Eat More Cake…and Merry Christmas

The Hubby and I had the conversation we had to have a few weeks ago. About cake. Christmas cake to be precise. You see, one of our lovely neighbours comes around every December selling Lions Christmas cakes. Every year we buy one. In the past we have been known to give them away but last year we ate the whole cake before Christmas even arrived. We love Christmas cake.

This year we decided to buy one and divide it into thirds. We’d keep one-third for ourselves and give the other two-thirds away. Never happened. Once again we ate the whole cake in less than a fortnight, way before Christmas day had a chance to dawn. Did I mention we love Christmas cake?

But for myself, it wasn’t always that way.

 My grandmother used to create amazing Christmas cakes. They were works of art. She would bake the cake months in advance and regularly soak it in brandy. Then as the day grew closer she’d cover it in marzipan and then finally a coat of royal icing with all the trimmings. As a child I’d try to grab a piece with the most icing. The cake and the marzipan always remained on my plate, naked and dishevelled. Back then I hated fruitcake but I loved the icing. Kids! My grandmother must have despaired. If only she was still alive, I’d give her Christmas cakes the respect they deserved.

Granny was a great cook but there was one thing I could never fathom. At Christmas she’d serve up jellied peas. Who in their right minds would put peas in jelly? My mum explained that the jelly was aspic, a kind of savoury jelly, but I was not impressed. However, in retrospect, I can see how devilishly clever my grandmother was. She solved the problem of children and peas with a two-pronged attack. Peas in jelly won’t fall off the fork, plus it makes peas so unattractive to children they won’t want to eat them anyway.  There’s no danger of peas getting squashed into the carpet if no one under 14 is eating them.

I hope you have a joyful Christmas and I also hope that, unlike The Hubby and myself, you have some Christmas cake left to eat on the day. And wherever you are and whoever you’re celebrating Christmas with,  may there be no jellied peas on the menu.

How Clive saved Christmas

How Clive saved Christmas | Mary-Lou Stephens.

One of our journalists sighed. Loudly.

“What’s up?” I asked

Clive Palmer’s people want someone from here to go to his Christmas lunch for thephoto copy 3needy. I can’t make it. It’s Christmas Day. I’ll be with my family.”

My family consists of The Hubby, The Dog (Maddie) and The Niece, and The Niece had just accepted an invitation to go camping for two weeks including Christmas Day.

“I could possibly go,” I said.

“Great. I’ll forward the email to you.”

The Hubby and I have a Christmas tradition. Breakfast on the beach. We live on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland. It’s summer. Our Christmas breakfast on the beach consists mainly of prawns. People eat lots of prawns in Queensland at Christmas. I’ve queued for hours to buy them in the past; in stinking heat, in pouring rain – until I discovered that the fish shops stayed open all night to cope with the demand. One year I did a late night run and waltzed straight up to the counter, no queue, no crowds. After that our preferred time to buy Christmas prawns is midnight. Easy.

I read through the email. The press conference was at 11.45 am. The lunch started at midday. Our Christmas tradition at the beach would be well over by then. “This sounds like a hoot,” I said. “I’ll call his PR man to RSVP.”

Clive Palmer is the richest man in Queensland, a multi-millionaire by the time he was 27 thanks to real estate. He retired but none of his friends were as rich as him so he got lonely. He went back to work buying up iron ore rights in the Pilbara instead of condos on the Gold Coast. His millions turned to billions and now he was hosting a Christmas lunch for hundreds of needy people at the resort he bought on the Sunshine Coast and is turning into his own playground with vintage cars, Titanic memorabilia and the first of many life-sized dinosaurs. Others in our team had been out to see Jeff the Dinosaur and to cover other head-line grabbing Clive Palmer stunts but I hadn’t been to the resort since he’d bought it. I was curious and The Hubby and I had no lunch plans.

The Hubby was a little harder to convince, he likes a lazy Christmas, but after I told him Clive’s PR man had said we could leave whenever we liked, he acquiesced. And just as well.

The Hubby said he’d look after the late-night prawn run on Christmas Eve. I was dozing when he returned after midnight.

