Winter Gatherings

An amazing spread of grilled vegetables, fresh greens, nuts, olives and cheeses assembled by my friend, Jaminda. Delicious! Photos by Rachel Cuthbert Photography

An amazing spread of grilled vegetables, fresh greens, nuts, olives and cheeses assembled by my friend, Jaminda. Delicious! Photos by Rachel Cuthbert Photography

The holiday fog has finally cleared.  Post New Years, it takes me about two weeks to dig out, regroup, and to start missing people again. ; ) As January draws to a close, and winter has clearly set in (currently digging out from 8” new inches of snow and prepping for Polar Vortex 2019), I’m often looking for ways ways to stay active when my body is screaming, “hibernate!”, to engage my mind & gather friends. As you can imagine, winters in Michigan are long and often the skies are gray. Human connection makes a big difference.

The last two Christmas seasons, I’ve hosted a book swap with a few friends and we’ve had so much fun. I love books, friends, great conversation, the holidays season & brunch!  So why not combine a few of my favorite things? It’s a really fun way to celebrate the season together. But I think it also translates well into a good winter gathering. I truly believe that meaningful conversations, shared meals, and good books are a natural mood booster.

And it’s flexible. Last year I suggested people bring their favorite non-fiction and favorite fiction book.  This year, friends brought a recent favorite and a favorite from last year.  I served coffee, mimosas, my favorite Mushroom Swiss Chard Sausage Strata and friends brought food to share as well. The goal was to swap books throughout the year. Unfortunately, trading books throughout the year didn’t go as planned so I had people bring a favorite book from the previous year. Each guest drew a number and then picked 2 books. We chose White Elephant style, so the person choosing could unwrap a book or steal a book.

Wrapped books to be swapped. Photo by Rachel Cuthbert photo

Wrapped books to be swapped. Photo by Rachel Cuthbert photo

2018 books:

  • Educated by Tara Westover (I read this book in a few days—great read and leaves so much to discuss. Though it impeded some of my pre-Christmas work. Oops! I’m one of those readers who can’t begin a good book if I actually have things I need to accomplish.  The author drew me in to her harrowing family story, but I also appreciate the care she takes care to present facts as faithfully as possible. Throughout the book she recognizes that memory can be a tricky thing, and she tries to corroborate as many details as possible.

  • Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance—One of my favorite memoirs from the last couple of years. I’ve recommended it often. Much has been written about it in light of the 2016 election, and I certainly think it lives up to its reputation as a behind the scenes account of life in modern rural Midwestern America. If you’re an audio book fan, check this one out. The author narrates, and it really brings some of the characters, like his grandmother, to life.

  • In His Image by Jen Wilkin

  • Joel: A Boy of Galilee by Annie Fellows Johnston

  • Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett—I've heard good things about this and I’m looking forward to reading it. I’ve been a bit apprehensive to start because it’s a longer read and I fear that once I start, I won’t be able to put it down.

  • Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus by Nabeel Qureshi This was my selection, and a book that I often think about and want to discuss. Dr. Qureshi, was a Christian apologist who came to his Christian faith as a medical student. His mind is razor sharp, and his journey to faith in Christ compelling. I first read this book in 2016 and later followed his apologetics ministry along with his battle and eventual death to stomach cancer in the fall of 2017 at the age of 33.

A few 2017 favorites: 

  • A Homemade Life by Molly Wizenberg—if you love food memoirs, this is a great one. 

  • A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken—Have read this a few times and it’s a tear jerker.  A beautiful love story with poignant spiritual depth. Includes letters between the author and CS Lewis.

  • Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton

  • Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

  • The Wednesday Wars by Gary Schmidt—I hope to read this soon. I have an almost teenager and three on his heels, so I’m always looking for good Young Adult lit.

Quick note: The above books were favorites of a group of friends. Some of the books I haven’t read so I am not necessarily recommending, just sharing what we traded with one another. I think that’s what makes this a fun gathering—I love seeing what friends are reading and also being challenged to read outside my comfort zone. My personal favorites from the two lists (understanding that I haven’t read all of the books so there may be new favorites lurking) are Educated, Hillbilly Elegy, Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus, A Homemade Life, and A Severe Mercy.

