I’m taking my two daughters who are in college to France over their spring break and, while unbelievably exciting, the stress is mounting. My high-school aged daughters are staying home with my husband and whatever extraordinary circumstances that could crop off for school and life, of course, have materialized.
Here are my tips to avoid burnout before ever reaching the City of Lights…
- Don’t schedule your plane flight for the day one of the passengers is driving home from college six hours away. There is buzz that another winter storm is headed for the mid-Atlantic and Northeast and my daughter has to drive home to catch our flight. We thought we were taking a side trip (see lesson 3) and worried that we would not have enough time in Paris if we waited the extra day to fly in..
- Reschedule the installation of your master bedroom closet storage system for when you get back. Seriously. The painters are here this week to get the closet ready for installation. So every single thing that was in my closet is now on the floor of our room in a basket, box, or overloaded extra hanging bar. I can’t find anything. The worst part is that the things I had started gathering to take on trip have gotten buried under the clothes and shoes that came out of the closet. Those travel-sized toiletries I bought for the trip? No idea where they are.
- Don’t rely on the reputable travel company that you’ve used with great success in the past to arrange your 4-day side trip to Bordeaux if the American expert on France has left the company and the company’s French liaison is on holiday in Africa. Exactly one week before our plane flight, I got an email that regretfully informed me that they are unable to make any arrangements. I waited as long as I possibly could—just 13 days before our flight–to make airline reservations. We thought 8 days in Paris would be too long (and Paris is so expensive!), but if we spent 4 days in Bordeaux, the remaining 4 days in Paris would be perfect. And, believe me, I know there are worst travel blunders than spending over a week in Paris, but if the travel company had been upfront and told me nothing was coming together, I would have spent fewer days in France and not had to deal with the stress and worry of a flight on the same day the girls were driving home.
- Don’t assume that just because you are a seasoned worst-case scenario specialist that you’ve really thought of everything that could go wrong at home. My sweet Golden Doodle became lethargic last week and after abdominal ultrasounds, blood panels, MRIs, and a spinal tap, the neurologist diagnosed him with meningitis. I thought I had made contingency plans for everything–the midday walks, the closet installers, rides to lacrosse practice, school transportation, who is keeping an eye on my mom and what my mom is keeping an eye on, and plans for dinner while I’m gone. I had nothing on my radar about what to do if a perfectly healthy puppy came down with a life-threatening illness. Thankfully, the antibiotics and steroids appear to be helping and he is home from the hospital. He’s on multiple medications and I’ve already made the charts and checklists for his care. I’m feeling conflicted and sad because he has stuck to me like glue since his discharge and I know he is going to be lonely during the day while I’m gone.
- Don’t wonder out loud if you should cancel your trip because the dog might miss you during the day.
Today will be the 29th Valentine’s day I’ve shared with my husband, and while I’ve never had the strewn rose petals, Champagne dinner in view of the Eiffel Tower, and piece of jewelry that costs as much as a car kind of day, I think we’ve started to get it right. Or at least we get the wine right.
Our first Valentine’s day, my husband (then-boyfriend) and I had only been together a few weeks. I was SO excited–it was the very first time I’d managed to have a boyfriend on Valentine’s Day. If I wasn’t as old as dirt, I would have dreamt of Instagramming the flowers and jewelry and general envy-inducing romantic gestures I was sure would ensue. I was crushed when he regretfully announced that we wouldn’t be able to do anything on Valentine’s day because he had a huge test the next day. Never one to interfere with scholastic achievement, I heartily endorsed his decision and said I understood. I did, however, plan to surprise him by dropping off a card and some valentine cookies to sustain him during his all-night study session. I walked the 3 miles between our colleges in the Pittsburgh winter (meaning it was windy as hell and either drizzling or drizzle sleeting) with my gifts. I arrived at his fraternity to find his room empty, but the raucous cheers from downstairs led me to the dining hall-cum-beer-pong arena. My boyfriend was well into a closely contested umpteenth round of beer pong. He drunkenly assured me that he loved me SO MUCH and the new plan was to get up really, really early and study then. Oh well, he must have been charming as well as smart because he managed to pass the class and keep his girlfriend. The next year, his college arranged a Valentine’s dinner complete with servers and white tablecloths at a price so reasonable that even as poor college students we were able to attend. It was lovely with the candle-lit tables and a three-course meal—but not exactly romantic because everyone was so excited about the getting a steak dinner for cheap that half of his fraternity went with us. It ended up being memorable because one of the guests at our table got clonked in head with the serving platter, not once, but twice by the grumpy, harassed servers.
