end of year, goodbye 2010, new years, recap and review

Year End Obsession

It’s a bit surreal to be sitting here, up since 3:30 because of my damn cat that kept stepping on me and the Missus who couldn’t quite fall asleep peacefully, and trying to process the fact that it’s nearly 2011. To be overly cliched, ‘Where has the time gone?’ I swear, it seemed that it was just yesterday when the Deering Oaks Farmers Market was starting up for the year and here we are just a week away from the winter market opening.

As far as a personal reflection, this year was a mixed bag, filled with personal losses and minor triumphs, the little things that made me thankful this year and kept me a bit saner. In regards to the Portland food scene, I do believe Mr. A summed it up as well as anyone could possibly in his reflections and, already, the new year brings the buzz of Five Guys Burgers and Fries as well as the much anticipated opening of the EastEnder and a pair of new places from the people behind El Rayo. But, I would be crazy to not acknowledge how happy the opening of Boda, Po’ Boys, Pai Men and Figa has made me (and, District, you’re our next new spot to be visited as we realized that you were so close that we could throw snowballs at your building from our deck).

My own food wishes for 2011? Well, I hope the Missus gets her never ending wish for a less expensive and fulfilling Middle Eastern place(how about Emilitsa-lite?) and I would, in our great expansion of Asian places around town would love to be able to chow down at a Malaysian restaurant, even if it’s a chain. And tonight, in a perfect way to end the year, we’re revisiting the one local restaurant that completely left us speechless, Bresca. I’m already telling people that this may just be the meal that does me in but I am more than ok with that. Tonight, I plan to simply eat, drink and be painfully merry and I hope you are planning the same.

So, until next year…

cajun food, chickens, duck, louisianna food, maine shrimp, paul Prudhomme, turducken, turkey

Lithuanian Kūčios and a Cajun Christmas Pt.2

If Christmas Eve marked the traditional, than Christmas Day celebrated a bit of the unconventional. Knowing that the Missus and I were without family in Maine, and celebrating their first Christmas being ‘Mainers,’ Dawn and Adam invited us over for Christmas Day dinner. Their friend, Shelley, along with her partner, Dan, were making the trip down from Nova Scotia for the holiday and they wanted to make something spectacular for Christmas. Then, somewhere along the way–I’m not sure who exactly proposed it–a Turducken was hatched. It could have been Shelley, whose roots stretch deep into Louisianna or Dawn, who never seems to have medium sized dreams. Either way, that beautiful bird pictured above, has two other beauties packed into it’s mostly boneless carcass, ala Chef Paul Prudhomme.

When I told family members what we were making, outside of my precious Grandmother who couldn’t quite wrap her mind around the concept of birds stuffed into one another like Russian nesting dolls, there were two questions asked:

  1. Is it hard to debone?
  2. How long did it take to cook?
  • The first question is easy, we didn’t have to. When I ordered the birds from Whole Foods, I simply asked them to de-bone the animals for us and they did without charge. Then I whisked them away to Dawn’s where the four of them did all of the stuffing and sewing and were grateful that hours of de-boning had been taken off their hands.
  • How long? Well, I believe this took about 9.5-10 hours, but there were factors to consider. The roasting pan could have been a little bit bigger, which would have evened out the cooking. The thermometer that I brought hadn’t been calibrated in a while and wasn’t meant to be heated with the meats in the oven but when it was realized I decided to just go with it. But, anything that weighs around 20lbs is going to take a while to cook and luckily there was cards, wine and Angry Birds to keep us occupied until the kitchen was properly descended upon.

But, much like Kūčios, I had very little involvement in the whole thing. Shelley, bless her heart, dealt with all of us sniffing around the kitchen, asking if the oven was high enough and picking off any/all scraps of food that may have become available. And then, when it was finally done, we descended like a pack of rabid dogs.

The Turducken was stuffed with a traditional Andouille stuffing, while a Maine shrimp cornbread stuffing was served on the side.

Now, because of my general boycott of turkey, a little red wine did help me not mentally freak out, which was fantastic because it was probably the best turkey I’ve ever had in my life. The fact that it was in a smaller roasting pan meant that it basically braised itself in all of the fats–turkey, duck and butter–that found their way into the pan. While none of us could have pointed out where the chicken was in this feat, the duck was probably the most sought after (which, I was told that we actually had a Tur-chick-uck because the chicken actually turned out to be larger than the duck).