Funny, I’m noticing a theme here… human narratives. It’s true. I’m a people person and I love the deep dive into real stories—how people deal with life—tragedy, conflicts, limited resources, etc… and ultimately how they persevere. With that said, I would love to hear some of your reading favorites from 2018 and what you plan to read in 2019.

 

Treasured Celebrations

oct18(13of40).jpg

This fall my husband and I hosted friends for our 20th college reunion, a celebration of some of my most treasured, life changing friendships.  Needless to say, when Tree Classics invited me to kick-off their Treasured Celebrations blog hop, I knew that this was exactly what I would share with you as we head into Thanksgiving… the beauty of gathering friends and creating memories, along with approachable menus for feeding a crowd and simple décor ideas.

Décor: Front door & table decor

It doesn’t have to be complicated.  For real! I’m laughing a bit as I type this because prep for our Homecoming gathering was a little crazy & complicated. But, that’s because we did a full remodel on our main bath this summer, our master bath is currently gutted and one month out from friends arriving, we started a DIY update of our basement bath. Ha! I will share these bathroom remodels in future posts, but let’s just say, I wouldn’t recommend this level of home improvement this close to a major event.  However, it was a huge impetus to keep moving and get work done. And miraculously, with much thanks to my husband, a handful of college students, and local friends who pitched in last minute, we got most of it done.  

My real recommendation is that you add a few seasonal touches to the house: some fresh flowers, candles, and music right before guests arrive. On the front door, this is one of my favorite wreaths from Tree Classics because it’s beautiful for fall, Thanksgiving or Christmas. Countryside Wreath

Fluffing Tree Classics Countryside Wreath

Fluffing Tree Classics Countryside Wreath

On the inside, I hung this Classic Fraser Fir Wreath.  Again, this is another wreath that works well from fall to Christmas. I added this Thankful sign that a dear friend recently gave me. I love little reminders sprinkled about the house, and truly, I am thankful.  Thankful for decades of friendship, and the bounty that comes from gathering with those we love and cherish.     

Classic Fraser Fir Wreath from Tree Classics. I added the Thankful sign from Hobby Lobby.

Classic Fraser Fir Wreath from Tree Classics. I added the Thankful sign from Hobby Lobby.

For table décor and food, I often employ a few strategies. First, I look to the season.  It’s fall so I pull in the rich colors of the season, thus pumpkins, squash and gourds.  Also, I often buy flowers at my local Kroger—they have great prices for roses and sometimes I even find great prices on discounted flowers. Second, I shop my house. After years of party planning and hosting, I’ve collected quite an array of cloth napkins.  I’ve even made some of my own as well.  And I layer my dining table with a runner, seasonal décor, placemats and mix & match dishes.  

Fall harvest tablescape—table runner & placemats from Ikea, plates from Pioneer Woman (Walmart), print napkins and silverware from World Market, bowls and burnt orange napkins from HomeGoods.

Fall harvest tablescape—table runner & placemats from Ikea, plates from Pioneer Woman (Walmart), print napkins and silverware from World Market, bowls and burnt orange napkins from HomeGoods.

thumb_IMG_7609_1024.jpg
Dining table as it gets darker outside. Loving the pillar candles from Hearth and Home collection at Target.

Dining table as it gets darker outside. Loving the pillar candles from Hearth and Home collection at Target.

Food fit for a crowd

We host friends and family. A lot.  Often, I am quickly throwing together a dinner party, but when I hatched the idea to invite a dozen friends to visit for Homecoming weekend, I knew I needed to be organized in planning—many friends were coming from a distance (East Coast, West Coast, and even Europe!). I couldn’t potluck this shindig.  

Though I did enlist help from a close friend who also happens to be Italian and a fantastic cook.  No joke, she made homemade lasagna (noodles and everything) and traveled 2 hours with them on ice along along with a delicious Italian Cassata cake from Mannino’s Bakery in Detroit.  She also brought Italian bread and real deal mediterranean olives and parmesan and Romano cheese from a speciality grocery store. I promise, I did make a few things—homemade meatballs, salad, and steamed green beans (I really like the French green beans from Costco, also great for feeding a crowd).  

I think we’re all more likely to host if we say yes when people ask to help.  Obviously, this doesn’t work when people are travelling on planes or super long distances, but when in-state friends asked if they could bring things, I said yes.  And it was a huge help to me—fresh fruit, even bottles of wine, snacks from Costco and Trader Joe’s (places that I can’t readily shop) were a great addition to the festivities.  