The next few years are a mash-up of missing dinner together because of law school or grad school night classes. I think we managed one Valentine’s dinner out a restaurant before the kids started coming along. We had no family close by to watch the babies and I think available teenage babysitters are myth, like Bigfoot–except some people claim to have actually seen Bigfoot. So began our tradition of Valentine’s dinner at home.
Some years we did the full fondue dinner with cheese, fillet mignon, and chocolate and other years I was so exhausted by organizing and running four classroom Valentine’s parties that we ordered pizza, especially the year that I decided on February 13 that all of our kids would bring in handmade heart crayons as favors. I didn’t realize how many crayons we would have to unwrap and chop to fill the heart mold (and in a moment of foolish frugality I had only bought 1 tray of heart-shaped molds) to make 100 or so heart-shaped crayons. I underestimated how long it would take to melt crayons in a low temp oven. Based on the number of melted crayons I found in my minivan, the outdoor table, and the swing set, I thought it would only take a few minutes. Add to that the painstaking precision with which the kids chose the exact color combinations of each heart, and that the 1000 broken crayons we already had were not enough and I had to run to the grocery store to buy several more overpriced packages, I’m sure you get the idea. The next year, everyone brought in Fun Dip valentines.
Now, there are no more classroom parties and while the kids are old enough not to need sitters (but they don’t babysit either), I have Valentine’s Day down pat. I buy a couple of fillets for the kids, prime porterhouse for us (they think the delicious fat is gross) and round it out with potatoes and a something green (for us, they think anything green is gross, too.) And then we choose a rocking bottle of red and a pink flavor of Italian soda. For less than we’d spend on a mediocre bottle of wine at restaurant, we have a divine meal and a sublime Cab. And I can guilt the kids into doing the dishes J
A few months ago, I decided to try a meal delivery service and after a quick once-over of sample menus, I selected Sun Basket. I settled on 3 meals a week and to serve four. My two oldest had just returned to college and one of the two still at home is a whitecarbavore (I made that up, but she pretty much lives on pasta with butter and parmaggiano reggiano, brie, really rare filet mignon, and cocoa puffs) We find the four servings to be plenty, but I often, especially on practice nights, will make a carb—either rice or pasta to go with the meal.
On the practical side, it is wonderful to open the bag and all the ingredients are there. As a hopeless forgot-my-shopping-list-at-home-again shopper, it is quite thrilling to have everything for the meal in neat little plastic jars or bags. The pre-made spice mixes have been amazing—flavorful, and not overloaded with salt. An added bonus is that I don’t have to buy several spices that I only need a pinch or two of and then they languish on my overcrowded spice shelf for years.
The best thing is that for three nights a week, I don’t have figure out what to make for dinner. I use the Sun Basket app to make my meal selections and that is the only decision I need to make about dinner until the weekend. Sometimes I think the overwhelming variety of ingredients, the endless Pinterest recipes, the globalization of cuisines make me less likely to cook dinner. When I can cook anything, sometimes I end up cooking nothing.
My meals for the week arrive at my door by Monday afternoon, packed with an environmentally-friendly freezer pack. The meat is in vacuum-sealed packages and everything else for the meal is in a labeled paper sack. The only things I use from my pantry are oil, salt, and pepper—really! Keeping in my mind that I get double of everything for my four servings, I need to store the ingredients in my garage fridge. (I could go on and on about the evils of the French-door refrigerator’s lack of storage, but realize that refrigerator space is needed if you want to try a meal service.)