The finished plate had a salad Dawn made with roasted cranberries and pecans. I made a green bean dish with La Quercia Prosciutto. Shelley also made a Sweet Potato and Eggplant ‘gravy’ that was truly unique.

Sadly, I completely forgot to snap a picture of the Vanilla Bread Pudding w/Whiskey Sauce that I had made, using the recipe from Commanders Palace in New Orleans, as a guide. It was the perfect ending to a brilliant meal shared with old friends and new.

catholic christmases, family traditions, lithanian kucios, lithuanian foods, lithuanian traditions

Lithuanian Kūčios and a Cajun Christmas Pt.1

Christmas is pure tradition–whether or not you attend Mass on Christmas Eve, what foods you eat or when you open your gifts. Everyone has their thing. My family, in the years after my parents divorced, really only had one. This was when all 50+ of us, our significant others and family-less friends gathered at my aunt and uncles house to feast. There would be ham, creamed potatoes, meatballs, deli meats and cheeses. Nothing fancy and all completely buffet style. But, despite our Irish/German heritage, there were no holiday food traditions passed down. Like the make up of our family, our meals were simply hodgepodge. Then I met my partner, a Lithuanian, and a new world of holiday tradition was put in front of me.

Kūčios, their great meal on Christmas Eve, is something that I had heard about from the beginning of our relationship but only had my first taste of it this year. Because of my retail job time off around the holidays, to join her and her family in Florida or Boston, has been nothing more than a hope. But, this year she decided not to travel and treated me to my first Kūčios.

Before now the word ‘herring’ was dropped around a lot and it worried me. Pickled or in sour cream is usually what her family serves, though it’s in nearly every dish for Kūčios. “Herring is bait,” my partner has always said and we opted for crab cakes in it’s place. We had three dishes, far fewer than the traditional dozen, having mushroom buns

(Pyragėliai su grybais) and

Vinegretas (a beet/potato/bean salad) along side our Whole Foods Crab Cakes (working retail during the holidays does a number on your desire to cook).

When I got home from work that evening and saw the table set I asked, “Who’s coming over?” R. told me that you always set an extra seating for those who could not be there. We may have missed the communion like wafer and the hay on the table (again, traditions we chose to ignore) but this was one I’m glad she kept. We both lost family members this year, her uncle and my grandfather, so the empty place setting meant a lot even if I was a bit slow to catch on.

The meal was great with the added bonus of having to do nothing but pan fry the crab cakes. And, like most food that originates in the Baltics, it was ‘stick to your rib’ country food. The vinegretas, for all of it’s beety brightness, was my favorite. In fact, even though we halved the recipe (see below), the Missus still made enough to feed us for several days and I have absolutely no qualms with that.

Christmas Eve was about finally being able to experience the traditions–for as loose as we interpreted them–that my partner holds so dear. It was about finally, after six years of being together, starting to build our own traditions–like enjoying crab instead of herring. We’d wake up the next morning, drink some coffee, lazily open our stockings and cook until it was time to leave to go enjoy some other new traditions that laid a bit closer to home… but more on that in a day or so..

2 cups of the following:

  • Cooked navy beans (dried and never from a can–so I’m told)
  • Beets (boil whole, unpeeled beets; after cooled, peel and dice)
  • Potatoes (boiled, peeled whole; after cool, dice)
  • Carrots (peeled, boiled and diced)
  • Pickles (‘good quality’ Dill pickles; diced)
  • Onions (1 cp diced, left raw; 1 cp gently sauteed until translucent)

Mix all ingredients together
Add about 1/2 cp vegetable oil
Add in juice of 1/2 of one lemon; add more to taste
Season with salt and pepper to taste

Best if made the day before serving. Enough to feed at least 24 adults.


christmas cards, christmas eve, Grateful Dead, jerry garcia

Very Jerry Christmas

cheap motherfuckers, condescending douchebags, forgetting to be kind or human or respective or even civil, people with a sense of entitlement

Think About Others

The Holidays, honestly, always seem to bring out both the best and worst of humanity. When you work with the public, say in retail or food service, all you can do is hope the good–or at least tolerable ones–will outweigh the douche wagons. While I could write a large tome about the customers I’ve dealt with over the years, it’s someone else who has a story for the ages, from ‘I’m Your Server, Not You’re Servant’:

The Wednesday lunch started out like every other day for the GM and his front of the house staff of one hostess, two servers, a bartender and a busser. About 11:15, a handful of guests walked to the podium and said, “We’re going to be at least 30 for lunch.” After welcoming the guests and confirming that the group did not have a reservation, the hostess told them she would seat them momentarily after the staff moved a few tables together….

