Stockings from the Scrinch

December 12, 2018 § 2 Comments

If you’re a sugar-avoider at this time of year, it’s hard not to feel like the Grinch. If you’re a clutter-avoider, you may well feel like you’re channeling Scrooge. So if you’re like me you’re a… a Scrinch. Basically, this time of year represents a nexus of everything I’ve ever written about. Too much sugar? Too much clutter? It’s all here. No wonder celebrants suffer from “holiday hangovers” and vow a slew of New Year’s resolutions. The problem with too much is that it never feels like enough until… it feels bad.

My goal at Christmastime is to have fun without ever arriving at the hangover part. An important part of this is practicing what I preach and avoiding excess sugar AND excess stuff in my gift-giving.

Fuzzy Slipper Socks- like Halloween costumes for your toes

The holidays are tricky in this regard and Christmas is super tricky. This year I got a request to write about Christmas stockings in particular, which might be the trickiest of all. In a holiday that is chock-full of deeply weird traditions- trees in the house, shrubbery on the ceiling- the tradition of hanging our socks up for Santa to fill with treats is so especially strange that I am particularly fond of it.

But there are several key considerations with stocking stuffers. Firstly, no matter how big your stocking may be, there’s always a clear size limit. (I’m a stickler on this: in order to be a “stocking stuffer,” it must actually be physically stuffable in the stocking. Sorry, wall calendars.) Also, stocking contents are usually in addition to whatever “real” gifts are waiting under the tree, so probably there is a real budgetary limit as well. Santa has his work cut out for him, right? We need cheap, we need special and fun, we need small. And if you’re like me, and a Scrinch, then pile on top of those considerations the fact that you’re not wanting to overdose everyone on candy and chocolates either, OR wreck your home or the environment with crappo, plastic, break-in-five-minutes toys and hilarious, but-they-end-up-in-the-landfill joke gifts. (Seriously, no one really wants that taco-flavored coffee.)

If you know me, you probably have already guessed that I have given an inordinate amount of thought to The Stocking Problem. Before we go any further let me point out that yes, if you are avoiding sugar (which is cheap) and avoiding plastic crap (which is also cheap), it is going to be very, very easy to spend more money in the process of trying to avoid those things. So I recommend trying to work the problem backwards: decide how much money you want to spend on a person and then set aside some portion of that to spend on their stocking. No matter how much you set aside, of course, it won’t be enough, but that’s the nature of Christmas, so we’re used to it.

In the stocking stuffer category I’ve found most solutions to avoiding both sugar and clutter fall into two main groups. They are: No Sugar But Still Special Food, and Nice Versions of Small Things They Really Do Need/Will Use. Below are a few ideas I’ve used over the years… website links are beneath each idea. BTW no one is paying me to say any of this because I’m simply not that big a deal.

  1. No Sugar But Still Special Food:

Dried Cherries: Shhhhh! Don’t tell but I am totally doing this this year. I mean, Santa is. I hear. Chukar Cherries offers dried Rainer, Tart and Bing Cherries without added sugar in 6 oz bags for

Dried Cherries with No Added Sugar are a Special Treat

about $10 each, or in tiny 1.85 oz. snack bags coupled with pistachios, cashews and almonds, 12 pack for $39, so $3 each. Other dried fruits or freeze dried fruits can be great too, just be sure to check that they don’t contain added sugar, artificial sugar or sugar alcohols (if advertised “sugar free” be on the look-out for sucralose, erythritol, mannitol, isomalt. I’d avoid these things as well.)

https://www.chukar.com/fruits-and-nuts/fruits-and-nuts-no-sugar-added.html

The first time I tried this tea the guy said, “You’re going to think there’s sugar in it. There isn’t.”

