I think it’s time to address the elephant in this column: when I proposed this series, it wasn’t quite Winter yet. For those of you who have not spent hundreds of Winters in Boston, you might find it hard to believe, but everyone in the entire city is usually completely miserable by now.
We’re all normally doped up on Aleve to mask the pain we acquired while shoveling our cars out of spots and fending off spot-predators with our ice picks, or else from falling on our asses while running for the only 66 bus likely to come all day. By January, we’ve usually each got at least one digit with mild frostbite, and spent an average of 3 nights shivering under a pile of blankets with every item of our clothing on when our heat didn’t work and couldn’t be fixed until Monday. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you are blessed to be spending your first year in Boston under our new “Global Warming” regime—one that while obviously not good for the environment overall, has made the general level of mental health in Boston slightly better than it usually is this time of year.
But my favorite lay-weather person reminds me “As the days lengthen, the cold strengthens,” so I still feel duty-bound to arm you with every technique I’ve got for survival, now that Winter has decided to kick back into gear suddenly.
Let’s talk about the isolation of Winter. I touched on this a little in the Saint Lucia Day installation of this column (where I recommended getting through the darkest night of the year by getting drunk and sticking lit candles in your hair). But it’s kind of the ongoing isolation of it being too cold to go out to public events that really starts to get you into Jack-Nicholson-in-The-Shining mode. So January is when it’s time to start rounding everyone up for supper. If for no other reason than to do a headcount and make sure all the heads are still screwed on properly.
There’s nothing more depressing than eating alone after a cold schlepp home from work. And eating out alone doesn’t make things a whole lot better. (“Pity? Party of one?”) Also, let’s face it, cold weather grocery shopping is just not as fun as flirting with people at farmers’ markets in the Summer. Divvy your community’s cooking responsibility up into something fun and isolation-beating with one of the following simple dinner-based Winter-survival techniques:
Low-Budget Soup-Prize Party
You’ve got a pot and some water right? And your friends each have at least one wilting vegetable kicking around in the back of their refrigerators, right? Invite everyone that you’re worried about or miss over to add something to a collective surprise soup. Chop and cook together, add wine and bread for a complete meal, and have a take out phone number lined up on speed dial in case it’s a terrible failure. (In which case it’s still a good story and more fun than trying to make soup by yourself out of just a pot and some water.) This is the simplest version and if it sounds good to you, you should probably at least acquaint yourself with the very basics of soup making before diving in, but once you have it down, you can get more elaborate. Choose a theme, or assign people particular soup elements—a stock, a legume, a vegetable, an herb, a protein—and see what emerges.
Revolving Dinner Party
This can go two ways. If you have friends in the neighborhood, create a dinner party together where every course happens at a different home. Snack it up at one house, and then move to the next for soup or salad. Then onto the next home for a main course (timing is tricky, but just have everything as ready as possible in advance and let people play with your record collection while you reheat). Finally, dessert and coffee at another house and by then you’ve probably run out of neighbors that you actually know. The other way to do this is much more like a slingshot than a revolver. Have a weekly dinner party in one neighborhood, and arrange a lot of carpooling to get a bunch of people from another, far flung neighborhood. Then reverse and repeat, careening from one neighborhood to another ad infinitum until everyone you know has hosted or it’s Spring.
Even if you can’t cook, you’ve probably watched a cooking show where people were given the same ingredients and had to outdo each other to win a prize or stay on the show. Even if you can’t cook, a few people you know probably can, and they probably watch these shows too and get very excited while watching them. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to find these people in your life, and pit them against one another. Figure out who you know that cooks and is competitive, and then challenge/taunt them to make your favorite dish better than the other people you know who cook and are competitive. Invite some other folks over to help judge. Set any timers you happen to have on hand for random amounts of time just to keep everyone on edge.
Themed Potluck Meals
This is educational and fun—and great for when you’ve run out of other excuses to get everyone together to eat. Ask everybody to bring a dish served as a part of a last meal to a death row inmate or to an executed dictator. Or—Valentine’s Day is on the horizon—why not invite everyone to make one dish that they had a huge fight with an ex over once? I’m choosing slightly twisted options, but if your mind is less bent into knots than mine, you could certainly choose something sweeter—dishes you remember your Grandmothers making, dishes featured in romantic comedies from the 1980s. Whatever. The point is that each dish will evoke a story which will give everyone something to talk about besides how cold it is out.
1950’s Bomb Shelter Style Canned Food Party
You have to plan for this one in advance. Make a pact with some friends that you can reach on foot. Buy some really, really appealing looking canned or otherwise shelf-stable food that you might not try on your own but would be willing to try on a dare. Stash it with a flashlight, some bottled water, some batteries, matches, a candle or two, and a sleeping bag. Next time a serious storm hits, without even confirming, everyone gathers at a pre-agreed person’s house who will have a can opener handy and will have charged an iPod full of storm related music. Even if the electricity works, pretend it doesn’t. Eat cold canned food together on their living room floor, complain about how gross it is, and occasionally press your nose against the window and report on the snow conditions, wondering aloud whether this gross canned food meal will be your last. Eventually, curl up in your sleeping bags and go to sleep. Unless it’s not a really serious storm, in which case you can just walk home when the snow lets up a little.