Tuesday, December 13, 2011

One big, decently-fed family

For most of us, Christmas starts next week. Probably Friday or Saturday. That's when you get off work, go see family and have family come see you. For me it starts on Wednesday (the day after tomorrow). The first Mersmann comes to town and two more Mersmanns will quickly follow when their finals are finished later in the week.

It's no secret that my family and Gary's family are different. We have a lot in common - both love kids and each other, both big Catholic families, both come from simple beginnings and value hard work, intelligence and a sense of humor. We both grew up on lots of beans, but not a lot of meat, received used presents at Christmas time and drove embarrassing beaters as our high school cars. We both wore clothes from the Goodwill and were never the envy of our friends when it came to our high fashion. We both have stories of sleeping in a huge pile on the floor in the only room with an air conditioner. But that's kind of where it ends.

My family is painfully punctual and many times early. Gary's family is predictable late to everything. My family values efficiency and getting the job done, Gary's family values the journey more than the destination. So when you are the wife and many times the host of family gatherings, it's a balancing act when we all get together. When we have a birthday party, I plan two parts - the first half of the party is for the Mersmanns - make sure everything is ready an hour early and have lots of appetizers to hold us over. Somewhere in the middle, the Pratts show up, and as soon as the party has officially ended, most of the Mersmanns are heading for the door. But that's when the Pratt party begins, so I pull out my reserves - the meal I knew I would need - and get ready to serve the soup, roast, sandwiches... whatever is appropriate for the after-party.

In the first years of our marriage, I didn't know what to do. I always ran out of food - spent too much on last-minute pizza and takeout and was generally stressed out when both of our families got together. But just like everything about my life, as soon as I let go of perfection, I was able to enjoy the craziness.

I'm writing my shopping list today - planning for at least two weeks of dinner guests. There will be lots of Mersmanns here before and after Christmas and even though their plans aren't secured, I am expecting Pratts on several days as well. To be honest I really have no idea how many people to expect for dinner on any given night between now and New Year's.

It might sound daunting, but I've learned a few secrets over the years.
1. Fresh veggies: They are a cheap, healthy appetizer and if you can kind of get people full before the meal starts, then you don't need as much food to go around.
2. Bread: Great filler, comparatively cheap, everyone loves it.
3. The Smorgasboard approach: Prepare a regular meal, but hold on to those leftovers. Then when you have one or two or three guests, pull out said leftovers and serve up a feast. True, everyone only gets a little bit of each thing, but everyone gets full. Spaghetti with a side of refried beans anyone?
4. Ice cream: See bread. And if you have a 99 cent box of brownie mix to toss in the oven, suddenly everyone feels like this is truly a special dinner. No matter how terrible the main dish might have been, ice cream and warm chocolate make every meal delicious.

I'l have you know, this is completely counter to my nature. The idea of serving tacos with leftover mashed potatoes and gravy used to hurt my heart. It's not a proper meal! They don't go together! But I had to decide which would be the most important to me - a meal to make Rachael Ray proud, or a meal where anyone feels welcome.

I'm still a work in progress, and I know that I'm not always the most gracious. Sometimes when the doorbell rings at 5 p.m., my heart still drops - I don't love when my plans get changed. But as soon as the food is on the table, no matter what it is, we have a wonderful time. I hope it's the same for my guests... it must be, or they would not keep stopping by. It's common knowledge that dinner at the Pratt house is served at 5:30.  You might get half of a hamburger and one spoon of lasagna, a teaspoon of peas and three pieces of bread, but there will always be a place at the table.

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