care of my home and my beloved animals clearly go way beyond the call of duty. My cats adore her, running to greet her whenever she comes to my door.
I decorated the mantel above the fireplace in my dining room
in spring flowers and red twinkle lights

Mike and Maria, who live next door to me, bring me fresh eggs whenever their hens lay too many. Mike fires up his snowblower after every major snowstorm, and before I even have a chance to shovel a path to my mailbox, he has carved out my entire 110-foot driveway, a parking pad for my car, and paths to my woodpile and tool shed. Maria always cheerfully lends me the use of her oven, washing machine or other appliance whenever one of my own ancient machines goes on the blink. And the homemade Argentinian empanadas she makes for my annual summer potluck are second to none. Despite bringing a bucketload each year (50!), they are gone within minutes. One year a guest actually exclaimed that he was coming to my party primarily for my neighbor's empanadas!

And Leroy and Michelle, who live on the other side of Mike and Maria, can't be beat when it comes to neighborliness. Leroy, a talented carpenter who has long been employed to build, maintain and remodel all the Hugo Boss stores in the mid-Atlantic region, somehow finds time to help me with my remodeling projects on evenings and weekends even when he is super busy. Leroy built my walk-in closet back in 2012. He just completed a major overhaul of my home office this week, and he has already agreed to build cabinets, bookshelves and a ventless fireplace in my living room  for my next project. Michelle is always ready with a caring gesture and a kind word. Last year, in the middle of my summer potluck when the motor seized up on my old ice cream maker, Michelle ran home to fetch her own ice cream maker for me to use, saving the day. She had been so inspired by my annual party ritual of making and serving homemade ice cream that she had gone out and purchased her own machine that spring. Now she brought it to me, still new in its box, so that my 120 guests would not have to go without their sweet summer treat. Michelle is also an extraordinary cook, bringing her homemade jerk chicken, Jamaican rice and peas, and other delicacies to my potluck each summer. I have the best neighbors in the world!
Valentine decor dangling from
the ceiling added to the mood

It seemed only fitting, then, that I pay these wonderful neighbors back for their supreme neighborliness and friendship over the years. It had been ages since I'd cooked a meal for them, so I thought it wholly appropriate that I dedicate my most complicated dinner party to the people who help me feel safe in my home every day, who make my life and travels worry-free, and who always seem to be looking out for me in ways large and small.

My checklist for the dinner party preparation was long. Every evening after work for the week leading up to the party, I ran errands and/or made something in furtherance of the dinner: creating place cards which would double as party favors for each guest, printing out a menu for each couple, complete with a list of sauces for the main course, decorating wooden fondue forks for the meat course with the name of each guest, choosing appetizers and selecting a festive punch to serve as my guests arrived, decorating my dining room in a Valentine theme, arranging a homemade centerpiece for the table from roses and baby's breath special-ordered from my favorite florist, Marty Hennigan, making sure all my candles, both real and electric, were in good working order, and dozens of other seemingly mundane but utterly necessary tasks to ensure an evening of ideal ambiance.
Faux fur rugs from IKEA drape each chair to add coziness to
the romantic winter tablescape in my dining room

I took the day off from work the Friday before my party, so intent was I to enjoy the process and not feel stressed by having to do all the cooking on the day of.  That was a wise move on my part. It made all the difference in how relaxed I was as my guests arrived Saturday evening.

In addition to the Gruyere and Emmentaler cheeses which would form the basis for my first course, a classic Swiss cheese fondue into which sourdough bread cubes would be dipped, I had ordered a special Vacherin fribourgeois from the Swiss Bakery, a cheese shop in Washington D.C. which imports the creamy Swiss specifically for Fonduephiles like me. I had assembled pretty pierced metal tins filled with chocolates, and topped the sweets with place cards naming each guest, which were tied to the tins with pink raffia. I had dressed my front porch reindeer, "Spike", in a red scarf with a heart-shaped "earring" dangling from one antler. I had assembled my playlist for the evening: romantic instrumental tunes which I hoped would enhance the mood of my revelers.
Belle de Brillet pear liqueur is the star
of this festive champagne punch
I had sliced wheels of orange navel and deep red blood oranges, bright chartreuse limes and sunny yellow lemons for a festive champagne punch enlivened with lemon juice, Belle de Brillet pear liqueur, cognac, triple sec, cinnamon simple syrup and champagne. I had assembled "green bean shots", an appetizer of shot glasses filled with Thai red curry sauce and barely blanched hericots verts. I had sliced and diced honeydew, cantaloupe, watermelon, banana and pineapple chunks, hulled strawberries, and arranged blackberries, kumquats, goldenberries, Mandarin oranges, Maraschino cherries and candied waternmelon rind for the dessert course, a decadent chocolate fondue flavored with Gran Marnier. And I had labored to prepare no less than five homemade dipping sauces for the main course of beef fondue, featuring cubes of the finest filet mignon to be dipped in a sugar-free barbecue sauce, a garlic-paprika aioli, a balsamic bleu cheese sauce, an onion-mustard sauce and a smoked paprika- horseradish sauce. I'd ironed napkins and set the table with flowers, candles, heart-shaped gems and other festive Valentine-themed "scatter". I was ready.
Special fondue plates from Switzerland contain shallow wells
to hold five different dipping sauces for the meat course 