The party of 30 grew into a party of 47 students from a local college celebrating the completion of finals and the beginning of semester break.

Forty-five minutes elapsed between the arrival of the first guests and the 47th member of their party. Food and drink requests were a little frantic, with some guests shouting out their first drink order as others were already eating their entrées….

cheese pairings, manchego, membrillo, playing with fruit and sugar, quince

Homemade Membrillo

They looking kind of frighteningly boobish, don’t they? The Quince. I first got to know her, as everyone seems to do, in the form of a paste called Membrillo. I had it at Street and Co. when I first moved here. It was paired, as it traditionally is, with Manchego (which was also a first introduction), the most famous of all Spanish Cheeses. I believe there may have been some balsamic reduction there and some cracked pepper. Nearly six years later and I still remember the plate, that’s how much those new flavors stuck to me. Now, I’ve eaten a few hundred different cheeses since then, or so says my “Cheese Journal” that I keep, but I haven’t forgotten the first time I had that classic pairing.
Recently seeing some Quince at Whole Foods made me feel a smidge sentimental and I felt inspired to make my own Membrillo. For the price of four quince ($1.99/ea), I produced about as much as three retail containers that cost around $6.99/ea. Not too bad and I’ve been packing some up to give as gifts this year.



  • 4 pounds quince, washed, peeled, cored, roughly chopped
  • 1 vanilla pod, split
  • 2 strips (1/2 inch by 2 inches each) of lemon peel (only the yellow peel, no white pith)
  • 3 Tbsp lemon juice
  • About 4 cups of granulated sugar, exact amount will be determined during cooking


1 Place quince pieces in a large saucepan (6-8 quarts) and cover with water. Add the vanilla pod and lemon peel and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer, cover, and let cook until the quince pieces are fork tender (30-40 minutes).

2 Strain the water from the quince pieces. Discard the vanilla pod but keep the lemon peel with the quince. Purée the quince pieces in a food processor, blender, or by using a food mill.

Measure the quince purée. Whatever amount of quince purée you have, that’s how much sugar you will need. So if you have 4 cups of purée, you’ll need 4 cups of sugar. Return the quince purée to the large pan. Heat to medium-low. Add the sugar. Stir with a wooden spoon until the sugar has completely dissolved. Add the lemon juice.

3 Continue to cook over a low heat, stirring occasionally, for 1-1 1/2 hours, until the quince paste is very thick and has a deep orange pink color.

4 Preheat oven to a low 125°F (52°C). Line a 8×8 baking pan with parchment paper (do not use wax paper, it will melt!). Grease the parchment paper with a thin coating of butter. Pour the cooked quince paste into the parchment paper-lined baking pan. Smooth out the top of the paste so it is even. Place in the oven for about an hour to help it dry. Remove from oven and let cool.

To serve, cut into squares or wedges and present with Manchego cheese. To eat, take a small slice of the membrillo and spread it on top of a slice of the cheese. Store by wrapping in foil or plastic wrap, an keeping in the refrigerator.

**I could have definitely stood to reduce the pureed paste down a bit more as the color was more of a blush than the usual deep orange. I also noticed that the flavor was more citrusy, rather than the apple/pear flavor I associate with Membrillo. This could have been because it wasn’t cooked down enough. I will say that it was definitely great with some aged cheddar I had on hand and something I will easily make again.

Homemade Membrillo on Punk Domestics
bourbon, cheese pairings, girl drink drunk, holiday self medicating, kentucky mulsum, neon green drinks, obscure holiday cocktails, The Cheese Iron

Obscure Holiday Cocktails II

Miscommunications. Grumpy people. Mercury in retrograde. But this past Friday it didn’t matter, I was having cocktails that evening. In fact, when something went wrong that afternoon at work, I would just cheer myself up by declaring, out loud, “I’m having cocktails tonight!” I wouldn’t be surprised if it annoyed my coworkers a bit, I probably said it over a dozen times, but it got me through a shit day and that’s all that mattered to me.