“No luck with the prawns,” he said as he slid into bed.

“Were they sold out? Did you try the other place?”

“I went to both of them. They were both shut. They’d closed at 8pm having done the all night thing last night instead.”

“Just as well we’re going to Clive’s for Christmas.”

“Yes. I was thinking the same thing.”

We both lay in the dark, hoping that Clive would have prawns.

The next day, instead of our traditional Christmas breakfast of prawns on the beach we had Stollen with marzipan (an impulse buy from the Swiss bakery the day before) and a cup of tea on the patio. We gave The Dog her Christmas present which she ate with gusto. She eats everything with gusto. Except, ironically, prawns. The Hubby and I opened the one Christmas present we’d bought for each other (more on that in my next post) and played with it for a while. Then we slipped into our Christmas clothes and went to Clive’s.

Jeff looked magnificent as we drove past him on our way to the car park, even morephoto copyimpressive than the photos and videos I’d seen. He was in the swing of the festive spirit with a Christmas bell around his neck.

At the press conference, I asked some questions, took some photos and experienced first-hand that curiously amusing and infuriating Palmer manner. Then The Hubby and I went into Christmas lunch with hundreds of other people bussed from the Gold Coast, Brisbane and the Sunshine Coast and everything provided for free by Professor Palmer. Yes, he’s a professor as well, of sorts.

It was a buffet lunch with roast meats, cold meats, baked fish, salads, roast vegetables, smoked salmon, freshly baked bread rolls and tables laden with all kinds of desserts for later. We pulled crackers and put on silly hats, chatted with our companions on the media table and waited our turn to join the line to pile our plates high with Christmas cheer. My eyes scanned the cold section of the buffet. There, amongst the bowls of lemon wedges, seafood sauce and thinly sliced salmon were those scavengers of the sea. The Christmas delicacy we love to eat all year round.

Later, as he tucked into his second plate of prawns, paper hat at a jaunty angle, The Hubby said, “Well, I guess this is the year that Clive saved Christmas.”

I guess he was right.

The Rocking Chair

IMG_0835The Rocking Chair | Mary-Lou Stephens.

Every family has iconic photographs that tell a far greater story than the dots imprinted on paper or the pixels on the screen. One of my family’s photos is of me, at not much over a year old, wearing a pair of faded red overalls, dirty feet and a cheeky smile. For support I’m clutching the arm of an old rocking chair on the veranda of our shack. The composition of the photograph is perfect; the colours, the lighting and the moment, all captured with the deft hand of a very experienced photographer. Which he was. My grandfather. He left us a legacy of our childhood years in photographs and slides that adorn our walls, mantelpieces and bookshelves and still get shown at the special slide nights my sister arranges so beautifully.

The Rocking Chair, as we call this photo, was amongst the last he ever took.  He and my grandmother were driving back from the shack. There was an accident. He died almost immediately. My grandmother died in hospital not long after. Two more holiday statistics. The photos were developed later, after funerals and wakes and many tears. Over the festive season I wonder how many sons and daughters, or mothers and fathers, will be left with holiday snaps taken by someone they love who has just become a statistic.

Often when I pull onto the Bruce Highway, especially at this time of year, I find myself doing a quick calculation of the odds. I like to think of it as awareness. A momentary lapse in concentration, an unexpected occurrence, that’s all it takes. Some years ago a fellow driver decided they’d merge from a slip road across both lanes of traffic, forcing me onto the meridian strip and straight towards a concrete bridge. I’m still not sure how I managed to safely manoeuvre the car back onto the highway while the idiot sped off in front of me. I was shaking and crying from the near miss but determined not to show the shock and fear to my young niece who was happily strapped into her booster seat in the back. She was not going to be a statistic that day.

Statistics. We hear a lot about them during the holiday season. And those statistics don’t reveal the heartache experienced by those left behind at this time of year, every year, for many years to come. Or the trauma of the survivors who may be left with permanent physical and emotional injuries.

As you strap on your seat belt spare a thought for your friends, your family and the families of those you don’t know and ensure you have a Happy New Year.

*You’ll also find this post in the December issue of Holistic Bliss Magazine.