birds in a barrel's mission is to release creative nonfiction into the wild.

40 Days & 40 Writes is its first project.

Eggs, knives, aftershave

Thanksgiving without knives?

Family always makes things interesting. My father and my grandmother were, interestingly enough, only nine years apart in age, and both ridiculously stubborn individuals. When they disagreed, mountains might be easier to move.

Thanksgiving was one holiday sure to bring yelling, bulging forehead veins, and more than a few choice words thrown in for good measure. The conflict? How to make the gravy. Because gravy is the stuff wars are fought over.

My father had made gravy every Thanksgiving long before my mother and I entered his life. He was set in his ways, and to be honest, he was quite good at it. Pan juices and flour were never such an art form under any one else's hand.

My grandmother, on the other hand, was a woman concerned with her figure, and flour was fattening. Very fattening. How could someone consider eating that? It's too thick, and the calories. Oh, My! No, my grandmother insisted on using arrowroot. This particular spice/herb/concoction was used exactly one time per year, and cost nearly as much as the turkey itself. To my somewhat miserly father, the cost alone made it out of the question.

It was three or four years into the marriage when the fighting started. Arrowroot/flour/arrowroot/flour. My mother and I learned it best to simply leave the room and let them battle it out, except it actually started to become a battle. Fists were pounded into the counters, dishes smashed onto the floor, hot pans upturned. My grandmother was small, but she was mighty. My father had a wicked bark, but his bite often fell short, especially when dealing with a woman. But my mother and I learned quickly that it was best to remove anything from the kitchen that could eventually be used as a weapon. So, we took the knives.

It was sort of a joke at first, but as the Scotch was consumed, and the Vodka Tonics increased in number, we realized our joke was actually a stroke of brilliance.

Who won? Well, each year one of them would acquiesce, though there was no discernable pattern to who would win.

We lost my grandmother nearly 20 years ago. Every Thanksgiving we tell the story of the gravy battles from hell. Watching my grandmother and my father clamor for victory was far more flavorful than anything that ended up on the table.

—    S.J.

Cracking Eggs

On Easter morning, with Easter baskets full of chocolate and jellybeans, courtesy of the Easter Bunny, we gather for breakfast and a family ritual. We each hold a hard-boiled, colored Easter egg. The idea is to smash your egg against other eggs held by family members, competing to see whose egg will not crack. My brothers and sister and I love this game and we try to cheat. If you are striking, hit hard and try to connect with the side of the egg, not the pointed end offered. If you are holding the egg, grip it in your hand so only a small portion of the shell is available to strike. The winner is tested against another egg and the ‘champion’ is the last un-cracked egg. When I ask my father why we crack eggs like this, he says he does not know, but it is a tradition passed down in his Syrian-Lebanese family. I stop caring about why when I realize my brother is about to hit my egg with a plastic egg substitute. He has found another way to cheat.

—    C.F.

Merry Christmas Eve

Yeah, my family was one of those: the ones who opened Christmas presents on Christmas Eve.

I've never been sure why we did that, or if it ever held any significance, but the gifts we gave each other were always opened on Christmas Eve, one by one, going around in a circle so everyone could see what everyone else got. Oh, it was a happy and joyous time, but there were rules that we had to follow.

Perhaps an orderly reason for this was that Christmas morning was reserved for us kids to open the presents that Santa had left us overnight. It was easy, this way, to separate the socks and sweaters our aunts gave us from what Santa brought, and I'm ashamed to say that I never noticed my parents never got anything on Christmas Day.

The other advantage, I guess, was that Christmas Eve dinner was always a hurried affair, and in later years, frequently involved take out. This kept the traditional Christmas dinner away from the bedlam of new presents and things, and was mostly focused on and centered around, the meal itself.

The other great advantage to this schedule, of course, was that most of my friends opened all their gifts on Christmas Day, and I got to see my new stuff a day before they did. No, it was too late and too dark for us to go out on Christmas Eve after opening the presents, but I already had mine and knew my friends did not.

—    R.K.

Aqua Velva

In the alternating holiday shuffle, we spent Thanksgivings with my mother's family in Indianapolis. We would drive over from Ohio, and other relative would arrive from the southern reaches of the state, including my uncle and my mother's aunt.

