The moment that I am struggling with the fact that it’s too cold to open a window, and it’s dark at five o’clock in the afternoon, the mail carrier shows up with five pounds of baklava. Yep, really, five whole pounds. There is winter, and then there are holidays.
It is of course a gift, sent from a thoughtful relative, who wants to sweeten the celebration. As I am the only person around here who likes baklava, I’m working on a quick equation as to how five pounds of nuts, honey and phyllo dough is going to turn into x number of calories, which will become five pounds of extra Judith. There was really plenty of Judith here to start with, and the additional baklava–inspired portion might be considered excessive. But I’ve been so good all year (really, Santa, honest and truly) I deserve a treat. Everyone does.
The food we all get into this time of year is indulgent. Not only is it rich, sweet, heavy food, there’s a lot of it.
I ran into my friend Larry a few days after the holiday, and he was telling me about being a party with a buffet. “I said I wanted to just have a taste of each of the desserts, because they all looked so good, and instead of a sample, I was served a full slice of everything, on a plate that was then covered with whipped cream,” he rolled his eyes heavenwards “and then, of course, I ate all of it.”
I know it’s a moment that many people struggle with. The holidays are about giving gifts and sharing, showing our love for our friends and families by over-feeding them.
The obsession starts around Thanksgiving, as I look into cookbooks and shop for ingredients to make that something special that will make everyone smile. Never consider the calories, just think of the feast.
I was taking a spinning class (stationary bike aerobic drill) at the YMCA on Thanksgiving morning, and everyone was laughing about how pounding the pedals was going to let them enjoy another helping of potatoes, or another slice of pie. The feeling was that if the price had already been paid, then indulgence could be guilt free. But no one was thinking about how this workout was going to help lose weight, just keep it in check. After all, it was a holiday.
My neighbors share their holiday traditions, and I could not even think of bypassing Sue’s fruitcake, or Mary’s lemon cookies, or Kim and Natalie’s banana bread. So, I’ll enjoy the season while it lasts. With all my good fortune, I have offered baklava to every guest who has come through the door, sent it along to half a dozen parties, and there is still really quite a bit of it left.
It’s good to indulge in pleasure; that’s what holidays are for. There’s a moment to let go of all the pressures of daily life, and just relax. We need to just get off the hamster wheel once in awhile. While we celebrate with food and drink, and spend late evenings sitting by the television or the fire talking with friends, we are keeping the darkness at bay.
Our culture also marks January as the moment to renew our sense of balance, and set ourselves on the right path. We will make resolutions and start new diets. Lots of people will start another class at the Y, or the gym. Plates of cookies will be replaced by baskets of tangerines.
As I lick the honey off my fingers from my last (no- just most recent) piece of baklava, I think of one of my favorite quotes from novelist and philosopher Nikos Kazantzakis.
“Tell me what you do with the food you eat, and I’ll tell you what you are. Some turn their food into fat and manure, some into work and good humor, and others, I’m told, into God.” As I am lucky enough to be surrounded by generous people who also happen to be really good cooks, I think I’m already in paradise. Or maybe just Culver City.
Judith Martin-Straw has added another ten sun salutes to her yoga practice, and still has another pound of baklava in the refrigerator.