“When you think of having a fancy dinner, what comes to mind?” I asked my 10-year-old stepson over breakfast the other day. You could have heard a blob of foie gras drop in the ensuing silence.
“Ok, like, what would you wear to be fancy?” I prompted. He assumed a “You can see that I’m actively thinking from my expression” expression. Several seconds passed, and then his face lit up and he replied, “A tuxedo T-shirt?”
I’m sure his fellow fifth grader Barron Trump would have sprayed a mouthful of Caviar Crunch cereal all over the informal dining room if he heard that response, but I thought it was perfect — and not just because I share his passion for tuxedo T-shirts.
As I see it, his generous standard for fanciness means that we can pull off a memorably high-fallutin’ New Year’s Eve dinner on a hillbilly budget.
During my first December with Beloved and his two Tiny Humans, I faced the same dilemma as “bonus parents” everywhere: I wanted to celebrate with the kids, but I did not want to step on the toes of, much less compete with Mom 1.0. We needed our own traditions.
Christmas took care of itself. Paper is cheap, we own scissors, and we enjoy horrible movies. So, watching a “Sharknado” flick while making Christmas decorations became a ‘thing.” We usually make snowflakes to hang in the window, but this year we made a garland of popcorn for the tree. We learned the hard way that if you use stale kernels, your stringing experience may leave you as bloody as an encounter with a storm-tossed Great White. Take it from me — buy the good stuff.
New Year’s Eve was a bit trickier. What do you do with kids on a holiday that adults celebrate by staying up too late and drinking heavily? A column by family-dining gurus Jenny Rosenstrach and Andy Ward proposed having a “fancy” family dinner party at home. Their menu was a bit spendy for mere mortals, but we liked the idea. It turned out to be both hilarious and fun.
I suspect actual rich people don’t ever use the words “classy” or “fancy,” but I have no first-hand knowledge of this. There was a girl in my fifth-grade class who took voice lessons and had been to see a play. We all thought she was impossibly chic.
By contrast, my parents called Target “Tar-ZHAAY” to make it sound like a fancy French department store. Saying it that way showed how gleefully not fancy we were, while simultaneously revealing that we secretly felt a bit fancy when we could go to Target instead of K-Mart, or, God forbid, the Sprouse-Reitz five-and-dime where enormous nylon granny panties were always displayed on coat hangers.
The road-apple doesn’t fall far from the horse. Thirty years and two states away, we set our family table each night with paper towels that have been torn in half for economy. We know we’re not low-lifes, because we call the roll of paper towels “Continuous Linen.”
Which is all to say that it doesn’t matter if you’re 80 miles and two tax-brackets away from the nearest tin of caviar. Being fancy, much like paying the bills each month, just requires a little creativity.
I polled my friends and cousins about what made them feel like they were living the high life when they were little. Most of them come also from families that clawed their way into the middle-class at some point in the last century, and their answers were hilariously consistent.
“Anything with ‘cocktail’ in the name,” my cousin Chelsea said. She and my sister both advocated for anything served on toothpicks or paper doilies.
“Basically anything tiny,” Chelsea added. A lot of the others agreed that wee, precious foods and individual servings, i.e., pudding in little dishes, were the height of sophistication. My cousin in Minnesota thinks fondue is non-negotiable on New Year’s Eve. She’s the mother of two set of twins, so if she can find time to cut tiny cubes of bread, you can too. A local friend loved Lil’ Smokies swimming in grape jelly, while a friend from the Southwest preferred them baked in a cocoon of canned crescent roll dough, a la “Pigs in a Blanket.” My friend Isaac adored mini-quiches.
“Something about eating five whole pies at a time feels decadent,” he explained. Cheese balls got several nods.
Several people noted that nothing is officially fancy until is has a garnish, but for a surprising number of my friends, dips — especially in bread bowls — were the hallmark of true extravagance.
“My mom used to bake a loaf of pumpernickel bread in a coffee can,” said my friend Katie, an actual chef. “Then she’d hollow it out and fill it with spinach dip. The grandeur of this dish really impressed me as a kid.”
Nearly everyone agreed that there are only two suitably glamorous beverage options for the pre-teen set: Shirley Temples, and sparkling juices that come in a wine bottle.
My friend Sarah remembered how grown-up she felt when her mother served her bubbly apple cider or grape juice.
“Anything with maraschino cherries,” my friend Amy said. One outlier pointed out that non-alcoholic punch with something frozen floating in it impresses the hell out of any kid.