I was too young and largely useless to help prepare any of the foods, which always included classics such as sweet potato souffle and green beans with cream of mushroom soup and fried onions on top. My part of the tradition involved spending time with my great-grandmother.

My great grandmother smoked Camels and drank whisky and was very competitive at cards. I learned to play Gin Rummy from her, and she never took it easy on me, far as I could tell. We'd sit at the kitchen table, shove the placemats aside, and set out long runs of cards.

We also shared one of the guest rooms upstairs, which had two twin beds. I'm not sure why this was the arrangement, but maybe because I was a sound sleeper. She snored. Loudly. She would have been about 80 when I was 9, which seems simultaneously really old and sort of immortal. Still, I recall waking up in a panic in the middle of the night because the snoring had suddenly stopped. I lay very still, listening very closely, sure she'd just died. In fact she'd gotten up to go the bathroom.

At some point during the long weekend, GM and I would do two things together hidden away in our upstairs bedroom. First, she would bring out a bag or box with all her spare change from the year, and we would sort the coins and put them in wrappers, and she would give them to me as my spending money. And then we would wrap the presents she'd always already bought for my family to take home and put under the tree. And that always, always included a bottle of Aqua Velva aftershave for my Dad.

—    R.R.

A Tradition is Born Under the Sign: RUM

Five years ago, my brother and I decided to take a road trip to Arizona to see our aunt and uncle who live in Phoenix, take in a couple Spring Training baseball games, and just as an excuse to spend a weekend together. It’s now become an annual tradition, and although our schedules become busier every year, we always find a way to clear a couple days for Phoenix.

When you talk about exciting cities to escape to for a weekend, Phoenix doesn’t usually rank high on people’s hit lists. In fact, I don’t think it would have become an annual tradition at all, if it weren’t for something that happened on the inaugural night of our first road trip there.

Though I won’t lay blame on anyone specific, it wasn’t me who caused us to leave later in the day on Saturday than we had originally intended. We made the roughly six-hour drive in my Prius without stopping and arrived in downtown Phoenix a little before 11p.

Downtown Phoenix has come a long way in the last half decade, but, at the time, it was as deserted as you’d expect a desert city to be. For a “downtown,” the streets were surprisingly wide and empty, the streetlights were dim or non-existent. The whole place had a spooky, post-apocalyptic vibe to it. We also hadn’t eaten since lunchtime, and there was next to nothing open.

Our choices were two: Subway or a nice enough looking sausage joint called the Dog Haus. I was happy to grab a bratwurst and fall asleep after the long drive, but my brother said it wasn’t good enough. I was incredulous that we would find anything better.

We were on Sixth Street and my brother, without consulting Yelp or a map, said we had to walk toward First Street. I followed him, but was unconvinced that a lower numbered street would yield better results. As part of his early career, he was on the road 75% of his time, so he has a lot of experience dropping in to a city and finding his bearings.

But this time, he was wrong. First street seemed as dead as Second through Sixth. He made a turn and kept walking, right down First. It was now just after 11p, and I was convinced everything would be closed and we’d have to drive out to an all-night McDonalds or give up and wait until breakfast.

About two blocks down First Street, on a tiny, nondescript side-street, we spotted a small sign hanging under some strung-up Christmas lights. Its simple message: “RUM.” I made the inference that this was a bar, and if it even had a kitchen, said kitchen would probably be closed. Nevertheless, it wouldn’t be my first time having a Mai Tai for dinner.

I’ve never been so happy to be wrong. The sign was the only marker out front, so we had to walk in to find out the establishment was called The Breadfruit—a Jamaican restaurant and rum bar. The kitchen was open until midnight—it was the only kitchen in downtown Phoenix open late.

Over the next hour, we proceeded to eat one of best meals we’ve ever had: rum-soaked scallops, Jerk Prawns and Johnny Cakes, roasted plantains. The food was paired with custom cocktails ranging from the fruity to the spicy to the full-bodied. We stayed an hour after closing, sitting out on a back “cigar” patio, helping the staff polish off the Punch of the Day – made with hibiscus, nutmeg, and Appleton Special.

When we book our trip each year, we try to find a room at our preferred hotel, we hope that our aunt and uncle are in town that weekend, we take a casual glance at what Spring Training games are being played, but the first order of business is always booking a table for two: Saturday night, 11p at The Breadfruit.

—    D.T.

 

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