Side note: We’ve lived in a small town for the last seven years, and there are so many things that I love (living close to everything—school, work, friends, church—you really develop daily community in a way that is more challenging in a bigger city).  But, I do miss the Cleveland food scene.  Specialty grocery stores, bakeries and ethnic food that I took for granted, oh how I miss you!  

Homecoming weekend menu:

  • Friday dinner: Artisan cheeses, crackers, assorted olives, homemade lasagna, sauce, meatballs, green beans, Italian bread, Italian Cassata cake 

  • Saturday breakfast: Ham & veggie egg bake, fresh fruit, coffee and toast

  • Saturday lunch: A la carte—cold cut sandwiches and such

  • Saturday dinner:  Barbecued chicken, pulled pork, grilled hot dogs, assorted salads, baked beans, dips (one of my favorite easy go to dips is Costco’s prepared spinach artichoke dip) and a variety of potato and corn chips, salsa, etc…

When feeding a crowd, I often choose desserts that are plentiful and not overly complicated. As I’ve mentioned before, we’re nearly 90 minutes from the nearest bigger city (Ann Arbor is my go to) and so buying desserts is not a great option for me).  Thus, my friend carted a cassata cake all the way from Detroit for our Friday dinner! For Saturday evening, I had my mom make the Pioneer Woman’s chocolate sheet cake.  Everyone always loves a bit of chocolate, and this recipe feeds a crowd.  

PSA: Along with Ina Garten, the Pioneer Woman is one of my go to’s for recipes.  She cooks for a crowd, people always enjoy her recipes and they’re mostly fail proof!  Don’t believe me, check out Jennifer Garner’s#PretendCookingShow.  By the way, I want a pretend cooking show!  

 A friend who lives in town brought these Pumpkin bars (seriously, I have made this recipe three times since last month).  Delicious and not labor intensive.  It reminds me of pumpkin roll, but easier.  No trying to gingerly remove from the pan, cool and roll.  Just fill pan with batter, bake, cool and frost!  

Pumpkin cake —I wish I had a better photo. I promise, it feeds a crowd and is delicious. Way better than the photo depicts.

Pumpkin cake—I wish I had a better photo. I promise, it feeds a crowd and is delicious. Way better than the photo depicts.

Pumpkin cake topped with  cream cheese frosting .

Pumpkin cake topped with cream cheese frosting.

As October is quickly drawing to a close, holiday prep is on many of our minds.  From décor to menu planning to strategies for getting the house in order, it can seem like a daunting task.  I think it’s often so overwhelming many of us choose not to do it.  But my encouragement for today is that yes, it requires some extra work, but gathering friends and family over the years has been the most rewarding “work” I have ever done.  Don’t let your house or fear of feeding a crowd keep you from gathering people.  Memories and friendships really do begin around the table.  

Thanks again for Tree Classics for sponsoring this blog hop, Treasured Celebrations. Starting next Monday, October 29th, these other bloggers will be joining me, sharing their home decor and fall traditions: Emily of smallstuffcounts.com, Monday, October 29, Kathy of uptodateinteriors.com on Tuesday October 30th, Kendra of joyinourhome.com on Thursday, November 1st, and Kaitlyn of @freshandvintageliving | freshandvintageliving.com on Friday, November 2nd! And of course, I would love to hear about your fall gatherings and traditions!

Celebrating our 20th college reunion & 24 years of friendship! So thankful for these women and the rich heritage we have built.

Celebrating our 20th college reunion & 24 years of friendship! So thankful for these women and the rich heritage we have built.

Join us as tree classics kicks of the holiday season with our treasured celebrations blog hop! Each of us will be offering our design ideas for creating a welcoming fall home.

Join us as tree classics kicks of the holiday season with our treasured celebrations blog hop! Each of us will be offering our design ideas for creating a welcoming fall home.

It All Begins at the Dining Table

It All Begins at the Dining Table

I’m not particularly trendy or cutting edge with my cooking, my approach to feeding people is—keep the kitchen stocked with good food & your doors open.  If you feed them, they will come. : ) Sometimes it’s fancy feasting, but most of the time it’s simply an open invitation to come and sit, have a cup of coffee, a biscotti (or whatever I can pull together), and chat about life. 

Read More