Ascending to my dressing room on the day of the soiree, I thought about what to wear: black Studio M leggings with rhinestone-studded Roper cowboy boots would be chic and comfortable, and I'd top it with a pink, orange and black Alfani top from Macy's, which I'd pair with orangeish-red dangly earrings I affectionately refer to as my "fishing lures" that I've owned for at least four decades.

Each guest took home a tin
filled with chocolates
I don't think my neighbors quite knew what to expect when they rang my doorbell on the evening of my party. Indeed, Leroy, who had been working on my home office in the days leading up to the dinner, lamented the fact that he might have to "dress up". I assured him that jeans would be just fine. As each guest was given a flute of champagne punch upon arrival and a shot glass of green beans with Thai curry sauce,  I watched apprehension melt away and the relaxed rapport of longstanding friendships begin to reclaim the evening.

There were audible oohs and aahs as guests were called into the dining room for dinner and beheld my elaborate tablescape for the first tine. A warm fire crackled in the fireplace as my neighbors took their seats. I explained Swiss customs for the first course: pierce the bread chunks through the crust so you don't lose a cube of bread in the fondue (or you'll have to kiss the cook); take a sip of Kirschwasser (cherry liqueur) and follow it with a beer back.
Oil heated to 425°cooks the
meat in a few seconds

Once the meat is cooked to a
diner's preference on a wooden
skewer, a dinner fork is used to
dip the steak in various sauces
As the cheese fondue course was finished and I cleared plates to make room for the meat course, I read trivia questions to my guests and invited them to answer queries I posed about the fictional St. Valentine and his jail-cell miracle which cured the blindness of his jailer's daughter.

My ceramic cheese fondue pots made way for metal pots filled with boiling oil. Metal fondue forks were replaced with wooden ones, far less apt to burn tender mouths from the heat of the oil. Special Swiss fondue plates with wells incorporated for the dipping sauces were placed in front of my guests, each filled with an assortment of sauces and chunks of raw filet mignon ready to be cooked to the diner's personal preference: 15 seconds in the sizzling oil for rare, 30 seconds for medium, 45 seconds for well-done.

Eleven kinds of fruit could be dipped in
chocolate fondue and then rolled in
crushed nuts
For this course, Rodney Strong Cabernet Sauvignon and a dry Reisling were served. I encouraged each guest to declare which sauce was their favorite. It was evident that my neighbors were delighted to be engaging in such a new and interesting dining experience. There were no leftovers!

And then it was time for the dessert course: Gran Marnier-infused chocolate fondue with an assortment of fresh fruit for dipping. Each diner had a small bowl of chopped nuts in front of him or her in which to roll the chocolate-dipped fruit for added enhancement.  For this course I served a chocolate zinfandel as an aperitif. It was a good thing my guests could all walk home and no one had to drive.

I served a Maryland dessert
wine with the last course:
a chocolate zinfandel from St.
Michaels on the eastern shore
After dinner we all gathered
on my staircase for a group
Candles glowed. The fireplace warmed. Conversation flowed. My guests were happy. I was relaxed.  Toward the end of the evening, Leroy confessed that he and Allen had been commiserating about having to attend a "boring dinner".  Leroy now announced that he had not been bored at all, but instead was really taken with the novelty of the theme and the warm ambiance created by his fellow diners. Michelle remarked how interesting it was to learn about my Swiss heritage and culture, just as I have been fascinated by the Jamaican customs shared when I attend parties at her house.

