Thursday, November 17, 2011

Thankful At The Beach

Hal's last Thanksgiving.
Our big holiday is Thanksgiving. For years we’ve been setting up our traditional feast on the beach, on picnic tables, with lovely tablecloths and silverware and flowers. We always bring the turkey. Michael cooks it and I make the gravy. By doing this we are always assured of those precious leftovers. This will be our 15th year at the beach party we call the Hal Walsh Memorial Thanksgiving at the Beach.
Michael: Hey, where is everybody with the food?
    Hal Walsh was a guy who came to Key West via Connecticut and New York, where he’d spent the first half of his life going to the right schools, then working as a stockbroker, doing just what his stuffy parents expected him to do. At around age 50 Hal learned his heart was winding down pretty quickly. And so he decided to spend the remainder of his life doing exactly what he wanted to do. He moved to Key West. He got two cocker spaniels, and treated them like the children he never had. He was unapologetically cantankerous. He loved history and got a job managing the Truman Little White House, which he performed with true grace. He was single, and so we always spent Thanksgivings together, in somebody or other’s home. One year I had the idea of Thanksgiving at the Beach. Hal loved it; I think because it was so very different from how he’d always done it before, up north. Hal brought the cranberry sauce.  For Hal Walsh, Thanksgiving on the beach was a rebellion.
    Hal’s heart finally gave out just before our second Thanksgiving on the beach. He’d phoned to assure me that he was bringing his famous cranberry sauce. He added that he was having some problems with a new heart medicine. “I hope I don’t drop dead at the table,” he said. But he didn’t make it to the Thanksgiving table. He died that night. We learned from his sister, when she came to town to manage his affairs, that he’d told her several times about how much he cherished Thanksgiving on the beach, and about how much he was looking forward to our next Thanksgiving. And that’s why we call it the Hal Walsh Memorial Thanksgiving at the Beach.
Rocky, Mom, Paula, Merle, June
    Of course the year Hal died, we didn’t have cranberry sauce. Then, for years after that, somehow the cranberry sauce didn’t make it to the feast. And, as everybody knows, you can hardly call it Thanksgiving dinner without a bowl of cranberry something on the table. Somebody forgot to bring it. Or somebody didn’t get the word they were supposed to bring it. And whenever that moment arrived when we once again realized that we’d somehow not arrived with cranberry sauce, I swear I heard Hal chuckling at us.
    Through the years we’ve had quite an assortment of people at the Hal Walsh Thanksgiving at the Beach party. A regular part of the gathering was Rosie Jones and her daughter Aja. They came because Rosie’s husband Michael, the singer, always worked on Thanksgiving. Now that he’s a senior staff member, he gets Thanksgivings off. And prefers to have his turkey at home with his little family. My mother joined us a few times, too. One year she yelled at one of our guests, an oncologist, because her sisters had both died of cancer.  Many of our guests have come and gone from Key West, that is they've moved on to other places and other things. Mom is with Hal now, in the great beyond.
Thea's last Jersey blizzard!!
    This year my son is going to New York City for Thanksgiving. A week ago an old friend from New York called to ask if she might invite herself to Thanksgiving on the beach. Hell, yeah! Come on down! The joy of sharing the day with someone I’ve known since kindergarten has relieved the sadness I feel at not having my son with me on the holiday.
    Our summertime neighbor Thea, a teacher retired at last and finally ready to live forevermore in her Key West house, just arrived in town. It’s so good to have her back because there’s nothing gloomier than an empty conch house except perhaps the sad e-mails that come from the homesick owner of said house, stranded in New Jersey trying to sell the house she owns there.  This will be her first Thanksgiving on the beach.
    I just made the cranberry sauce. Here’s the recipe: 2 cups whole raw cranberries, washed. 1 small onion. 3/4 cup sour cream. 1/2 cup sugar. 2 tablespoons horseradish from a jar.  Grind the raw berries and onion together in a food processor. You want it chunky. Not pureed. In a bowl combine this raw mix with everything else. Put it in a plastic container and put it into your freezer.  On Thanksgiving eve take it out of the freezer and place it into your refrigerator to thaw. Serve it cold or at room temperature. The relish will be creamy and bright pink and absurdly delicious with turkey and also good on turkey sandwiches the next day.
    Today, as I was grinding cranberries, I wondered what Mom and Hal, my favorite rebels, might be doing for Thanksgiving this year. I had a vision of the two of them, in a Chinese restaurant, sipping martinis and enjoying the air conditioning.

 To see Hal's 5-minute tour of the Little White House paste this address into your browser:

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Ain't Nothin' Like The Real Thing, Baby

Claire Lynch. She's sweet. She's sassy. She's always on pitch.
When it comes to music, there’s nothing like the real thing, live musicians, on a stage, performing live music. That’s what we saw last Friday night when we went to see the Claire Lynch Band in concert in Bradenton.
Bluegrass fans are a genial sort. That's my man in the blue jacket waiting on line.
    Although Claire Lynch falls in the category of Bluegrass Music, her repertoire ranges far beyond the standard bluegrass stuff. And her players, tap-dancing bass man Mark Schatz, sizzling fiddler Jason Thomas, and young and thoroughly modern guitarist, Matt Wingate, all award-winning bluegrass and acoustic stars in their own right, turn Claire’s bright light up to dazzling brilliance. My old friend and boss Richard Heyman, former Key West mayor, once told me that one of his keys for success was to hire good people. Since then, America has grown lean and mean and competitive. I’ve noticed that bosses are not always interested in hiring stars who might distract from their greatness. But Claire Lynch is apparently beyond all that pettiness, and she is all the better for it, a wise woman indeed. 
These oranges had a cold weekend! Come on Florida Sun!
    Bluegrass fans are a friendly bunch. They smile a lot and behave while waiting on line or arranging themselves in seats.  It was a cool night in Bradenton and we were bundled in jackets, coats and even blankets. There were heaters, those great tall units that emit fabulous and far-reaching warmth. I was hoping there would be funnel cakes or deep-fried potatoes, like you find at big bluegrass festivals. I once waited on a long line at a Nova Scotia bluegrass festival for the most popular treat of the weekend: an Idaho potato, peeled with a machine into a long, curled ribbon, then deep fried in oil. Delicious! But no such treat at this concert. Only coffee, sandwiches and popcorn. Nothing really insane or even deep fried.
    Our nearby hotel, in Ellenton, a town we’d never heard of, was right on the Manatee River. Our room overlooked the river. Just outside our window a mighty oak tree, festooned in Spanish moss, swayed in the wind. Next to the hotel was a tiny trailer park, with funky, happy looking trailers. Then, a riverside bar and restaurant called Woody’s, where we ate great fish and chips. After the concert, we went back to Woody’s to find a live rock ‘n roll band with a lead singer every bit as old and wizened as Keith Richards. Surely he’d been at it since the '60s. He wore a big cowboy hat and during breaks sat on a huge speaker and smoked cigarettes, while a DJ played dance standards and urged us all out of seats and onto the floor.  It was never empty!
    On the way home we listened to Claire Lynch’s greatest hits album, which sounded even better after seeing the band perform live. Even the old guy in the cowboy hat singing "Honky Tonk Woman" was pretty cool. There’s nothing like the real thing.
The great Claire Lynch and the guys who make her even greater.
    I’ve come a long way since the day, many years ago, when I met my husband and he told me he was a fan of country music. My heart sank ‘cause I knew for sure there was no way we two could be a match. But we were. We are. I’m even looking forward to our next bluegrass concert.