December: Christmas Trees, Wine, and Cookies

Walter’s Take:

Normally, we get our Christmas tree on December 26 at the county dump. It just makes sense – if we’re not going to be home, why have one up? It’s a waste of money, and we have 2 dogs and a cat that might pull the tree down while we’re gone. Plus, we save that tree from being thrown into the landfill where it will take up unneeded space.

This year is different though. We have a baby and decided that we don’t want to deny him the experience of having a tree BEFORE Christmas and ruin him forever by being overtly frugal and grabbing one from the dump on the 26th. But still, the thought of going out and buying an already cut tree (or cutting it down ourselves) seemed a little bit silly to us since we always found a way to not have to pay for a tree that was already dying, so L got on the web and found the Virginia Christmas Tree Growers Association. From there, she found Santa’s Forest and Nursery, which offers pre-cut trees, trees you can cut down yourself, or balled and burlapped (B&B) trees that you can replant. The latter spoke to us immediately. We can give WV a real first Christmas experience with a real tree that we didn’t swipe from the dump, we will plant that tree and he will always be able to see his first Christmas tree, and we’re doing a small part in reducing our carbon footprint – the tree doesn’t go to the landfill, maybe a bird family will make a home in it, it helps absorb CO2 and gives us back fresh O2 to breathe, it looks pretty somewhere on the lawn, etc. And if the land rejects it we can always use it as bonfire fuel. But the potential is there for it to last and provide memories for many more years, even after he gets his driver’s license, goes away to college, and wins the Nobel prize in chemistry or math or geology or something, and he can attribute all of his successes to the fact that Mom and Dad decided to buy a living tree and replant it after Christmas.

So on November 27, 2012 we decide to hop in my 1997 Chevy Blazer which gets an astonishing 20 mpg (on a good day, on the highway) to drive 70 miles to pick up a tree that will hopefully live long enough to make up for the fact that we’re driving 70 miles in a 1997 Blazer to pick up a tree. Also, we’ve never put the baby in the back of the Blazer because although it was top of the line new, the “safety features” are pretty lacking for today’s standards. It was built with one driver-side airbag, but who knows if that thing would even deploy if needed. It doesn’t even have those little loops in between the seat cushion and back where you can hook the car seat base into for better stability. So we had to be old fashioned and hold the baby in our laps in the front. Just kidding – we had the base extremely securely strapped in the rear passenger seat with the car seat snapped in as per the manufacturer’s instructions.

It took us about an hour and a half to get to the farm, so when we got there it was too dark to take action shots of us getting our tree. But we did notice an amazing greenhouse with pepper plants galore, which gave me inspiration for next fall (or early spring, if I can get around to it in time). Our pepper plants just bit the dust, and I’m kicking myself because we had about 9 bell peppers and 15 Serrano peppers ALMOST ready to be picked and we decided to hold out just a little bit longer. If I do build a greenhouse, or at least a temporary greenhouse structure that can easily be put on and removed from the garden, we’ll have delicious peppers and tomatoes year round! Well, maybe not entirely year round, but our growing season will be extended. I digress… the owner of the farm wrapped up the tree in twine, lifted it with a tractor (trees weigh considerably more with roots and dirt) into the back of the Blazer, and headed back home. Here’s what the unloading ordeal looked like from L’s perspective:

In the Blazer Removal from Blazer
A lot heavier than anticipated Setting it up Stood up

Now, before we had gone out to pick up the tree we had decided to make a chicken stir fry for dinner once we got home. Since we would be passing by the supermarket on the way home we planned on making a quick stop after picking up the tree so we could grab a bag of rice and maybe a couple bottles of wine. This turned in to “hey, this looks like a good bottle, let’s try it.”

“Oh, how about this one, it’s a reserve Zinfandel.”

“Ah, we can’t forget this one, it’s our standard. Make sure to pick up 3.”

“We’re out of cheese as well, should we get some?”

“Sure, I’m in the mood for bleu.”

“What about the extra sharp NY cheddar? I can’t find the one we normally get.”

“Looks like they’re out, let’s grab this one instead. It’s from Wisconsin, they make good cheese.”

“Ooh, the avocados are a good price, let’s get two bags.”

“We also need some snacks, how bout a bag of those chips we like?”