As we got up from the table, fully sated and ready for a good night's sleep, Maria suggested we all gather on my staircase for a group photo.  Cleaning up after my guests departed was an exercise in pure joy, as I recounted with warm affection the laughter and delight with which my guests partook of their experience. Another successful dinner party was under my belt, accompanied by warm memories of this neighborly gathering to last a lifetime.
"In order to have good neighbors, we must be good neighbors. That applies in every field of human endeavor" ~ Benjamin Franklin

Thursday, December 14, 2017

It Takes a Herd

I live on a busy intersection in Baltimore County, Maryland, at the northeast corner of a four-way stop that sees commuters from the next county stream past on their journey toward Baltimore every morning and bumper-to-bumper back toward their homes every evening (although during the day it's quiet and peaceful here). For almost all of the 17 years I’ve owned this house, I’ve dressed the corner of my two-acre lot, which faces all this vehicular traffic, in seasonal décor to mark autumn, Halloween and Christmas. In early fall I arrange straw bales on the grass and plant a seven-foot scarecrow behind them. I set out a variety of pumpkins and gourds and squashes, along with a collection of feather-covered Styrofoam crows and roosters. No one in all these years has even so much as smashed a pumpkin.

A few days before Halloween, I add lighted skulls to my autumnal display, giving the arrangement a more macabre tone. I hang a “floating” ghoul on my front porch, whose solar-powered lantern flickers at night, set a smoldering cauldron of shrunken apple heads on a table by the front door and, of course, carve a jaunty jack-o-lantern or two. After Halloween I put the scary decorations away and leave the fall display up at my corner for all to enjoy through Thanksgiving weekend.

In early December, I stash the squash in my cellar for winter stews, and set out a pair of animated, lighted deer. It’s a buck and a doe that I’ve had for years, almost life size, sturdy and of very good quality, with motorized heads that turn left to right (the buck, as if to gaze at the commuters) and up and down (the doe, as if nibbling at a straw bale). Over the years I’ve received several cards from people so moved by my simple displays that they felt compelled to leave notes in my mailbox to tell me how the arrays lift their spirits. One day a family even stopped to ask if they could pose their children between the deer for their annual Christmas card photograph. I was delighted and offered to take the picture for them.

So I was understandably horrified to look out my bedroom window last weekend to find that the lighted buck was missing from my Christmas display.  He had been there that morning. I ran some errands in the middle of the day and hadn't noticed he was gone until my automatic timer turned on the lights in late afternoon,and I could see only one deer at the corner. The thieves had stopped their car alongside the road and grabbed my buck in the middle of the day on a Saturday afternoon!  They hadn't realized that he was plugged in, apparently, since I found his extension cord at the edge of the road.  They had tried to steal the doe, too, but her metal anchors apparently held more tightly to the ground than the buck's. The scoundrels managed only to break her motorized neck and tangle her lights as they drove off with my stag.

I was distraught. Who would do such a thing during this, the merriest of seasons?  Who would stoop so low as to rob my daily drivers-by of their bucolic winter scene?  The officer who took a police report the next day said he believed the evil deed was carried out by drug addicts who wrongly assumed the deer was made of copper, which could be sold on the black market for quite a bit of money. He theorized that as soon as the thieves realized the deer was made of cheap metal, they would just throw him in the woods someplace.

So I put up a sign. A very large sign. I propped it up next to the doe with her broken neck and mangled lights. It said: "To whoever stole my buck, please return him."  My morale was shattered. I was heartbroken that someone would spirit away a possession whose sole purpose on my corner was to bring joy to others. I was "done" with Christmas. I didn't care if I put up another single decoration. I couldn't imagine feeling any sort of Christmas joy.

Within minutes a woman pulled into my driveway.  "How much is the deer?" she asked. "Oh, no", I explained. "I'm not selling the doe. I just want the stolen one returned. "No", she persisted.  "How much was the deer that was stolen?"  This kind stranger was offering to pay to replace my missing buck!  She explained that she drives past my house every day and her children have derived much enjoyment from my seasonal decorations over the years. I was so moved by her kind gesture. I explained that I had searched the internet high and low but a replacement buck of the size and quality of the one I lost no longer seemed to be available. I asked her simply to be on the lookout for my stolen deer, perhaps tossed into the woods nearby or dumped by the side of the road. She promised to be vigilant, and tell her neighbors, too.