It’s definitely not cheap– I pay around $150 each week for 12 meals and that food takes care of 3 dinners for three people and 2-3 lunches for me during the week. Considering the convenience and that the ingredients are primarily organic, the seafood is often wild-caught, and the meat is humanely raised and antibiotic and hormone-free, I think, however, there is good value in the price.
Our reviews of the dinners have been overwhelmingly positive. The lamb merguez and falafel meals have been all-stars. I love that I can adjust the recipes to fit my family’s personal tastes and habits, like I use half the amount of onion called for in any recipe and leave out any red or green peppers. It’s almost like having a personal chef—I choose what we want to eat, someone else sources all the ingredients and the ingredients are all gathered together, then I get to do the part I like best—cook! Well, I guess it is more sort-of-like having a personal chef because there are still the dishes and kitchen to clean up, but most of the meals are made in one pan and I use a couple of bowls for prep or salads.
I saved the best for last—using a meal delivery service cuts down on the time I have to spend grocery shopping with people who cannot steer their cart while talking on their phone, meandering aimlessly down the aisle, but with an uncanny ability to effectively block all attempts to pass them on right or the left.
Note: I’m not affiliated in any way with Sun Basket (other than I’m a customer) and I did not receive any compensation from Sun Basket for this review.
Years ago we had a neighbor who worked for a wine importer. I wish I had thought to grill him about wine, but this was back in our beer days (A History of Marriage in 6 Glasses) and I don’t think I ever knew what his certification was exactly. The story goes that he flunked out of college and somehow convinced his hard-line Marine dad to pay for him to go to France to learn to drink wine. Alas, despite what I feel is very persuasive reasoning, I have been unable to convince my family to give me a leave of absence to go to wine school so I’m going to share how I’m working to increase my knowledge of wine. First, I’d recommend not being the only person in your family that knows how to work a washer and dryer so that you can go to wine school in France.
I’ll start with the easiest step—drink a lot of wine! Experiment with varietals, price points, new world vs old world. Comparing three wines at once is my favorite set-up. As infantile oenophile, my taste buds can get overwhelmed from too many wines and then I can’t discern anything. It’s usually just me and my husband, so if we start on Friday night, we can (easily) finish three bottles by Sunday night, because wine is a terrible thing to waste. Look at the color, swirl, check out the legs on the side of your glass—if the wine sort of drips slowly, it shows a fuller body and higher alcohol content. The intensity of the pleasant burning sensation is also an indicator of alcohol content. Lighter color (think of ruby compared to garnet) generally correlates to a lighter-bodied wine (think of Pinot Noir to Merlot to Cabernet Sauvignon.) Catalog in your mind how the wine looks, and then taste it.
Pay close attention to descriptions whether they are in Wine Spectator, the menu, the tasting notes at Total Wine, or on the back of the wine label. Try to pick out the flavors and start noticing what you like or don’t like. When I had a wine that I didn’t like, I couldn’t taste it and say, “oh, I don’t care for the cocoa undernotes.” But now, after reading tasting notes wherever I can find them and then drinking the wine, I’m now pretty confident that I won’t care for anything that has chocolate or cocoa in the description.
Price points—another great way to compare wines is to purchase three similar wines at three price points. Larger wineries can have several levels of the same varietal or blend, or you can choose a varietal or style from different makers at different costs. I’ve done this with Bordeaux—choosing a bottle at $30, $60, and $150. While it is a no-brainer that I liked the $150 the best, the $60 bottle did not outdo the bottle at half its cost. I’ve repeated this tasting with different makers and I found this result very typical for Bordeaux. My very unscientific conclusion has been for me, the bottles in the $60 range underperform and I should save my money and go with the less expensive bottle or splurge. I feel this shows that purchasing large amounts of wine is actually saving us money in the long run.