Tea in a Tin: Not so much a kid gift, but adults hang stockings in our house too. Try: Harney and Sons Hot Cinnamon Spice Tea, which, due to its combination of spices, tastes as if it is sweetened… but it isn’t. Seriously, I wouldn’t kid you about this. $8. Also consider hot sauces, little jars of special olives stuffed with garlic, fancy French mustards, olive oil so prized it comes with an eyedropper… anything you can’t buy at the supermarket automatically counts as “special.”

Hot Cinnamon Spice

It explodes AND is edible. What more could a kid want?

Popcorn: There’s just something fun about the idea of food that explodes. Unflavored, unpopped popcorn is your best bet in the no added sugar department, so ignore the millions of “gourmet” flavored varieties that include everything from maple bacon to booze… instead how about corn still-on-the-cob? All you need is a brown paper bag and you can pop it right off the cob in your microwave. It really is kind of fun and you’re avoiding PFOAs! (The very nasty chemicals coating microwave popcorn bags.) At $5 for a two-cob bag you are paying a premium per cob for the novelty of it of course, but then again it’s the cheapest thing on this list so chalk it up to the Elves’ Union or something. Or, if you have more stockings to fill, they also have a package of ten cobs for $17, giving you a much better deal per cob.

https://www.etsy.com/listing/290327177/popcorn-on-the-cob-pops-off-the-cob-twin?ga_order=most_relevant&ga_search_type=all&ga_view_type=gallery&ga_search_query=popcorn&ref=sr_gallery-1-28&organic_search_click=1

https://www.etsy.com/listing/242419899/popcorn-on-the-cob-pops-off-the-cob?ga_order=most_relevant&ga_search_type=all&ga_view_type=gallery&ga_search_query=popcorn&ref=sr_gallery-1-15&organic_search_click=1

  1. Nice Versions of Small Things They Really Do Need/Will Use

Tie these up in a bunch with a big fat ribbon

Personalized Pencils: School supplies that are fun but usable can be great. Scented or shaped erasers, a stapler that looks like a man-eating shark- you get the idea. I love personalization as a way to make something mundane into something special- and kids LOVE having their name printed on things. You can get 24 in a variety of colors or designs for around $10.

https://www.orientaltrading.com/teaching-supplies-and-stationery/stationery/pencils/personalizable-a1-551467+18-1.fltr

Sloth Slippers is a good tongue twister

Big Fluffy Slipper Socks: Last year I found some super-fluffy, plush slipper socks for my two daughter’s stockings. At $20 a pair, they were on the expensive side, however the upside was that they took up a lot of room in the stocking. YES! This year I found this site (below) and I love both the slippers and the socks which are priced between $7 and $12. However- be careful of buying Santa-themed items- how much use will these really get after X-mas day? Instead I’d go with cuddly polar bears and penguins which are good all winter long.

Women

Because soap on a rope is fun to say. Plus: Snoopy

Fun Soaps: Soap is so great. It can be made in so many shapes and scents, and everyone needs it (unlike, say, scented candles or potpourri, which really aren’t for everyone.) Best of all, it’ll eventually get enjoyed and used up all at the same time. The Vermont Country Store has wonderfully cute animal-shaped soaps on a rope, for about $15, as well as soaps shaped like the gang from Peanuts. Please tell Santa I want the Snoopy.

https://www.vermontcountrystore.com/animal-pals-soap-on-a-rope/product/68775

So let me know: what do you think?

What other No Sugar/ No Clutter stocking stuffers have you found?

Happy Scrinching.

A Year Of No Sugar: Post 92

December 27, 2011 § Leave a comment

Maybe I should’ve known Aunt Carol’s house would be the hardest of all. Why? Because Aunt Carol is great. She is the kind of relative who not only bakes fourteen different kinds of cookies for the holidays, but she bakes enough to give every relative who’s in town a huge sampler plate of them to take home as well. She’s been known to make her own chocolates, and to decorate kid’s birthday cakes so elaborately they might do for a small wedding reception.