And I wasn’t be facetious about it. For the only time in the past year, I went out with the sole purpose to drink alcohol. It’s a Christmas miracle… and the second gathering of local bloggers (Appetite Portland, The Blueberry Files and Portland Food Map) for a night celebrating obscure holiday cocktails, cheese and shrimp dip. We drank, we nibbled, we gossiped and quickly got our Yuletide gay on and it honestly didn’t get much gayer than:

The Grinch

• 3 oz Vodka
• 1 oz Midori Melon Liqueur
• 1 oz Cointreau Orange Liqueur
• 1 oz Sour Mix
Preparation: Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice cubes. Shake well,
strain into a large cocktail glass, and serve.

When I use to drink, I was a ‘girl drink drunk.” I liked Raspberry Kamikaze’s and Lemon Drops and other brightly colored drinks and I loved the gay bars that I sipped them in. The only thing missing from this drink was a Lady Gaga song playing in the background. It had a color somewhere close to Hi-C ‘Ectoplasm’ and the first sip felt like turpentine. But, as they tend to for me, it got better after the shock of alcohol and sour mix. It was also helped by the Queso Leonora goat cheese that was paired with it (Many a thanks to Kara from The Cheese Iron who opened up a good dozen cheeses so I could decide what to pair). Goat cheeses, because of tangier and citrusy flavors it greatly complimented the melon and sour in the drink. The creaminess of the paste also worked greatly to mute the burn of the vodka.
My notes merely say, “Sweet. Kicky.” My notes do not state that I also felt a bit buzzed by the time I reached the end of it and noticed that I was swearing a bit more than I normally do.
I was ready to move on to:

The Ultimate Holiday

• 2 oz Orange Juice
• 1 ½ oz Bulleit Bourbon
• ½ oz Lime Juice
• 1 splash Grenadine Syrup
• 1 splash Ginger Ale
Preparation: Pour over rocks.

I think the word “Holiday”, in this case, was meant to be more European meaning(ie, vacation) because the drink–as Dawn so perfectly put it–tasted more like a glass of boozy grapefruit juice. It was nice and light but in no way invoked the mental image of celebrating a New England Christmas. This was for suntan lotion, beaches and palm trees. Apparently, bourbon is a huge hit with the crowd. After this drink was finished, two bottles came out for a taste test/pairing with the Uplands Pleasant Ridge Reserve cheese. Uplands Extra Aged was name the ‘Best in Show’ this year at the American Cheese Society Awards in Seattle but this slightly younger version is much more accessible and has also taken home the award. This was definitely the best cheese on the plate. The sweetness and salt in the cheese played well to the Bourbon’s caramel notes and the cheeses finish lasted well after the alcohol did on the palate.


  • Glass of wine
  • Honey stirred in, to taste

So we go from the least holiday like drink to the most. Like the mulled wine we enjoyed last year, this was the most reminiscent of the holiday season. While traditionally made with a white wine, A opted for the Casillero del Diablo. While a much meatier wine than I enjoy, the honey cut into it was one of the best I’ve tasted.
The cheese, a just legal raw milk Dutch Farmstead Cheese from Cato Corner in Connecticut. The creamy, milder paste did well with the stronger edge of the wine. The raw milk and washed rind gave just enough depth to the cheese preventing it from getting lost underneath the gaminess of the wine.

Spanish Reindeer

•1 oz Dark Creme de Cacao
•1 oz Frangelico Hazelnut Liqueur

Preparation: Shake with ice and pour into an old-fashioned glass. Sprinkle with
cinnamon. Variation 1: Rim glass with cinnamon. Variation 2: Use Kahlua instead of
creme de cacao.

This was the one that boggled myself and Kara the most for the cheese pairing. My first instinct was a fresher goat cheese, which I know pairs nicely with chocolate. It honestly was the Eggnog aspect of it that through me off. Outside of a few sips of store bought Nog, I’m far from being knowledgeable about the traditional drink. I can say, however, that the cooked version that Kate brought with her was beautiful. Rummy, spicey and citrusy, I found it to be perfect on it’s own. But the addition of the liqueurs never overshadowed the fact that we had started with such a wonderful Nog base. The cheese, however, was probably my least favorite of the pairings. The mushroom of the Colston Bassett Stilton was just a little off putting with the drink itself. The chocolate and hazelnut made sense, as both rich chocolates and nuts usually pair well blues, but I think it was the egg in the nog that made it a bit of a conflict, rather than compliment, for me.