“What about using white chocolate chips instead of chocolate chips for your cookies?” (I had promised to bake my wife chocolate-chocolate chip cookies for dessert when we got home, although I have never baked cookies from scratch before…) And on, and on, and on. The conversation above isn’t necessarily an exact repetition of the words spoken or order of items placed into cart, but you get the general idea. And we had just come back from Thanksgiving in New York so our cabinets, fridge, and wine rack needed to be re-stocked. And it’s not like we’re dropping $25 a bottle on wine – we get our stuff from TJ’s at a much more reasonable price.

By the time we arrived home it was about 8:30 and we were exhausted (having been gone since 3 and worked all day before we left). So we got home, L fed WV, and although we had great intentions of making a delicious chicken stir fry with home-made Teriyaki sauce (maybe my wife will give you her recipe) over brown rice with a glass of wine our dinner turned into “2010 Cabernet Sauvingon from Paso Robles, paired with sea-salt-kissed natural potato chips, bleu cheese and extra sharp Wisconsin cheddar,” or just another potato chips and wine dinner night that I can only (hopefully) assume is at least a monthly standard for a young couple with a baby.

You know what pairs well with the aforementioned eclectic dinner menu? Chocolate white chocolate chip cookies. (How’s that for a segue, English majors?) After searching through various cookbooks we have in the kitchen for about a half hour and coming up empty on a chocolate cookie recipe (come on, seriously? Nobody can write a cookbook with a standard chocolate cookie recipe that I can drop white chocolate chips into?), I found one online in a matter of microseconds. Butter, sugar, eggs, flour, vanilla, baking soda, cocoa powder, and [white] chocolate chips. Mix together, drop on baking sheet, take out of oven, place on cooling rack. I can do this, and we have all of those ingredients laying around thanks to the white chocolate chip pick up at the store! First thing I do is open the fridge door – no butter. Crap. We probably have some frozen, I’ll just grab a stick and nuke it to soften it. I open the freezer door – no butter. Crap. What do I do? I’m worried about messing up my first ever cookies from scratch and to make matters more stressful I don’t have one of the main ingredients. My wife, one of the best cooks in the world, tells me to substitute cream cheese and oil for the butter and go from there. So I made my cookies, and they were absolutely delicious. Recipe below with my [wife’s] changes. I don’t know how many cookies the recipe made. I do know that after they were cooled and I put them into a sealed container before we went to bed there were 16 left. I think we each had 3 or 4. So the recipe yields 2 dozen-ish. Double the recipe for 4 dozen-ish I guess. These cookies also act as a great breakfast appetizer while you’re waiting for your coffee to brew.  Substitute a half cup of butter for the cream cheese and oil if you’re boring.

Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees F (176 2/3 degrees C if you have a metric stove) and put some pizza stones in there while it’s heating up.

1 cup sugar
1 cup flour
1 egg
1/4 cup cream cheese
1/4 cup oil (I used canola, you can use whatever you want, but keep in mind other oils like baby oil and motor oil will probably add weird flavors)
1 tsp vanilla
1 tsp baking SODA (not powder)
3/8 cup (1/4 and half of 1/4) cocoa powder
half the bag of white chocolate chips

Mix the fats and sugar until it looks good. Mix in the egg (try not to get any shell in there). Mix in everything else except the chips. Mix until it looks good. Drop in the chips and mix them into the cookie dough with a spatula. Dip your finger in the dough and taste it. Give your wife a spoonful of the dough and get her approval. Take the pizza stones out of the oven, one at a time, and scoop cookie dough balls onto them. Have your wife tell you that the cookie dough balls are too big, make the next ones smaller. Bake for 8-10 minutes, ask if they look done. If they look done, take them out of the oven, let them cool for about 5 minutes, then put them on a cooling rack to cool further so the stone doesn’t keep cooking them. If they don’t look done, keep baking and asking until they look done. Give the first one to your wife, bask in the glory of her satisfaction of you creating a delicious chocolate dessert to finish off the potato chip and wine dinner. Eat some yourself and wash them down with a glass of red wine. Oh yeah, and don’t use an electric beater in the KitchenAid mixing bowl.  I hope it’s not ruined…


Lila’s Take:

It’s well past Christmas, but I have to give my take on the tree-getting. And tree-keeping!