The next evening, there was a knock at my door. A young woman in her 20s stood on my front porch. She said her name was Kat. She explained that she and her dad live right up the road from me. They had seen my sign and wanted to do something nice to restore my Christmas spirit.  Her father, a rather handy man with an axe, it seemed, had chiseled a deer for me by hand from logs he had lying around. At that moment the man emerged from his pickup truck with an adorable buck, smaller in stature than my stolen one, but much greater in charm. Kat had fashioned antlers from branches fastened with tiny green and gold bows all around, and had hung from one branch a red glass ornament that said "Merry Christmas from the Mansfields". I invited them in and we chatted for a few minutes. "My adorable new deer is going to need a name!", I exclaimed. I asked the dad what his name was, and he said his name was Dave but all his friends call him "Spike".  Spike!!  It was a perfect name for my new reindeer. I gave Spike a place of prominence on my front porch and posted his picture on Facebook for all my friends to see. What a lovely thing for these neighbors to do for me, a complete stranger to them. My faith in humanity was quickly being restored.

Two more days passed. I would be taking down the sign the following weekend, as I felt the chances of ever getting my stag back were quickly fading. Then, just after dark on Wednesday, my doorbell rang. This time there was a man at my door with two giant boxes at his feet. "I drive by your house every day" he said, "and my employees wanted to do something nice to cheer you up after your loss."  They had pooled their money and sent the man, Chris Cook, owner with his wife, Stephanie, of a small wiring company in the next town, to Home Depot to purchase a replacement deer for me. In addition to the deer, he had purchased a trio of lighted gift boxes to add to my display. I was stunned. The new deer was gorgeous, animated just like my buck had been, and every bit as big. What a thoughtful, gracious thing to do for a complete stranger!  He helped me carry the boxes inside and I asked him to express my profound gratitude to his employees. Now my display would be even better than it was before! I would have lighted gift boxes to set beside the deer, a tribute to my joy at receiving such lovely and unexpected gifts from strangers.

No sooner had the man departed than I noticed a smaller box perched on my front porch railing. Had Mr. Cook left a third package behind?  I picked it up and brought it inside.  It was a smaller, lighted deer. Taped to the box was a handwritten note. The donor wanted to create a teachable moment for her children, so she took them to the store to pick out a replacement deer for me. Her note expressed concern that the little white deer did not at all match the large brown doe on my lawn. But I was ecstatic. The little deer would be a perfect "fawn" for my new deer "family". Now I had a whole herd of deer!  My spirit was full, my faith in humanity completely restored.

This weekend I set my newly assembled deer family out at the corner of my property. I wrapped a new set of lights around the doe and reassembled her broken neck. I set up the brightly colored gift boxes next to the straw bales. I made a new sign. It said "Thank you, everyone!"  For these are no longer the gifts of a few isolated strangers. They are gestures of kindness from an entire community. They represent, for me at least, a village that is watching over me, even as I go about my business completely unaware. These are now "community deer". My seasonal display is no longer just the machination of a single woman trying to brighten the spirits of daily commuters as they pass by my yard on their way to work.  It is a demonstration of what happens when human beings care about the feelings of other human beings. I am truly heartened by the good will I've experienced over the past few days. I am deeply moved by the generosity of total strangers. It's going to be a good Christmas.

Monday, October 16, 2017

OkToblerfest 2017

When the mid-Atlantic air turns crisp and my feet rustle leaves as I walk across the yard, my thoughts turn to... my paternal cousins. For it is autumn, when Germanic countries throughout western Europe host festivals to commemorate the harvest of an ingredient key to the brewing of beer.  I don't really care about the beer or the hops used to make it, but I do like the way my cousin Claudia's husband, Phil, shifted the emphasis of Germany's traditional Oktoberfest celebration toward my Swiss family several years ago when he suggested that, with the addition of a single letter, my surname could be incorporated into a cool moniker for my annual gathering of east coast Tobler cousins. And so my annual OkToblerfest was christened.