The highlights of the night, outside of having an excuse to spend some time with some great friends, were ‘The Ultimate Holiday,’ which went down for all of us a bit too easy, and the Dutch Farmers Cheese, which was just all around beautiful both texturally and flavor wise.

Happy Holidays to all!

The Cheese Iron on Urbanspoon

blue foot mushroom, chopsticks, maitake mushrooms, mushrooms, nonedible obsessions, spiteful exs, stir fry, yellow food mushroom

The $25 Stir Fry

I have this thing with chopsticks. Actually, I’m a lazy collector of them. I use to be much better about it, searching out some lovely ones in Chinatown every trip I made from Albany. Truthfully, one of the hardest things that I had to do when my ex and I split up was to split the collection with her. Outside of my library of Grateful Dead bootlegs, which meant nothing to her, I placed very little sentiment on possessions. So, she knew she could strike deepest at me–which was more than understandable as it was I that was leaving her–by taking something that meant so much to me. So, she was left with 30 pairs of them. And I kind of gave up on it.

But, tell me you’re traveling somewhere and I’ll tell you that I collect them and that you should pick me up a pair. When the Missus went to Iqaluit, I requested a pair–maybe something out of a tusk?. When her mother traveled to Bhutan, I had hoped for a blessed pair. Going to Puerto Rico? No matter, I’m sure they have them somewhere down there–steal a pair from a restaurant.. I won’t tell. I’m tossing around the notion to expand my collection and include eating utensils outside of a typical knife/spoon/fork setting. Every culture has something, so I deduce this will expand my options of getting something from a friend traveling far from where we are here. Not a bad plan, right?

But, plotting and scheming wasn’t the reason to get on this diatribe. I was actually thinking about my chopstick obsession because I found myself trying to decide which pair I wanted to eat dinner with tonight. I chose a newer pair, a gift from the Missus, made of bamboo. And with them I ate

An orange and garlic stir fry of beef, red pepper, white asparagus, bok choy, maitake mushrooms

Yellow foot Mushrooms–which are nearly identical to Chanterelles– and

and Blue foot Mushrooms.

Sesame-Ginger Beef and Asparagus Stir Fry


  • 1 pound lean top sirloin, sliced into thin strips–I used hanger steak
  • 2 Tspn cornstarch–I used about 1/4 cp flour
  • 4 tablespoons peanut oil or vegetable oil, divided
  • 1 teaspoon sesame oil
  • 1 pound thin asparagus, trimmed, cut on diagonal into 1 1/2-inch pieces
  • 2 bunches of Bok Choy, cleaned and halved
  • 1 red pepper, julianned
  • 1 small bunch green onions, cut on diagonal into 1 1/2-inch pieces
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons minced peeled fresh ginger
  • 2/3 cup beef broth–I used Trader Joes Soyaki Marinade
  • 1 tablespoon fish sauce (nam pla)–I used Oyster Sauce
  • 1 teaspoon sugar–I used juice of 1 navel orange


  • Combine beef and cornstarch in large bowl. Using hands, rub to coat well.

  • Heat 2 tablespoons peanut oil in large skillet over high heat. Working in batches, add beef in single layer and cook, undisturbed, until meat begins to blacken on bottom, about 1 1/2 minutes. Turn over and cook until second side browns, about 1 minute. Transfer beef to large plate.

  • Heat remaining 2 tablespoons peanut oil and 1 teaspoon sesame oil in same skillet over medium-high heat. Add asparagus, green onions, and ginger; sauté until vegetables are tinged brown and crisp-tender, about 2 minutes. Add broth, fish sauce, and sugar; bring to boil. Return beef to skillet and cook until sauce is slightly thickened, about 1 minute. Transfer to platter and serve.

**Some changes/additions to ingredients, but the cooking method was the same

david sedaris, laugh until we cried and then we peed, six to eight black men

Santa Doesn’t Eat Tapas

Humorist author David Sedaris is coming to the Merrill Auditorium on April 2, 2011. While many know of his ‘Santa Land Diaries,’ there’s another story that makes me think of him this time of year. Several years ago I saw David Sedaris do a reading in Albany, NY, where he read the following story, which made me nearly wet myself with laughter, and I never quite looked at the story of Santa Claus the same again.

