This is the 23rd year, and it will be her last.
The cooking and baking start the Sunday afternoon before New Year’s Eve. Mickey Bates — long a professional cook and caterer, never knows how many people will come to her home in Naselle on New Year’s Day. A few years ago as many as 90 people showed up; last year it was only 45. Sometimes everyone arrives early, sometimes late. It all depends on the weather and other things scheduled. It depends on football games, who is in town, who is gone.
“I don’t know how many to expect until the day is over,” she said. So there is always a lot of food.
It started 23 years ago when her little yellow house had just been remodeled. Mickey agreed to open her house up as part of the Christmas Tour of Homes, an annual fundraiser for the Finnish-American Folk Festival of Naselle. It went well enough, so Mickey decided to do something on New Year’s Day.
“I just decided to have a party,” she said, “and I just invited everyone I knew.”
A few years ago, my wife, Amy, and I agreed to open up our 100-year-old house to the home tour. Preparing for an unpredictable number of guests, cleaning and decorating, making food and making our private lives vulnerable for inspection — it was all terrifying and exhilarating. Perhaps because we entertain so few visitors in our home.
It was so rewarding, yet so exhausting.
That kind of visiting — having people stop by on a Sunday afternoon for coffee and cookies at your house — seems like something we do a lot less of these days. Of course, we have projects and irregular schedules, things to do. Moreover, online interactions, even with neighbors a few doors down, make our social life seem ever present.
Home, then, is our private refuge.
Mickey commanded the kitchen
But online interaction is a poor replacement for bringing people into your home. There is something to be said for breaking bread with your neighbors and friends, especially in the darkest days of winter.
Mickey was still a cook at the Naselle Youth Camp back then, so her holiday party was not always on Jan. 1.
Most years, however, it came on the first day of the year, and every year but one it has featured Finnish rice pudding — Unni Riisipuuro. You must try the huckleberry sauce on it. Mickey spent a month in the mountains picking the huckleberries.
She is an amazing cook.
It’s hard to describe the smells and sights that greeted you as you arrive. Every surface of the kitchen, everywhere you looked, was covered in food. The center of the kitchen was occupied with tables, and the tables were covered with her creations: finger foods, soups, salads, breads as well as desserts stacked high on multi-tiered trays. Tables arranged with some of the best things you’d ever tasted. There was a big urn of strong coffee and hot water for tea, of course.
The menu changes depending on what is available and what she feels like making.
“I’m going to make peanut butter pie this year,” she said. “Just because I’ve had a craving for it lately.”
This year featured salmon chowder as well as minestrone and turkey noodle soups, multiple finger foods and all the desserts. The menu is always a buffet of discovery, with the rice pudding the only constant.
“I’m getting older,” she explained. “I keep simplifying the menu.”
And once you’d filled your plate — for the first time, that is ... you always went back for seconds, at least — you would find her living room and dining room cacophonous with laughter and talk among friends and neighbors. Some were folks you’d see every day, and some you’d see hardly at all. Introductions were made across shared tables. Kids played board games in the living room.
Invitations to this party went out with Christmas cards, and were a coveted thing. This year she sent out about 45. While people came from as far away as Canada, most are friends and relatives from Naselle, Astoria and Grays River. Parking spilled over onto the lawn between the naked limbs of the fruit trees. One year Mikey enlisted a neighbor who owned a limo to collect a few of the older ladies in the valley, and they were tickled to arrive in such style.
“I decided people didn’t get together and visit like when I was a kid,” she explained. “What I remember is that every Sunday the house was full of relatives and grandma was making chicken dinner.”
At these parties, it was Mickey in the kitchen. I don’t think I ever saw her sit down; she is coordinating and in command.
However, it was clear she enjoyed people coming into her home and partaking of her hospitality and each other’s company. She is as well known for her generosity of heart as she is her art as a cook.
“Two of the best parties we ever had, I wasn’t even there for — I was sick in bed,” she said with a laugh. One year she handed the list to a friend and went to bed with a cold. “Every time I woke up it sounded like they were having a terrific party.”
Another year, she had a horrible headache. That was the year a few people showed up with musical instruments and someone started playing her piano, which was right up against her wall. “I never knew that old piano could sound so good.”
Warmth and light in winter comes from the laughter of other people, and I fear it is too tempting to shutter ourselves away. I look around my house, and it is cluttered with the detritus of daily living and the aftermath of the holiday season. I wonder at the ambition of cooking for so many people while also cleaning.
“The older you get, the less you fuss about things like that,” Mickey said. “It is what it is.”
What it is, is home.
Ed Hunt is a registered nurse and former reporter for the Chinook Observer. His latest book “Vine Maple in the Autumn Light” is now available on Amazon.