I never know exactly how many cousins will attend my OkToblerfest in any given year. Tobler family members have come in years past from as far west as California, Wisconsin and Kentucky and as far north as Pennsylvania,  New Jersey and New York.  But the Washington DC suburbs is where two of my cousins reside with their husbands and school-age children, which makes their annual excursion to my farmhouse in Baltimore County just an hour's drive through mostly picturesque countryside.  So I can almost always count on the attendance of these Toblers even if the more remote relatives can't always make it.
I designed the invitations and stamped
envelopes with a hot wax seal

I prepared my invitations a month in advance, as I do every year. These are homemade invitations, on actual paper, slipped into an actual envelope, and then sealed with hot wax which is stamped with our family initial. Wouldn't you love to get an invitation like that? But how often does it happen?  I'm guessing hardly ever. I love how the receipt of a mailed invitation becomes a special experience in its own right while also portending an unforgettable experience yet to come.

This year, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania couldn't attend, so there were just 12 around my OkToblerfest dinner table on Saturday night.  I'd been terribly busy these last few weeks and had not yet decided on a main dish when Claudia's husband came up with another helpful suggestion: "have you considered making Rouladen?" Truth is I had never heard of Rouladen. My mother prided herself on having a vast collection of sometimes exotic, always elegant gourmet dishes in her repertoire, but for some reason Rouladen had never been among them. I Googled Rouladen. It sounded intriguing.  But despite various recipes on the internet suggesting Rouladen would be "easy to make", it looked quite complicated and time consuming to me.  Nevertheless, any beef recipe that incorporates mustard and pickle into the mix had to be good. And it could be made well ahead of time. My interest was piqued.
I always decorate the front of my farmhouse in seasonal decor

I emailed my best friend from high school in California, Becky. Her mother-in-law is an excellent cook who specializes in authentic dishes of her native Germany. Perhaps Gretel had a recipe for Rouladen that I could trust more than an internet version. But alas, Gretel was traveling far from home, visiting the hot-air balloon festival in New Mexico. And besides, Becky said, Gretel never wrote her recipes down. She always cooked from memory and taste, adding a dash of this and a smidgen of that.  I needed something a bit more concrete to go by.

So then I emailed a dear friend here in Baltimore, Mary. Did her husband Klaus have a recipe for Rouladen? By the time Mary replied to tell me that Klaus never wrote anything down, either, I had searched the internet far and wide and had printed out two recipes for Rouladen that struck my fancy. I would take the main ingredients and instructions from the first one and incorporate ingredients for the accompanying gravy from the second.
My OkToblerfest menu featured Swiss dishes

I also planned to prepare two salads that intrigued me recently. I've been staying away from corn and its high sugar, high starch content, but September 22nd's edition of the Baltimore Sun's Sunday Parade magazine held an intriguing autumn recipe that immediately caught my attention: Alex Guarnaschelli, judge on Food Network’s Chopped, offered a "candied corn" salad, said to evoke the autumnal flavors of caramel and corn. Wouldn't my cousins' children love something like that? I made the candied corn salad a few weeks before my big event, and sure enough, it was fabulous, so it went on the menu. Another salad came to me on February 23rd by way of the Los Angeles Times. An article about how good turmeric is for one's health sparked my curiosity because increasing my turmeric intake has helped immensely with my psoriasis over the past few years. I made the turmeric salad for my friend, Jan, at her Easter celebration in March and have been making the recipe steadily since then. It's marvelous -- and the presentation is beautiful!

For dessert I decided to bake my mother's traditional persimmon pudding. Served warm, with a drizzle of thick cream, the cool-weather dessert would offer rustic coziness in Maryland's autumn chill. We would be dining alfresco, after all, as I have no room in my small dining room to seat twelve people.
Everyone got to take a menu home with them as a memento
 of the evening.

Cousins Christine, daughter of my late Uncle John, and Claudia, granddaughter of my late Uncle Oscar, offered to bring sides. Claudia, who is eschewing meat, offered to bring an onion tart and a spinach quiche, both of which sounded divine. Christine offered to make homemade spaetzle, luscious egg noodles sauteed in butter, and rotkohl, a divine red cabbage dish cooked with cloves and brown sugar. My menu was complete.

Although it's always a spin on a roulette wheel whether there will be rain on the day I choose for my party, last year was the very first year that I had to host my OkToblerfest dinner indoors because rain actually occurred on the day of my gathering. Most years, the weather has been crisp, brisk and beautiful for dining outside on my lawn. This year the forecast predicted rain clear up to the day before my party.  That was fine -- we sorely needed the moisture. But it meant I wouldn't be able to set anything up until the day of the party -- a definite cause for anxiety on my part, since I hate to wait until the last minute to do anything.
A beef cutlet is slathered with stoneground mustard, sprinkled
with dill pickle, sliced onion and bacon, then rolled up and
tied with twine. Repeat 24 times for a crowd of twelve!