Six to Eight Black Men
by David Sedaris

I’VE NEVER BEEN MUCH for guidebooks, so when trying to get my bearings in a strange American city, I normally start by asking the cabdriver or hotel clerk some silly question regarding the latest census figures. I say silly because I don’t really care how many people live in Olympia, Washington, or Columbus, Ohio. They’re nice enough places, but the numbers mean nothing to me. My second question might have to do with average annual rainfall, which, again, doesn’t tell me anything about the people who have chosen to call this place home.

What really interests me are the local gun laws. Can I carry a concealed weapon, and if so, under what circumstances? What’s the waiting period for a tommy gun? Could I buy a Glock 17 if I were recently divorced or fired from my job? I’ve learned from experience that it’s best to lead into this subject as delicately as possible, especially if you and the local citizen are alone and enclosed in a relatively small space. Bide your time, though, and you can walk away with some excellent stories. I’ve heard, for example, that the blind can legally hunt in both Texas and Michigan. They must be accompanied by a sighted companion, but still, it seems a bit risky. You wouldn’t want a blind person driving a car or piloting a plane, so why hand him a rifle? What sense does that make? I ask about guns not because I want one of my own but because the answers vary so widely from state to state. In a country that’s become so homogenous, I’m reassured by these last touches of regionalism.

Guns aren’t really an issue in Europe, so when I’m traveling abroad, my first question usually relates to barnyard animals. “What do your roosters say?” is a good icebreaker, as every country has its own unique interpretation. In Germany, where dogs bark “vow vow” and both the frog and the duck say “quack,” the rooster greets the dawn with a hearty “kik-a-ricki.” Greek roosters crow “kiri-a-kee,” and in France they scream “coco-rico,” which sounds like one of those horrible premixed cocktails with a pirate on the label. When told that an American rooster says “cock-a-doodle-doo,” my hosts look at me with disbelief and pity.

“When do you open your Christmas presents?” is another good conversation starter, as it explains a lot about national character. People who traditionally open gifts on Christmas Eve seem a bit more pious and family oriented than those who wait until Christmas morning. They go to mass, open presents, eat a late meal, return to church the following morning, and devote the rest of the day to eating another big meal. Gifts are generally reserved for children, and the parents tend not to go overboard. It’s nothing I’d want for myself, but I suppose it’s fine for those who prefer food and family to things of real value.

In France and Germany, gifts are exchanged on Christmas Eve, while in Holland the children receive presents on December 5, in celebration of Saint Nicholas Day. It sounded sort of quaint until I spoke to a man named Oscar, who filled me in on a few of the details as we walked from my hotel to the Amsterdam train station.

Unlike the jolly, obese American Santa, Saint Nicholas is painfully thin and dresses not unlike the pope, topping his robes with a tall hat resembling an embroidered tea cozy. The outfit, I was told, is a carryover from his former career, when he served as a bishop in Turkey.

One doesn’t want to be too much of a cultural chauvinist, but this seemed completely wrong to me. For starters, Santa didn’t use to do anything. He’s not retired, and, more important, he has nothing to do with Turkey. The climate’s all wrong, and people wouldn’t appreciate him. When asked how he got from Turkey to the North Pole, Oscar told me with complete conviction that Saint Nicholas currently resides in Spain, which again is simply not true. While he could probably live wherever he wanted, Santa chose the North Pole specifically because it is harsh and isolated. No one can spy on him, and he doesn’t have to worry about people coming to the door. Anyone can come to the door in Spain, and in that outfit, he’d most certainly be recognized. On top of that, aside from a few pleasantries, Santa doesn’t speak Spanish. He knows enough to get by, but he’s not fluent, and he certainly doesn’t eat tapas.

While our Santa flies on a sled, Saint Nicholas arrives by boat and then transfers to a white horse. The event is televised, and great crowds gather at the waterfront to greet him. I’m not sure if there’s a set date, but he generally docks in late November and spends a few weeks hanging out and asking people what they want.

“Is it just him alone?” I asked. “Or does he come with some backup?”

Oscar’s English was close to perfect, but he seemed thrown by a term normally reserved for police reinforcement.

“Helpers,” I said. “Does he have any elves?”

Maybe I’m just overly sensitive, but I couldn’t help but feel personally insulted when Oscar denounced the very idea as grotesque and unrealistic. “Elves,” he said. “They’re just so silly.”

