I’m from New England, where “tradition” was pretty much every child’s first three-syllable word; and as far back as I can remember, there were certain things we always did around our house that bespoke the deepest part of winter – that time when the last of the holiday decorations had been put away, the snowstorms paid no attention to whether or not Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow, and daylight was that brief time between when the school bus picked everyone up and when it deposited us all back at home. The mornings were pink and mid-late afternoons were purple, and there were certain things we did and certain foods we ate that belonged solely to that time from mid-January to mid-March.
Things were a lot different years later when I lived on the west coast and winter consisted of about two and a half months of chill, rainy whether. The one occasion on which Silicon Valley actually got a light dusting of snow, people were running out of their offices, squealing with delight, scooping the scant wet deposits off the hoods of cars to make tiny snowballs. If there were winter traditions there, I never noticed or heard about them, and I think I always sensed that something was missing. I got thinking about that as January 15th passed through this year, and decided I’d find out whether other people here in the Mid-Atlantic, like my family, had things they always did at this time of year that were becoming their own traditions.
At the top of the list were comfort foods. I took a tally, and the top three tied for first place were Beef Stew (“so thick you could stand a spoon up in it”); spicy Chili (“so hot it could dissolve a spoon”); and Chicken Soup (no abuse of cutlery associated with this one). Other entries in close competition were homemade Mac and Cheese, Shepherd’s Pie, and ethnic specialties like Chicken Paprikash, Sausage and Sauerkraut, and Lasagna. The last category reminded me of one cold-weather specialty at our house called Caldo Verde. My grandmother, a first generation Portuguese-American, made a simple soup of white beans, kale, hot sausage and potatoes that I remember being among the few foods I was willing to sit still for and eat gladly. Back then, skinny kids who preferred being outside playing to almost anything else weren’t considered hyperactive – we were just kids, and every adult family member saw it as their job to try and get us to eat enough!
Right behind winter food favorites were sports, whether witnessed live or (more often) on TV. For a lot of people, the only reason NFL football has to culminate in the Super Bowl is to free up viewing time for college basketball and the wrap-up of hockey season! I probably should have known, living as close as I do to Dover Downs International Speedway, that the NASCAR race season also starts during February, as I was reminded by some rather rabid…er….enthusiastic fans I work with. NASCAR seems to be one of those sports, especially in an area like central Delaware, that nobody is neutral about – either you’re a die-hard with a favorite driver you’d spend hundreds of dollars to see close up, or you’re just as happy to have a root canal rather than deal with the traffic and 12′ tall inflated Coke bottles proclaiming “Welcome Race Fans!”
Among the people who aren’t big into sports are often the home crafters. Before you get an image of women armed with hot glue guns turning out cute dried-flower-covered Welcome signs and stuffed bunnies by the dozen, consider that there are more than 100 quilting guilds in the U.S. alone; about the same number of woodworking clubs; twice that number of cross-stitch groups, and another thousand or more clubs that are anything between formalized and registered to loose, meet-when-they-can knots of folks who like everything from making sweet-grass or pine-needle baskets, to tatting lace, to making welded metal sculpture, and the list goes on. I’ve already weighed in with earlier articles for Lehman’s on my own personal favorite – soapmaking – but I’ve also enjoyed turning out window quilts, learning how to knit caps for preemie babies at the local hospital, and I admit unashamedly to favoring this time of year for working needlepoint projects in front of a fire. This may also be the year to learn breadmaking (notice how cleverly I bring the subject back to food?) but there’s a big one left to talk about.
Next on the local list of deep-winter interests (probably further up on your list if you’re a regular Lehman’s reader and love country living!) is the annual fete of seed catalogs. They’ve been coming in since November, and perhaps you’ve already even ordered the early things that’ll go into the ground as soon as you can poke a dibble into the still-frozen patch of earth that will become your pea trellis. Right now though, it’s time to sit with the full cadre of treasured catalogs, taking in the rich colors and reading the descriptions of warm-weather vegetables and flowers so provocative that your taste buds and nose are already enjoying the beauty and taste of the harvest. (If you’re like me, your list may have to be edited several times to fit within the national debt, much less your own budget for seeds this year!) Often, this is a time of smug enjoyment for those who have lovingly and carefully saved seeds from some of our annual favorites, recalling how vigorous, tasty or fragrant the output from the parent plants was last year.
As the list of “new traditions” winds down, there are things that some folks consider indispensable at this time of year. I hesitated to even include “a trip to the Bahamas” or “a cruise to someplace warm,” but I promised those I interviewed that no idea would be left out. One that amused me was from a woman I work closely with, who says this is the time of year she moves furniture around. Given that she lives in a large Victorian she and her husband have restored, I’d love to see what subtle changes each winter might bring to her home. My own Craftsman was designed with a lot of built-in furniture in mind, so I suspect that in years to come, all that will change from one season to the next are the machine-washable slipcovers, curtains, and area rugs.
You never know, though – I may take to repainting the spare bedrooms…Come to think of it, a hooked rug for the guest room might be nice…. Wait a minute…I think I remember having a piece of canvas in the attic that might be just the right size…and wasn’t there an ad for a sale on wool at the craft store in this morning’s paper? If you’ll excuse me, I think I’m going to give the fire a good poke and go rummage around upstairs.