Up the Valley: Love Hangover

February 19, 2014

Some tips for Singles on the care and feeding of their friends who are Couples: today’s column in the Star...

As I write this, I am recovering from a slight overindulgence in strong spirits during the previous night’s Valentine’s Day Swing Dance Celebration at the theater where I serve as producing director. That’s my title at the moment — this being The Theatah and the 21st Century, I may have been ousted or replaced by a programming algorithm by the time this column goes to press.

I appear to have a perverse need for self-torture around all holidays. Having become a complete Scrooge at Christmas, it made total sense that I would spend years owning a retail store guaranteed to extend my Holiday Hell to 12 months per annum. Caught in an endless cycle of selling ho-ho-haute décor, then going in on Christmas Day to mark it all down, my holidays during The Lost Retail Years boiled down to: Unpack, Display, Discount, Repack and Repeat — all to an endless soundtrack of “The Christmas Song” by Alvin & the Chipmunks.

And so — being the accomplished spinster that I am — it was inevitable that I would someday produce a romantic Valentine’s Day holiday love-fest at the theater. I must admit: It was a fun night. I rented a dance floor, booked a San Francisco swing band called the Martini Brothers, and took unexpected pleasure in watching the couples twirling and canoodling on the dance floor.

There is something so endearing about couples when they are dancing: the big guys who are surprisingly graceful, the pairs wordlessly performing synchronized dance routines they’ve polished over decades, and the carefree, youthful aspect adorning women as they are spun, flipped and dipped by a strong partner.

The dance floor, however, is one of the few places I find couple-dom particularly adorable. Although most of my closest friends occupy this mysterious, and for me unattainable, state-of-being, hanging out with couples can test a sensitized single person’s patience. It’s not that I don’t love them wholeheartedly — both collectively and individually. It’s when they start WE-ing all over me that fondness turns to frustration.

Consternating couple behavior often results from a shared email address. I will be in the middle of an extended online conversation with one spouse, when the other suddenly chimes in unannounced. Rarely do they identify which of them is typing, so I have to undertake an operation to break their secret codes and ciphers that would have baffled the Enigma-busting cryptologists of World War II.

The only reliable way to communicate via joint-custody email is to carefully restrict communications to each spouse’s areas of sole responsibility. If, for example, the wife has authority over calendars and bookings (which is the case 99.9 percent of the time), I know that regardless of which spouse reads my message proposing a date, the husband wouldn’t dare enter into a commitment on their behalf, and therefore any definitive response on the topic must have emanated from the wife.

The reverse is generally true when the topic is tools or technology, as in: Do I need to upgrade the software on my iPhone, should I choose Mac or PC, or what is a socket wrench? But trouble arises when it’s a subject on which both spouses share jurisdiction — like cooking, politics and the personal lives of their single friends.

Some socially active singletons tell me that they frequently feel they exist solely for the amusement of their married friends. Sharing the agony of the single person’s dating experience must serve the essential societal function of confirming a couple’s decision to remain married. Even I, with a social life that a Trappist Monk would find confining, sometimes feel like Carrie Bradshaw swilling Cosmos at the dinner table of Ward and June Cleaver. I imagine perplexed post-departure conversations with the kids during which the Beaver turns to his brother and asks: “Gee Wally, why doesn’t Laura just find some swell guy and get married like Mom did?”

But I find couples to be at their most intolerable when ordering food in restaurants. Yes — we get it — there are two of you, and so you can split and share everything on Life’s Menu. Not for you the sad, lonely, pitiable need to order an individual Caesar salad before your entree or — worse — having to make the heartbreaking choice between a salad OR an entree. Yes, you have — by virtue of having coupled-up — earned the right to enjoy both meat and pasta, but civility demands that you take both from your own plate and fork. Feeding each other by hand after the first 30 days of marriage should provide grounds for the rest of us to compel you two to live apart for a while.

My next production at the theater includes a musical performance by Oscar-winning actor Jeff Bridges and his band the Abiders. His gorgeous wife of 36 years is coming with him, and his talented daughter is his opening act. I can’t imagine what movie star/musician/ proud parent/couple behavior looks like, but if Mr. & Mrs. Bridges start feeding each other by hand during the VIP party, well — I for one cannot promise to abide.

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Every family has some gelatin-infused, cream of mushroom soup-soaked holiday culinary shame. What was yours? Today’s column in the Star…

I was invited by a favorite friend to join her intimate Thanksgiving dinner this year, which included lively conversation, abundant alcohol and — as is always the case at her house — incredible food.