It almost doesn’t feel right to kill our find-our-tree-at-the-dump post-Christmas tradition. I’m all about tradition, especially now with WV. I want to be able to enthusiastically tell him “we’ve done this since your first Christmas,” not lackadaisically, “oh yea, when you were 5 we decided it would be a good idea to…” I heard a piece on This American Life about a guy who waits until his kids are asleep each year and then goes outside and slings manure onto the roof, as his wife makes a call to his mother so they can both revel in his lunacy. But come morning he can tell his children “Santa came and went, his reindeer leaving their poop-proof on the roof.” Now THAT’s tradition! And you meet some interesting characters at the dump as you try to quickly pull a tree from a huge metal container before the dump workers figure you out. Once I got into a little tiff with an older man who had laid claim to, like, a dozen expired Christmas trees. I had to convince him that I just wanted one for the actual purpose the tree had been intended for; he was reclaiming them for “bird habitat.” Mmm. So this year, no stealth visit to the dump to resurrect someone’s forlorn, junked tree. And, thus, possibly fewer bonfire starters, although several people have already offered up their old trees – bring ‘em on by!

But, I just couldn’t see myself bringing a cut tree into the house. In our ever-expanding pursuit to green our lives and live lightly, buying a hacked down tree seemed pretty much like unabashedly giving the finger to our principles. Not that I hadn’t willingly and gleefully participated in the tradition many times over my childhood and recently, but you have to start somewhere, right?

And then I found it – balled and burlap-ed trees – oh my GAH, they’re alive!!!
I called the place: “Weeeel, they’re going quick…we might have 8 left.”
Oh man, gotta tell W.
He wants to go tonight!
Road trip!

Driving over the Coleman Bridge, gloomy pitter-patter of raindrops on the windshield, threatening a wet Christmas tree pick-up, I realized we were going to be late. As usual. The farm was nearly in North Carolina. We got there after they closed. It was dark. The owner was super nice, leaving the gate open for us. He must have sensed my enthusiasm on the phone and wanted to sell us the tree – I had called him a grand total of 4 times that day to ask questions. As he loaded our choice (soft needles, full figure, nice height…it spoke to us!!!) into the Blazer with a (legit) tractor, his dog yapping after the giant wheels, I wondered “how on earth are we going to get this out of the car?” WV rode sleepily back home next to his very first Christmas tree and his parents felt they had certainly accomplished something!

It did stay in the Blazer for a few days as we discussed it. A little too long if you ask me – I was worried about its health. W finally heave-ho’d it onto the porch (Mr. Muscles, as our favorite Food Lion cashier calls him) sans tractor. We potted it into a giant blue and white pot I’d dug up from behind my advisor’s house last year (he was moving and there was a pot graveyard that he wisely knew I would have a field day over), to let it acclimate and wait for the big day. You aren’t supposed to bring a B&B’d tree into the house for too long otherwise it begins to put energy into new growth, given the warmth of the house, and then you have to keep it inside until April. That didn’t sound so bad, actually. I do like to keep the tree up until my birthday in late February just because I can. It delays the sadness of removing the tree, rearranging the furniture back so that a dumb chair sits in “its” spot, and putting all the ornaments away until the “season” is really over and you can look forward to next Christmas, not wistfully back to the fun family down time you wish you were still experiencing. My parents (wisely?) never gave into my pleas for such a lengthy keeping-up-of-the-tree. However, we did have our own tradition (yes!) my dad proudly monikered “The Defenestration.” Growing up we always lived on the second floor of a two-family house, and rather than drag the tree down a flight of steps, engendering a deluge of needles to be swept up slowly until late July (my mom swears she still finds needles in the cracks of the wood floor from a tree two Christmases ago), my dad just shoved it out the window. Voila! My sister and I drained much excitement out of this 2-second process. Where would we stand? At the next window over and watch it shoot out in a dive onto the sidewalk?- or outside, watching it birthed, seemingly by unknown forces from the house, arc down, to crash ceremoniously nearby?!? Oh the decisions of childhood! I guess we didn’t “do” Christmas normally. Anyway, being Virginia, and with our globe warming, it turned out to be just as warm outside on the porch so we brought Señor Blanco (the tree) inside early, decorated him with much fanfare (each ornament got an explanation), and I tinseled him mostly because when I was a kid I LURVED tinsel and my dad didn’t. Now I know why. Darn that tinsel – it wafts off in the breeze of a dog tail and gets into EVERYTHING!!!

Señor Blanco is still up and I turn on his lights every night while we play scrabble and WV babbles at his wooden blocks. It makes me happy to know he is alive and presiding over our family. We’ll take him with us wherever we go and plant him wherever we stay. I guess we should undress him of his ornaments, but I kinda want to keep him inside. It will feel empty if he goes out.

So glad we’ve begun the tradition of a living Christmas tree. If W ever attempts to sling poo on the roof I will certainly call his mom, and his chocolate white chocolate chip cookies are pretty awesome. I just ate three!!!

WV being adorbs