The week of my party I got busy with food prep. One of the most appealing attributes of the Rouladen recipe is that it can be made well ahead of time and then just heated up before dinner. So on Thursday after work, I went to work spreading stoneground mustard across 24 thin cutlets of flank steak, topping them with bacon, sliced onion and dill pickle, and then rolling the cutlets up and tying them with cooking twine. After I browned the Rouladen in a skillet, I softened diced carrots, celery and onion in butter over low heat and nestled my beef rolls into the mirepoix inside a large dutch oven. I covered everything with red wine and beef broth and let the Rouladen braise on the stovetop for two hours over low heat.
Mirepoix, added as the Rouladen braises for several hours in
beef broth and red wine, form a luscious gravy
to pour over the beef rolls and sop up with hearty bread

When the Rouladen were falling-apart tender, I transferred them to a serving dish, carefully removed the strings from each, and then pureed the mirepoix-wine-broth in my food processor. That's what had intrigued me so much about the "gravy" part of the second Rouladen recipe I found. By using the pureed vegetables to thicken the sauce, I didn't need to add any cornstarch or cream or flour. My gravy had a lovely texture and an intense, provocative flavor without too many added calories. I'll be incorporating that little secret into future gravies!

Next I shucked kernels from ten ears of fresh corn and sauteed them in a bit of brown sugar and butter until almost all the liquid had evaporated. I made a vinaigrette of lemon juice and balsamic vinegar and stashed corn and dressing in the fridge separately to await last minute assembly with fresh arugula on the day of the party.  The carrot-turmeric salad would also benefit from being made ahead of time, so I peeled and blanched two pounds of multicolored carrots sliced into coins and combined them with shredded red cabbage, chick peas, Bulgar wheat, parsley, scallions and crumbled feta. A heady dressing of lemon juice, toasted cumin seeds, ground turmeric, minced garlic and a little olive oil combined to impart their piquant flavor to the salad over the next 24 hours.

Everyone got into carving faces into Granny Smith apples
I then sliced thin rounds of navel and blood oranges, lemons, tangerines and limes, and simmered sugar and cinnamon sticks to make a concentrated cinnamon simple syrup for a festive anjou-champagne punch I would serve my guests upon their arrival. I chilled the sparkling cider I would offer to the children.

Finally, I peeled 30 granny smith apples and let them rest in a bath of water, salt and lemon juice overnight to help them retain their greenness while I set out potato peelers, serrated knives and printed instructions for carving faces into apple heads. I decorated gift bags for each child into which they could stash their carved apples for the journey home, where the contorted faces could be dried into shrunken apple heads in a slow oven. I created a pretty menu of all the items we'd be enjoying at dinner and printed one for each guest, rolled them into cylinders and tied them with ribbon fastened with a sunflower clip.
An old wooden ping-pong table serves as a sturdy platform
for alfresco dinners in my yard 

On the day of the party, I pulled a heavy plastic tarp which had sheltered my patio chairs from the overnight rain and prepared to set the table, my favorite part of every party preparation. A heavy, old wooden ping-pong table, purchased 35 years ago for $10 from a junk dealer in Oakland, California, has been a mainstay through more than three decades of garden parties across the four states in which I've lived. Snugged up against a metal and glass patio table I bought on sale at Macy's ten years ago which happens to be the same height and width, I soon found I had plenty of room for seating up to twenty dinner guests. Add some plain brown, king-size bedsheets as tablecloths and, voila. My old wooden ping-pong table and its glass and metal counterpart combined to form a wide expanse of dining surface, ripe for embellishing with the accoutrements of the season. I could hardly wait to get started.
Transformed by plain brown bedsheets serving
as gigantic tablecloths, my patio tables became
one behemoth dining table fit for a crowd

A magazine article I'd happened upon last year featured Oriental bittersweet wrapped around white pumpkins. I loved the look. However, Oriental bittersweet is a terribly invasive plant which should never be purchased or planted in one's yard. Over the years I had (finally) successfully eradicated it from mine. With no Oriental bittersweet to be had on my two acres, I ventured to the craft stores for a reasonable facsimile. At JoAnn Fabrics, I found just what I wanted, a stylized version of the dreaded vine on bendable wire. With two shade structures erected over my table to hold rope lights and space heaters, I was ready to create my tablescape!