The other thing I do—I sort of hate myself for doing it because I’m painfully aware of how pretentious it looks–is to bring a notebook to wine tastings. If the representative is sent by the winery, they know so much about what gives the wine you are sampling its flavors, and I’m willing to look like a poser to catalog all the nuggets of wine wisdom they share. I need to write it all down because, well, wine and information retention do not go together like wine and cheese. I’m slowly starting to learn about how terroir influences the grape and how it grows, which then characterizes the wine. While I’m not quite ready for the Somm party trick of tasting a wine and discerning its varietal and the geographic location of the vineyard, I can look at a wine list full of unfamiliar wines and zero in on a Howell Mountain wine because I’ve liked other Howell Mountain wines.
It’s that time of year where I’m pretty tempted to pitch every holiday decoration straight to the curb and not bother with dragging bins from the top shelf of the garage to repack everything. I resolve that next year, I’ll stick some pine branches in a vase and be done with decorating. After 5-6 weeks of cleaning around holiday décor and being ever vigilant that the puppy doesn’t eat said holiday cheer, my Pinterest search history is every variation of minimalism and home organization that I can think of.
I will pack everything away and revel in how sleek my counters and tables look without any bric-a-brac or clutter. I also know myself well enough that once the cold, dark days of winter set in, I’ll find all those clutter-free surfaces stark and uninviting. And then I’ll look on how to bring a little hygge into our home and candles, sheepskins, throws, and too many pillows will end up everywhere. Come warmer weather and the new season of Beachfront Bargain Hunters, the sheepskins are rolled away, fuzzy pillow covers are switched out for linen, and shells become my vase filler of choice.
I used to worry that I was too capricious in my décor style and tastes. Did I have any sense of style at all, or was I just a rudderless boat tossed about on home improvement seas of Waco and HGTV? Then the realization hit me that changing little bits of décor with the seasons makes me more aware and in tune with the change of seasons and the inevitable march of time. The hustle and bustle and overcrowding of the holidays needs its counterpoint of January’s decluttering. As winter drags on and the merriment of December is but a dim memory, February needs candlelight and snuggling with warm throws on the couch. (I, however, do not need any more Missoni throws—probably) March and April deserve to be celebrated for they herald spring and the last dregs of winter can be shaken off. The summer is our favorite season and our house should reflect how stoked we are to be free of school, schedules, and we can look forward to and then remember our one week at the beach with beachy décor. School restarts in September and my urge to decorate to the nines is fully dialed back in, and I’ll look forward to January 2019’s purge. But today, I need to box up the damn tree.
Christmas as a parent is exhausting, wonderful, but exhausting. When they are tiny, there are scouting trips to the to find the best mall Santa and spreadsheets with the logistics required to shoehorn a photo op with Santa between feedings, nap schedules, and exploding poopy diapers. Then once you get them on his lap, they all have to be looking at the camera. By 3 kids, I had given up on things like smiling. And then number 4 hated anyone in costume, and a set of arms sticking a screaming baby at the edge of the Santa photo became the norm.
As they started talking (and thinking), I faced the decision about hedging the question of the realness of the mall Santa and then the concept of Santa himself. I have four kids with a seven-year age difference between oldest and youngest, so when the first questioned the mythology, I carefully constructed my answer about if we believe in goodness and putting others first, then we believe in Santa. I didn’t want to outright lie and say yes, but I also didn’t want to ruin the magic for my younger kids. I felt like I had dodged a philosophical bullet, but then as the years dragged on, I became increasingly ready to blow the fat man’s cover. Maintaining the Santa mythology is so much work, and trust me, I thank my lucky stars every Christmas that my kids were too old for that damn elf-on-a-shelf and his Instagrammable hijinks.