If it’s a Maraschino cherry kind of night, you might as well go all the way. Have everyone dress up. Go to the dollar store and get some paper doilies, plastic champagne flutes, silly New Year’s hats and fake gold “cutlery.” Whisper a little apology to the environment on the drive home.
You get bonus points for sparklers and party poppers. Quadruple bonus points for a bowl filled with those bubble gum cigarettes that blow powdered sugar “smoke.” You can get them on Amazon. I’ve given them to my stepkids and nephews several years in a row, and none of them have started smoking, although my nephew’s acuity for blowing streams of smoke with a blasé expression on his face is admittedly a bit alarming.
One thing that makes rich people different is that they get desserts that defy the laws of physics. But Baked Alaska requires dry ice, and I doubt even the fabled One Percent enjoys the “Dollop of Bleu Cheese Mousse enrobed in an orb of Cedar Smoke, with a coulis of Ambergris and dusting of artisanal volcanic ash, accompanied by a foie gras and butterscotch slider”-type desserts.
You know what everyone likes? Fire.
My Uncle Rand — who liked to call himself “Dear Sweet Kind Old Uncle Rand” — waited tables in fine-dining establishments when I was a kid. Eighties cuisine was all about flash, excess and showmanship, so tableside preparation of flaming desserts was one of his job duties. DSKOU Rand brought this magic home to us in the form of “Cherries Jubilee,” or “Jubies Cherrilee,” as we called it.
It’s a simple, seriously delicious sauce that you briefly set on fire, or “Flambé,” before pouring it over vanilla ice cream. The effect is dazzling. The pan goes “WOOSH!” and fills with orange-licked blue flames. Everyone gasps as you pour a ribbon of molten cherry syrup and liquid fire into the bowl. A second later, it flickers out.
It’s really pretty easy to do. Just use common sense, and you won’t set your hair on fire.
Buy a pound of frozen or canned cherries. Freddy’s has a mixed bag of sweet Bing and tart pie cherries in the frozen fruit section. Brace yourself: This may cost as much as $12.
In a big frying pan, melt 1/2 stick of real butter over medium heat. Add the thawed cherries, about ¼ cup of brown sugar, a pinch of salt, a light dusting of cinnamon, and the juice from half of a lemon. Stir, taste, and adjust until you have a nice balance of tart and sweet.
Turn the heat up to medium-high, and let it bubble away, stirring occasionally, until the juice gets syrupy. Scoop good vanilla ice cream into bowls.
Turn off the stove. Tie back your hair, push up your sleeves, remove any curtains, cats, babies, etc., from wherever you plan to set your dessert on fire. You probably won’t need them, but you could set a bowl of water and a dish towel nearby just in case.
Pour up to ¼ cup of hard liquor or liqueur over the top, but don’t mix it in. Kirsch is traditional but pricey. Brandy works just as well. I used bourbon. Vodka would work, but would be totally flavorless. Gin would be awful.
I added a capful of Everclear because I needed brighter flames for the photo. Definitely don’t do this. It went up like San Francisco in 1906, briefly catching some decorative streamers on fire. The splattered cherry juice made our backdrop look like a murder scene. The Everclear didn’t totally burn off, and we ended up accidentally getting a bit drunk.
Touch a match or lighter to the booze and pull your hand away. Bask in the “oohs” and “aahs” as you gently swirl the pan. After 30 seconds to a minute, the alcohol will burn away, and the flames will die down. Pour it over the ice cream, and eat it before it turns to soup.
Your children and spouse dressed in all black, save for their sparkly streamer hats. They tossed back canapes and Temples with casual elan, without even knowing what elan is. They gazed at you worshipfully as you set their dessert ablaze, and they are now in a fondue and ice-cream induced stupor. You’re exhausted and ready for them to totter off to bed to sleep off the Temples, but it’s only 8:30. Internet to the rescue!
The year we did the Family Fancy Feast, we had rare flash of brilliance, and realized that we could simply stream the ball drop in Times Square live, a full three hours before west coast midnight!
Nine p.m. rolled around. We gathered ‘round the laptop, and in the warm glow of the monitor, we counted down, popped our poppers, sang the first line of Auld Lang Syne and mumbled the rest, kissed each other’s cheeks and sent the kids off to bed. They were too little to know they hadn’t actually stayed up until midnight.
It was a beautiful way to start the year.