The words silly and unrealistic were redefined when I learned that Saint Nicholas travels with what was consistently described as “six to eight black men.” I asked several Dutch people to narrow it down, but none of them could give me an exact number. It was always “six to eight,” which seems strange, seeing as they’ve had hundreds of years to get a decent count.

The six to eight black men were characterized as personal slaves until the mid-fifties, when the political climate changed and it was decided that instead of being slaves they were just good friends. I think history has proven that something usually comes between slavery and friendship, a period of time marked not by cookies and quiet times beside the fire but by bloodshed and mutual hostility. They have such violence in Holland, but rather than duking it out among themselves, Santa and his former slaves decided to take it out on the public. In the early years, if a child was naughty, Saint Nicholas and the six to eight black men would beat him with what Oscar described as “the small branch of a tree.”

“A switch?”

“Yes,” he said. “That’s it. They’d kick him and beat him with a switch. Then, if the youngster was really bad, they’d put him in a sack and take him back to Spain.”

“Saint Nicholas would kick you?”

“Well, not anymore,” Oscar said. “Now he just pretends to kick you.”

“And the six to eight black men?”

“Them, too.”

He considered this to be progressive, but in a way I think it’s almost more perverse than the original punishment. “I’m going to hurt you, but not really.” How many times have we fallen for that line? The fake slap invariably makes contact, adding the elements of shock and betrayal to what had previously been plain, old-fashioned fear. What kind of Santa spends his time pretending to kick people before stuffing them into a canvas sack? Then, of course, you’ve got the six to eight former slaves who could potentially go off at any moment. This, I think, is the greatest difference between us and the Dutch. While a certain segment of our population might be perfectly happy with the arrangement, if you told the average white American that six to eight nameless black men would be sneaking into his house in the middle of the night, he would barricade the doors and arm himself with whatever he could get his hands on.

“Six to eight, did you say?”

In the years before central heating, Dutch children would leave their shoes by the fireplace, the promise being that unless they planned to beat you, kick you, or stuff you into a sack, Saint Nicholas and the six to eight black men would fill your clogs with presents. Aside from the threats of violence and kidnapping, it’s not much different from hanging your stockings from the mantel. Now that so few people have a working fireplace, Dutch children are instructed to leave their shoes beside the radiator, furnace, or space heater. Saint Nicholas and the six to eight black men arrive on horses, which jump from the yard onto the roof. At this point, I guess, they either jump back down and use the door, or they stay put and vaporize through the pipes and electrical wires. Oscar wasn’t too clear about the particulars, but, really, who can blame him? We have the same problem with our Santa. He’s supposed to use the chimney, but if you don’t have one, he still manages to come through. It’s best not to think about it too hard.

While eight flying reindeer are a hard pill to swallow, our Christmas story remains relatively simple. Santa lives with his wife in a remote polar village and spends one night a year traveling around the world. If you’re bad, he leaves you coal. If you’re good and live in America, he’ll give you just about anything you want. We tell our children to be good and send them off to bed, where they lie awake, anticipating their great bounty. A Dutch parent has a decidedly hairier story to relate, telling his children, “Listen, you might want to pack a few of your things together before you go to bed. The former bishop from Turkey will be coming along with six to eight black men. They might put some candy in your shoes, they might stuff you in a sack and take you to Spain, or they might just pretend to kick you. We don’t know for sure, but we want you to be prepared.”

This is the reward for living in Holland. As a child you get to hear this sto-ry, and as an adult you get to turn around and repeat it. As an added bonus, the government has thrown in legalized drugs and prostitution–so what’s not to love about being Dutch?

Oscar finished his story just as we arrived at the station. He was a polite and interesting guy–very good company–but when he offered to wait until my train arrived, I begged off, saying I had some calls to make. Sitting alone in the vast terminal, surrounded by other polite, seemingly interesting Dutch people, I couldn’t help but feel second-rate. Yes, it was a small country, but it had six to eight black men and a really good bedtime story. Being a fairly competitive person, I felt jealous, then bitter, and was edging toward hostile when I remembered the blind hunter tramping off into the Michigan forest. He might bag a deer, or he might happily shoot his sighted companion in the stomach. He may find his way back to the car, or he may wander around for a week or two before stumbling through your front door. We don’t know for sure, but in pinning that license to his chest, he inspires the sort of narrative that ultimately makes me proud to be an American.