Greta's Plate

I identify with Aunt Carol in this respect: food is an expression of love. And up until this year, I too brought a sweet gift for all the relatives that I had made in my kitchen… some years I brought homemade jams, others I made little cakes in canning jars. In the years when our kids were really small and making something myself wasn’t happening I brought locally-made gifts like maple sugar cotton candy and maple cream spread. Sensing a theme here? If food can equal love, than I guess sugar can equal Christmas.

Because of this, I always knew the holidays would represent our greatest sugar challenge. This year we are spending them in Michigan with my husband’s extended family, as we do every other year. A good eleven-hour drive from home, this area is a suburban ocean between the city-shores of Toledo and Detroit, and there’s just a lot more of everything here: people, convenience stores, fast food restaurants, chain restaurants, billboards, freeways, parking lots, sirens… coming from our little Vermont town of a thousand residents the contrast can create culture whiplash. Then again, there’s more variety here too: we can’t get authentic Greek or Lebanese or Indian food in Vermont, but we can get it here.

But back to Aunt Carol. Since long-before I ever happened upon the scene, my husband’s family has been getting together to exchange gifts on Christmas Eve. This year Aunt Carol had volunteered to host again so we all arrived in our Christmas coats and fancy shoes at 6:05 on the dot.

Immediately, it was a problem. Greta took one look at the usual spread- cookies on the counter, fudge in a pretty glass basket, local Dietsch’s chocolate samplers open on the sideboard- and quickly came to the conclusion that this was going to be the worst Christmas ever.

Ilsa- by comparison, is easy. She asks, “Can I have this?” and when the inevitable answer is no, she shrugs it off and runs off to go play. It may be that Greta just has a bigger sweet tooth, but more likely I think is the possibility that she has a pre-teenager’s burgeoning need for independence and to make her feelings known by all in the immediate vicinity. She, unlike Ilsa, spent a good portion of her Christmas Eve pouting and making meaningful, tragic faces in my direction.

This Year's Treats

Dinner wasn’t much easier. As she has other years, Aunt Carol had lovingly and graciously provided a buffet for all of us, and, ungrateful wretch that I am, I couldn’t eat most of it. There was store-bought pulled pork and chicken, white and whole-wheat buns, baked beans, applesauce… of course, sugar to one degree or another in all of it. I don’t know if it was intended for our benefit, but I was extremely, extremely grateful for the one large tray of mac and cheese that evening… if not for that we would’ve been stuck eating olives for dinner and I’m pretty sure Greta would’ve gotten enough mileage out of that to extend her extreme pout-fest well into her thirties.

None of the relatives said much about the sugar project, probably because they think I’m loopier than the Cocoa Puffs bird for talking my family into it in the first place. But they all were nice enough to ask about my recent health issues, so I guess they still like me.

And then, thankfully, the present opening began. Greta and Ilsa were fully diverted for the remainder of the evening opening gifts, trying things on, helping the babies and toddlers, and creating a Bionicle masterpiece with cousin Donovan. That sour, Grinchy frown disappeared from Greta’s face, and it was replaced by the happiness of being a kid at Christmas. Thank God.

Granted, eating right next to a plate of forbidden chocolates and cookies on Christmas Eve isn’t ideal. But it was, I think, the biggest challenge we’ve had all year, and we survived it. I’m proud of that- and proud of my family. And profoundly grateful for them. A good way to feel on Christmas, I think.

So what did I bring this year? Sweet things from my kitchen, of course! Over the past few weeks I’ve been experimenting with “quick breads” of all kinds- banana, apple, pumpkin pecan… all made with no fructose; just fruit and good old dextrose. I wonder if anyone will notice.

A Year Of No Sugar: Post 91

December 22, 2011 § 1 Comment

It just wouldn’t be Christmas without cookies, would it? As much as hanging our stockings and running out of Scotch tape, cookies have become an intrinsic part of the way our culture celebrates the holiday season. Every family I know has their own unique and highly personalized cookie tradition.