These days, everyone has copped to knowing who puts the coal in the stockings and Christmas Eve has become the night of the annual screening of Die Hard. Instead of whispered conversations, sometimes through gritted teeth, like– “I don’t know why it seems like she has more presents than her sisters—Count them again!” Or, “I can’t remember where I hid the American Girl doll furniture set that cost more than our living room furniture!”–we have raucous rounds of Cards Against Humanity and the Fishbowl Game. While the girls traded the matching Christmas dresses for matching JCrew flannel pjs, they are still atwitter on Christmas morning, which thankfully now starts somewhat later than 5am. I’ll always cherish the memories of when they were little and carefully set out the milk and cookies for Santa and the reindeer food for Rudolph, but my kids are growing into fun almost-adults that I love to spend time with — and I don’t have to untwirl the 6,000 twist ties that hold the average Barbie to her packaging.
Buying an estate-grown Napa cab or 1st growth Bordeaux isn’t hard, it just takes gobs of cash. Finding a great wine without bankrupting myself or my friends, is a challenge, albeit a fun one.
Here’s this week’s look at cheap shit I love
It ain’t wine, but it is Missoni! I found these awesome little bottles of DiSaronno all dressed up in Missoni labels. They were $9.99 for 3 bottles, but this may be the only time in my entire life that I can say I took the Missoni in every color!
For cabs, I love the B Side and Decoy-they are a little wild and rough, but I find that less expensive cabs that try for smoothness end up tasting like cherry NyQuil. The Louis Martini cab is always my restaurant fall-back for by-the-glass cabs. The Chateau Greysac médoc tastes way beyond its price point and seems to pair with everything.
The Muga Rioja (around $37 at Total Wine) busted my $30 price bracket, but it is one of my favorite riojas and, again, is a great wine to pair with food. I’d say it’s the best choice of wine to bring to a party (or my house) because it will make you and the food look like a rockstar. The J Vineyard pinot noir is a gem from the Russian River Valley and I love it because it is so drinkable with or without a meal. The Hilary Goldschmidt cab is a roaring, bold cab for a pipsqueak price. Pop the Hilary, feel like a denizen of Napa, and only be out thirty bucks.
With my economical wine choices, you could say I’m a cheap date, but then you haven’t seen how much I drink. Whether you buy the wine for yourself, as a hostess gift, or for me, have yourself a merry little Christmas (or Hanukkah or Kwanzaa or Festivus.) Cheers, my friends!
As someone who is often accused of being impossible to buy for, I give you my definitive list of gift ideas for people who like to drink wine.
- Kleenite glass cleaner because sometimes there’s more wine than clean-up at the end of the night. It works wonderfully on glasses and decanters. I ordered my bottle from Amazon.
- A drying rack for stemmed glasses and say goodbye to condensation inside the glass.
- Drying cloth—mine is from Riedel. It really is the only way to get wine glasses sparkling. Well, I guess you could always turn the lights way down low.
- Alternatively, cross off number two and three and buy stemless glasses that can go in the dishwasher. Much to the horror of the friendly salesperson at Williams-Sonoma, I put my Riedel stemless glasses in the top rack of my dishwasher and knock on wood, they don’t seem worse for wear.
- A decanter is a must-have to really appreciate the complexity Cabs and Bordeaux without aging them for decades. We have some high-end Riedel decanters and tend to use the Riedel decanters from Target. As much as I love our spiral Riedel decanter that I bought for my husband on our 25th wedding anniversary, cleaning it and making sure the twists in the glass are not harboring and leftover water makes using it a pain.
- A drying spindle for decanters is a must-have. Before I started using ours religiously, I decanted a Caldwell cab before I realized there was a tiny puddle of water in the bottom of the vessel. My tears mixed with the cab and the leftover rinse water. We still drank it, though.
- Chalk markers because no one remembers what their charm looks like after the second glass of wine. Write their name on the base and you’ll always know who left took the extra pour and didn’t finish it. Put that name on the naughty list.
- Wine! Why is this so hard?
Next week, I’ll share what wines I’d love to find under my tree!
