I keep thinking about Valentine's Day and wondering why, despite what feels like my best efforts, I end up stuck when I try to write about it. I have no problem with the day, even though its focus is on gift giving and coupledom, two things I find offensively overemphasized in our society. This notwithstanding, as a rule, I relish any holiday that provides an excuse to pay more attention to the people I like paying attention to, and that embraces goofiness with heartfelt gusto. Halloween and Valentine's Day probably rank as the top two for taking goofiness to new heights, and Valentine's Day is really keen on paying attention to those we love best. So, I wonder, why have I had trouble putting pen to paper, as it were, about The Day?
I think it may be at least in part because I'm keenly aware of the false expectations The Day conjures up for most people, much like those conjured up on any given Saturday night in the Land of the Dateless Adolescent. While I don't feel the need to do more than say “Happy Valentine's Day” upon waking, and, until this relationship, I haven't received (and, so, haven't expected) Valentine's Day gifts, I'm aware that the day itself holds some weird, uncomfortable energy for people who do expect something. Like those Dateless Adolescents on a flat Saturday night, they feel like something should happen. They've no doubt that the masses will ask how it was, and they know that they'll have nothing of value to offer in response. It isn't enough to say that the day was fine. Flowers or candy or jewelry must have crossed the threshold for the day to be awarded any real merit. For some reason, we falter at the idea of having a Valentine's Day that doesn't measure up the expectations of the masses.
Our Valentine's Day this year was a nice enough day, but it was Tuesday that was truly special.
Sunday, The Day, started with a beautiful morning followed by a brown kind of day. The only reason it turned brown at all was that we allowed the world outside to invade our quiet and bang around for a bit. Once we regained our balance, we had an evening filled with sweetness.
(Sweetness and a touch of food poisoning. We tried a new sushi restaurant and left feeling, as Evan says, slimed. Even though the food was highly mediocre and, come Monday, not a distant enough memory at all, the company was perfect, and we both felt happy and loved for the rest of the evening. Monday brought prayers for swift deaths, but that's not a story you want to hear.)
On Tuesday, we awoke to snow covered everything. The world outside was fluffy and white and oh so quiet. We watched as the tiny flakes continued to fall, and marveled at the beauty. The chickadees played on the lilac branches that rest on our bedroom windows, making us chuckle and reminding us that it was a good day, if we were at all inclined to forget.
We laid on our bed, watching the birds and squirrels outside, and talking about the animals we had known in our lives. Some comment or other sparked Evan's memory and, mumbling enthusiastically about a dog and a story, he jumped up, gracefully sidestepped a cat doing the tango across his path, and left the room.
“You'll love this,” he said as he walked back in, flipping through the pages of E.B.White's book of essays, The Points of My Compass, while peeking over the top of it in time to step over yet another cat shimmying happily in place.
He turned to an essay called Bedfellows, propped up his pillows and began reading in his deep, rich, very best storytelling voice.
“It's about White's dog, Fred. I love this story,” Evan, a great lover of both E.B.White and animals, smiled as he settled back into his spot with the contentment of a man about to be enveloped by the warmth of a good story.
Fred was a vibrant character in life and remains one still, long after his departure, thanks to White. Evan read about Fred's bogus pedigree and generally shady past, his too-firm convictions, unwavering paranoia and exaggerated commentary until we laughed so hard that tears filled our eyes and he had to stop reading for a minute. He read as White voiced his conviction that Fred was not especially loyal so much as obsessive, and his annoyance at the way Fred hogged the covers in bed and insisted on walking ahead of him when they surveyed their country property together. His voice catching ever so slightly, Evan brought to life White's revelation that Fred's was the only grave he ever visited and how, seven years after Fred's death, White still felt him always nearby.
When he finished reading, Evan rested the closed book on his chest, and we talked about dogs we'd known, and places we'd lived with them. We talked about our own odd family of cats and ducks, chickens and rabbits, all former rescues and strays, and their adorably quirky personalities. We talked about White's writing, and our own writing, and came to the firm conclusion that it was a perfect kind of a day.