Making Cookies

When I was growing up, it was jelly thumbprints and chocolate chip meringues. Maybe this doesn’t sound very Christmasy to you, but all I have to do is taste that buttery dough with a bit of raspberry jam and I am instantly transported to the Christmases of my childhood. I have since realized that making those two cookies together also represented an ingenious way to not let any eggs go to waste: thumbprints got the yolks, meringues the whites. In my husband’s house it was- and still is- his mother’s amazingly addictive sugar-cookie cut-outs with icing and sprinkles. The famous family story about them involves Sharon making them far in advance one year, in an attempt to get ahead of the holiday mayhem, only to find that the boys had discovered her stash and eaten ALL the cookies in advance- perhaps also to get a jump on the holiday season.

Dextrose Gingerbread

When I grew up, I learned from my cousin Gretchen that our family had a much older cookie tradition that had been brought over from the old country called “Flettin.” Every November, weeks before the holiday season really got underway, the family women would convene and proceed to spend the entire day rolling, cutting, and frying dough. After being sprinkled with a mixture of powdered sugar and cinnamon, the delicate little things would be wrapped in linen and stored in the attic (!!) for several weeks to let them “age,” which presumably made them even more crunchy and crispy. I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure in my house the attic mice would do a number on these cookie baskets similar to what my husband and his brother did to his mother’s big green Tupperware bowl.

Nonetheless, in recent years our family has revived the Flettin tradition. It’s more of a production these days, since everyone is coming from all across New England rather than from down the block or across town, but all the planning pays off when we finally arrive at one of our houses and settle in to tie on the apron strings. Even with the dough prepared in advance- a very strange recipe involving lots of sour cream, separated eggs and kneading (who kneads cookie dough?)- it takes pretty much all day. We always set up an assembly line with the Flettin veterans at the fryers and novices and kids on cookie cutting and sugar-sprinkling detail.

The Baking Sheet

For years Gretchen had been threatening to send the story of our Flettin tradition to the King Arthur Flour’s magazine The Baking Sheet– with hopes they would finally resolve some of our long-standing debates: has anyone else ever heard of this recipe? Do we really have to separate and whisk the egg whites, only to knead and pound the dough after their addition? And honestly, was that aging in the attic thing a real step, or yet another clever strategy for getting a head start on the holidays?

Gretchen really did send our story in, and, amazingly, they published it in their 2011 holiday issue. If you find a copy, you can read all about it, see pictures of our family, the cookies, and find out what they thought about our quirky family recipe. We all thought that was pretty cool.

But that’s not really the point, I think. Cause you know what? Flettin are a lot of work, part of our family history and a wonderful Christmas tradition, but psst!… they’re not THAT good. I mean, they’re good. But is that really what we drive several hours for? What we slave over a hot fryer all afternoon for? “Linen in the attic” instructions notwithstanding, in my opinion they always taste best that day, warm from the fryer, freshly sprinkled and eaten while surrounded by family, some of whom you won’t have the opportunity to see again till we do this next year. We don’t have much in the way of family heritage, so Gretchen and I are holding onto Flettin tight: it’s not really about the cookies as much as about the fact that they’re our cookies.

As it turns out, this year the family didn’t manage to get together for a Flettin day, so I didn’t have to confront what it would mean in light of No Sugar- too bad. Instead, I’ve been creating some oxymoronic recipes at home such as No-Sugar Sugar Cookies and Dextrose Gingerbread. They’ve so far gotten good reviews from my helpers and harshest critics- the kids. Thus, despite all our fretting, I have a sneaking suspicion that a No Sugar Christmas will work out just fine. Sugar or no, the most important part of these cookies will be the fact that we baked them, and ate them, together.

A Year Of No Sugar: Post 88

December 8, 2011 § 8 Comments

Let me tell you- this whole Christmas in a No Sugar household business? It is not for the faint of heart.