A casual neighborhood dinner in the Napa Valley often includes cooking that would rival Michelin star restaurants elsewhere, with wine pairings that should make a French sommelier want to emigrate. Even everyday meals are thoughtfully conceived and executed with the finest ingredients. But on Thanksgiving, as we devoured a second helping of terrifically turkey-free dishes, the conversation turned to less lofty culinary offerings.

Hearing my hostess apologize for the plainness of her beautifully balsamic-blessed salad, I explained that Thanksgiving at my grandmother’s house always meant green lemon-lime Jell-O salad with Miracle Whip, Pet Milk, pineapple chunks and chopped walnuts.

This resonated at the table and in later discussions; apparently every family has its own version of some gelatin-encased or cream-of-mushroom-soup-smothered secret culinary shame, the memory of which we hold exceedingly dear. The green gelatin salad seems ubiquitous, whether almonds take the place of the walnuts, grapes stand in for the pineapple, or shredded carrots find themselves improbably enshrined in a citrus Jell-O mold.

That orange color would have nicely complimented my grandmother’s autumnally-themed Thanksgiving décor: wicker horn-of-plenty stuffed with gourds and cornstalks, ceramic turkey salt-and-pepper shakers, and a fold-open paper turkey with tissue-paper-cutout body. Our “kids table” always included candles shaped like pilgrim couples which were never actually lit, because they were among her “good” candles.

My grandmother kicked-off holiday meals with a plate of symmetrically-placed celery sticks stuffed with peach-colored pimento cream cheese, which we kids regarded with horror. We preferred to raid the dish containing canned, pitted olives, placing one on each fingertip and slowly devouring all 10 — ignoring admonitions not to spoil our appetites.

A cheese ball with Ritz crackers might appear, accompanied by baby pickles and salted nuts. My uncle worked for Sunsweet, and he would occasionally contribute some exotic prune-themed amuse-bouche, such as his patented “prune chewie:” bacon wrapped around a prune stuffed with a nut; a combination that has been inexplicably overlooked by Martha Stewart.

Although Christmas dessert could include traditional pies and cakes, my favorite was always my late aunt’s persimmon cookies with brandy-flavored frosting. For most of my adult life, Auntie’s cookies arrived by mail, usually in a shoebox lined in foil, covered with Christmas wrap, and shoved inside a reused shipping box. In a post-9/11 world, I suspected that the cookies might have passed through multiple radioactive screening devices and been defiled by packs of bomb-sniffing dogs — their butter-based frosting reaching full toxicity — but I couldn’t stop eating them.

We weren’t fond of fruitcakes in my family (unless you count my crazy cousin), but I once made an authentic Christmas pudding with suet and candied fruit which we soaked in brandy and set on fire — my Great Britain-obsessed grandmother was delighted. She also sometimes made eggnog from scratch, which contained an unthinkable amount of fat, thinned by an unwise amount of alcohol.

I’m particularly particular about potatoes; heaping helpings of heavily buttered and gravied mashers have seen me through many emotional crises, including those precipitated by the aforementioned holiday gatherings. Apparently many families have major fights over side-dishes — a friend didn’t speak to her sister-in-law for years because she brought sweet potatoes when she was specifically assigned mashed potatoes (or was it vice versa?).

And speaking of sweet potatoes versus yams, the question is: to marshmallow or not to marshmallow? And don’t slivered almonds make a delightful garnish for frozen string beans? Or was it green bean casserole with dried onion rings and cream of mushroom soup with your people?

Of course, today’s health-conscious holiday diners would be horrified by such frozen, heavily-processed holiday fixings. But will their children look back with the same nostalgia on grandma’s gluten-free stuffing, low-fat cruelty-free skinless turkey breast and organic Brussels sprouts? Will they ever know the joy of eating snowman-shaped ice cream balls covered with shaved coconut, with plastic holly garnish and a candy-cane-striped birthday candle stuck in the middle? Or will they reach adulthood believing that Jell-O and aspic are the same thing?

My own holiday meal memories are not so much of the food itself, but of the struggles to get it on the table. I recall my grandmother cursing the stubborn tin molds restraining her gelatin salad, bathing them in warm water to coax the quivering green masses onto waiting leaves of iceberg lettuce. I recall my aunt’s annual tradition of clogging the garbage disposal with potato peelings, the endless arguments about whether the turkey was done and when to put the dinner rolls in the toaster oven. And of course, the fight to get the family to leave the television and come to the table.

My much-missed grandmother and aunt each left me some of their favorite recipes, including the persimmon cookies and the green Jell-O salad. But I would hesitate to make them for myself. Without the anger, joy, panic, laughter and affection whipped into the mix, they just wouldn’t taste the same.