Waldo doing his impression of a Macy's parade float
And it was. It was a perfect Valentine's Day. Had the planets been properly aligned when Hallmark's New Holiday Committee chose the official date for Valentine's Day, making it February 16 instead of February 14, I would have had an easy go at writing a lovely story about The Day. Instead, I struggled. I had misunderstood for a minute. I thought that I was writing about The Day, rather than about the day.
Our stomachs have regained their ability to digest food, so much so that we ate sushi again last night. (We went back to our tried and true favorite sushi restaurant, however, deciding to shun experimentation and adventure where raw fish is involved, at least until the memory of the aftereffects of Sunday's culinary adventure fades sufficiently, and we've restocked the Pepto.) Evan continues to read stories from The Points of My Compass, but now he has to go find it first, since I snatch it when he puts it down and fail ever to return it to its place. I love to read White, but I love most the sound of his words spoken by Evan's voice.
I want a day like Tuesday to be our Valentine's Day from now on. It doesn't have to actually be a Tuesday and it doesn't even have to be in February. Any snowy or rainy or sunny day will do. And no flowers or candy or jewelry need pass over the threshold. We need only a window and a comfortable spot, some cats snuggled up against our legs, each other and a good story.
Happy Valentine's Day.
(I mean every word I write, and I write them with a full heart. I am not, however, giving back the exquisite square cut peridot earrings Evan gave me on The Day. I mean, come on.)
HOUDINI'S SUGAR COOKIES
½ cup butter, softened
1 cup sugar
4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 ¼ teaspoons baking powder
¼ cup citrus juice
1 teaspoon good vanilla
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees (F).
1.Cream together the butter and sugar until smooth and fluffy. Beat in the eggs, one at a time.
2.Mix together the flour and baking powder, incorporating them fully. (I do this by placing a strainer over my mixing bowl and putting the flour and the baking powder in the strainer, and then straining the dry mixture into the wet mixture. The flour and baking power are fully incorporated this way. You can use a good old-fashioned sifter, too.) Thoroughly mix together the flour and the butter mixtures.
3.Add the juice (I usually use either pineapple or orange juice, though any citrus will work) and vanilla, and mix well.
4.On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough to your desired thickness. The dough puffs only a bit, so the thickness you roll is, roughly, the thickness of your finished cookie.
5.Using cookie cutters or the open end of a drinking glass, cut out shapes.
6.Place the cookies on a baking sheet with the raw edge up. Bake for about 7-8 minutes, removing them from the oven before they brown. Cool slightly before transferring the cookies to a wire rack.
7.Once the cookies have completely cooled, they're ready to decorate.
If you plan to store the cookies for a while, you can freeze or refrigerate them in an airtight container. Freeze them without frosting; defrost thoroughly prior to frosting.
1 large egg white (Remember that this is going to remain uncooked, so use only pasteurized eggs. You can also use meringue powder equivalent to 1 large egg white plus water, following the directions on the container.)
1 ½ cups confectioner's sugar, sifted
1 teaspoon clear vanilla (Regular vanilla will cause your white frosting to turn a beige color. If you plan to tint all of your frosting, you don't need clear vanilla.)
Preparation for Stiff Consistency
This consistency dries hard, and is used for outlining, writing and making shapes.
1. In a large bowl, whisk the egg white. Beat in vanilla.
2.Add the confectioner's sugar, ¼ cup at a time, to the egg mixture, beating well after each addition. Beat on high setting until the icing is stiff and glossy.
Preparation for Flooding Consistency
Use this consistency when you are filling in an outlined surface with frosting. It's a much thinner consistency, and is used to fill in designs. After letting it dry thoroughly, you can pipe stiff Royal icing over the flooded area.
Prepare using the recipe for Stiff Consistency, adding warm water at about 1 tablespoon at a time. Beat until the icing dissolves into itself on the count of three when you lift the paddle of your mixer.
You'll pipe this onto your cookie, or you can use a fine paint brush.
I use Wilton gels, but you use any food coloring you like. Divide the frosting into little bowls and add your color, mixing thoroughly. If you're using gels, start with just a little and increase slowly. The color is much more intense with much less gel than it would be if you were using liquid coloring.
~As you can see from my cookies, I'm not particularly good at piping yet. It takes practice.
I'm not even going to comment on this...