Burlap ribbon tied in festive bows around each chair created the perfect receptacle for stems of faux fall flowers stuck through the knots. I tossed walnuts and autumn leaves and other fall "scatter" across the broad expanse of tablecloth and positioned felt maple-leaf placemats from Pier One Imports at each place setting. Two straw squirrels that had belonged to my late sister formed the centerpiece, as small Swiss flags adorned ceramic pumpkin vases of fresh flowers to honor our family's heritage. Some pretty gourds and a few votive candles on mismatched saucers rounded out the motif. There was no need to be too precious.
White pumpkins wrapped in faux Oriental bittersweet and
fresh flowers adorned with Swiss flags formed the
 centerpiece of my tableau

Slits carved into twelve mini-pumpkins held place cards with each guest's name. Rustic twig flatware, a splurge several years ago from VivaTerra.com, Mikasa Mayfair patterned stoneware plates I've had since 1976, and amber glassware I've had at least that long rounded out my eclectic tablescape. Once the table was set, I headed back into the kitchen. It was time to make the persimmon pudding, warm the Rouladen and the gravy, bake the appetizers, plate up the salads and assemble the punch.  My guests would be arriving soon.

I climbed the stairs to my dressing room. What to wear?  I hadn't even thought about my attire until that moment, I'd been so busy with party preparations. It would be unseasonably warm that evening and I would be very active. I decided to defy typical October fashion and opt for cropped trousers from Boston Proper and a matching sleeveless Liz Claiborne top with fringed suede Limelite sandals from Rack Room Shoes. Rounding out my ensemble with olive and brown pearls at my wrist, neck and ears from my friend Jan's Fire & Ice jewelers, I donned an apron and returned to the kitchen to put the finishing touches on everything.
Straw squirrels that once adorned my late sister's dining table
now have a place of honor at mine

Once my cousins arrived I was joyfully swept up into the merry frivolity of family members reuniting after a long absence, along with youngsters reacquainting themselves with their now slightly older cousins as they scrambled across my yard in pursuit of soccer balls and Frisbees. Goodness, my 15-year-old second cousin Kinga Nagy is taller than I am!  When did that happen?

Happily, everyone got into the carving of apple heads as my guests helped themselves to chili-garlic-eggplant puffs, Mozzarella cups with pesto and roasted tomato, tortilla chips with homemade tomato salsa (the salsa a birthday gift from my neighbor's garden), and an assortment of cornichons, dolmades and stuffed olives.  We quaffed punch and cider, autumnal beers and other beverages as we caught up on each other's lives.
Tobler cousins gathered together for a wonderful autumn meal.
From left to right: Anya, Akos, Christine, Kristof, Christian,
Zsolt, me, Phil, Claudia, Riehen and Kinga

When it was time for dinner, wine was poured and we sat down to a feast of flavorful dishes. Christine's homemade dumplings were to die for, and I absolutely loved her red cabbage.  Claudia's onion tart and spinach quiche were outstanding, as was the sumptuous rye bread Zsolt brought from a local bakery.  My rouladen was a big hit, as were the salads, and the persimmon pudding was devoured completely.

After dinner, the twelve of us took seats around my firepit. Two years ago we'd exchanged ghost stories around the post-meal bonfire which had frightened the younger children.  This year those same children were the central storytellers, regaling us all with tales of mischief and mayhem as they toasted marshmallows and pressed them into S'mores.
After dinner we toasted marshmallows and told ghost stories
around a campfire in my meadow 

Another two hours we spent, engaging in lively discourse around the campfire and enjoying one another's company immensely. Finally it was time to pack up the children and turn the family automobiles toward home. As I put food and decor away after my guests had departed, cleaned up the kitchen and eventually sat down with a cup of hot tea before bed, I thought about why I love putting on these dinners so very much: it's the deep sense of inclusion I derive from being surrounded by beloved family members. I don't get to feel that sense of belonging very often, as my only brother and his family are far away in California.  I spend a lot of time alone in my life and that's fine.  But that makes being enveloped by the love and affection of cousins a precious commodity that I cherish as much for its enthusiasm as for its scarcity. Even if they weren't my cousins I would adore them all. But the fact that they are my family makes them extra-special.

"Cousins are the people who make life beautiful. These are my people. This is my tribe." ~ Unknown