But before I begin, I’d just like to issue a formal declaration to all friends and family members: you may not, repeat NOT use the following information as ammunition to forward your argument that I am off my gourd and have been for the last, oh, say, eleven months or so. If you are helpfully wondering if I would like to talk about this, the answer is no. If you make the ill-advised decision to taunt me with quotes from this essay, I promise to sing “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” loudly until you cease and desist. Listening to me sing, as many of you already know, does not promise to be a very pleasant experience. You have been warned.

But… the holidays are coming– and I mean this in the most ominous way possible. Sometimes, it feels like we’ve been in training for the month of December this entire year. Christmas– the mother of all sugar holidays, the most fructose-laden of them all: more than Thanksgiving, which is a limited, one-day-only gluttony, more than Halloween, which focuses almost exclusively on the kids, more than birthdays and Easter and Valentine’s Day combined… As the dozens of mail-order catalogs arriving at our house every day clearly confirm, Christmas, for many of us, is about celebrating the birth of Jesus through a month-long marathon of sweets, treats, cookies and cake.

Greta's Journal

But that’s not what bothers me. What bothers me is the dread that my children are already expressing at the prospect of facing a sweet-restricted Christmas. Sure, we’ve discussed that Christmas itself will be the day we have our “special dessert” for the month, and that otherwise we can use dextrose to make versions of our favorite traditional treats… but on this account my daughter Greta refuses all attempts at consolation.

“Oh help me… I feel so helpless like I have know will or say in anything,” she wrote in her journal tonight. “Like my mom’s & Dad’s say & will com(e)s first and overpowers mine.”

Oof.

Her entry goes on to lay the blame for her situation on David Gillespie, the author of Sweet Poison, from whom I’ve derived so much inspiration. (Sorry David!) As we were getting ready for bed I tried telling her that Mr. Gillespie is actually a very nice man, and remind her that he has six children of his own who also avoid fructose, including one daughter just her age. But Greta isn’t having any of it.

“I hate it! I hate it! I hate it!” she explodes, pounding her fists on her mattress. Her eyes are shining with tears.

Now, you may not be aware of this, but my eleven year old has a bit of a flair for the dramatic. (Perhaps it’s our retribution for naming her Greta- as in Garbo.) But, believe it or not, this is by far the most displeasure she has expressed with our No Sugar Year to date, and I have to admit I was a bit taken aback. Of course, I hate the idea that “my” project is causing them angst, sadness, ridicule at school… but I knew there had to be that side of it, didn’t I? Didn’t I?

While Greta’s outburst worries me, Ilsa worries me more. Ilsa is six. The other day we were buying sandwiches at a local shop when she reached out her hand curiously to touch a bowl of something on the countertop near the coffee carafes. When Greta suddenly warned her “That’s sugar!”, she actually flinched.

Then tonight, as she was using a magazine for a craft project, she showed me an ad for Haagen Daz ice cream. “Mama, I’m glad we’re not keeping this.” she said. “It hurts me.”

Oh. Shit.

Really, honey?” I stopped what I was doing and looked at her closely.

“Yeah.” She looked at me a little seriously, a little incredulously, as if to say, What, you didn’t know?

SO it’s been a busy night around here tonight! (What with me color coding my Mildred Pierce coat hanger collection and everything…) Directly following the “I hate it” episode, I took a de-e-e-e-e-p breath and asked both girls to look at me from where they sat, half-tucked into their comforters in their parallel beds, each with it’s own sizable coral reef of stuffed-animal life-forms.

“Listen. I want you to know. I know this year has been really, really hard. And I want you to know how much I appreciate the fact that you’ve gone along and done this project with me all year long. And it’s almost over- the really strict part. It’s almost over.” I feel like a broken record, even though I mean it. Is there really nothing I can do to assuage this sadness/anger/pain I have willingly invoked in them? Will words- in which I put such complete faith- really fail me?

Suddenly, as if on cue, Greta raises her index finger in the air, in a dramatic professor “Aha!” pose.

“My First Biography!” she declares with an impish grin that has- at least for the moment- erased her tears. “My Terrible Childhood!”

I smile. Now, that’s more like it.

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