Thanksgiving was always a dream holiday for me–a homebody–I didn’t have to go anywhere, recipes are predictable (and there’s always premade gravy), no gift-giving angst, and most amazing of all, everyone volunteers to help with the dishes. I love to cook and after 20 or so turkeys dressed and in the oven, I learned every trick to roasting the perfect bird, including a bag of innards accidently left in the cavity can be removed before carving and no one is the wiser (Thanksgiving #1). We hosted all the Thanksgiving orphans and as our friends all got married and started their own families, we began hosting friends for a Thanksgiving-eve dinner. I learned to be mindful of how much wine to drink Wednesday night in order to avoid making the stuffing while resting my head on the kitchen island (Thanksgiving #22). We took a leisurely approach to the day compared to the Thanksgivings I remember with my mom and mammaw. They would get up at 5am to start dinner and not leave the kitchen until the food was put on the table, but I don’t recall ever eating before 2pm. I’ve never been able to figure out what exactly they were doing for 8 hours—maybe there was a secret cocktail hour before they started the stuffing. My Thanksgivings started with mimosas before I ever put the turkey in the oven. With the Macy’s Day Parade playing in the background, we peeled potatoes and browned sausage, and enjoyed a day spent at home.
I loved presiding over the bountiful table laden with food and my husband always chose a fantastic wine for us and our family and friends to toast all the things we had to be thankful for. The day ended with the annual screening of How the Grinch Stole Christmas , and when the kids were little, the screening would be repeated ad nauseum until February or someone found the Frosty DVD that I had hidden. Black Friday was the day we started dragging out the Christmas decorations. The second day of leftovers and bringing out the Spode Christmas tree china signaled the beginning of the holiday season.
I swore nothing could make us change our well-loved traditions. But then again, I also swore that we would never be one of those travel-team families where the family schedule was consumed with practices and games. I learned to keep my swearing to the four-letter variety, because my oldest tried out and made a travel field hockey club team, and our schedule became consumed with practices and games. Unbeknownst to me, the biggest field hockey tournament of the year takes place over Thanksgiving and we were headed to the Palm Beach for my favorite holiday.
Thanksgiving morning we watched the sun rise over the field hockey pitch as our daughter played and in the afternoon returned to our rental to make Thanksgiving dinner. It was a lovely house for a light-footed eighty-year-old—the home’s collection of museum-quality antique glassware (there was a sign with historical provenance) in the rickety glass display case shook and clinked every time the kids ran down the hall–Everything survived and I got the security deposit check back to prove it. Eating by candlelight on the poolside patio that evening, I conceded that it was a pretty sweet set-up, even if we weren’t at home.
With four girls playing field hockey, our Thanksgiving tradition became a yearly pilgrimage to the polo fields of Palm Beach and Palm Springs- the location switches every two years- for field hockey and evolving customs. Sometimes we rent a house for a week and cook dinner “at home” and sometimes we stay in a hotel and enjoy (sorry, I’m lying) the Thanksgiving buffet. A newer tradition began after one kid forgot to pack her STICK and we paid an extra baggage fee to bring an empty stick bag to California. Back home in Virginia, Nana had to climb into the back of my husband’s Jeep to send the “lucky” stick to California via FEDEX Overnight (Thanksgiving #24), so now we triple check that the girls brought their most important piece of equipment. These days our older girls fly in to Florida or California from college separately from us, staying for different lengths of time, and no one wants to watch Frosty anymore.
This year we have a fabulous hotel on the beach and our Thanksgiving dinner reservation is for an oceanside table, but I’ve come to realize that the holiday is about taking the time to remind myself about all there is a lot to be thankful for. By hook or crook, my husband and I get our girls together and we have 3 days with field hockey, family, and laughter (and at least one fight over clothes.) We’ve spent the last five Thanksgivings traveling to the tournament and with my youngest starting high school this past fall, we only have 4 Festival visits left. I’ll have the Williams-Sonoma-worthy dinners at home again someday, but for now I’m committed to enjoying the tail end of the ride.