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Published: Sunday, 12/19/2004

Sweet traditions brighten the holidays

If you're ever going to talk to yourself, this may be the right time. I wonder if anyone saw my lips move when I was having a serious conversation with Miss Powell on the way to the annual Christmas open house at the home of Adrian College President Stanley Caine and his wife, Karen, Sunday afternoon. For each of the 12 miles there was my solemn promise to refrain from the table of sweets where Mrs. Caine is known and to spend the hour or so chatting and sipping tea.

What happens when we mean so well and the tight black skirt should be reason enough to exercise will power and only for an hour? I couldn't wait to pick up a plate and make selections from Karen's specialties of buttery chocolate confections and went for seconds on the soft mouth watering meringues. On such occasions cheese and celery sticks don't have the same appeal as sweets.

There can be a downside to a successful diet. Bryan DeCuir, a Los Angeles friend, lost 50 pounds and now is in a Christmas dilemma. After his father's death Bryan took over the family cookie baking tradition to the extent of wearing his father's Christmas pants. The recipe is the same, but the pants had to be altered before the first flour was measured.

The overeating binge was off to a good start the day before the visit to the Caines, at Sweet Annie's, on US 223. Once again, I had good intentions. I was there to hear the soothing piano music of Kent Marcum of Addison, and buy his new CD, "The Journey." Owner Linda Michael had set the stage with a buffet of food samples, and who can resist flaxseed tortilla chips, spread with raspberry jalapeno jelly and cream cheese and old-fashioned chocolate and peanut clusters? I hated myself afterward, not just for sampling, but for buying the candy and eating it on the way home.

Kent, an accomplished pianist, is the music teacher at Addison, Mich., High School and the organist at the Rollin Baptist Church. It was mandatory that I not miss the chance to buy the CD, which features several of Kent's compositions, because he is scheduled to travel to Nashville to give a recital, and to Dallas to record his fourth disc. Friends raved about "The Journey" concert Dec. 4 at the Christian Family Center in Adrian.

"Christmas with Bobbie Lange" is another CD of piano music that provides gentle background sound when I address cards or fight with the tape when wrapping gifts. Bobbie received bachelor's degrees in piano and organ performance at Bowling Green State University, and her master's degree in organ church music from the University of Michigan. She lives in Cadillac, Mich., where she teaches piano and is pianist for the Cadillac Philharmonic Orchestra.

A year ago Bobbie's father, Robert Mong of North Baltimore, Ohio, mailed the CD. Another note this year was in response to my column that I long to play the piano. Mr. Mong suggests that Bobbie and I exchange lessons. I would give her cooking lessons and she would teach me the piano. She surely would get the short end of that deal, because like many seniors who live alone my cooking is limited, and when I do entertain I am in a frenzy.

The "to Mary Alice from Mary Alice" Christmas gift this year is a small slow cooker. I have struggled with a six-quart model with no removable insert pan for years. This one is 1 1/2 quarts, just right for me, maybe two people if someone shows up, and it has a lift-out container for easier cleaning. The first nine-hour slow cooking trial was beef in a beer-vinegar sauce with mushrooms and onions.

I could have waited and used a gift card to purchase the appliance, unless the card was for Victoria's Secret, which doesn't stock a lot of slow cookers. Do you think we may be going overboard on the gift card concept in Christmas exchanges? In a few years there may not be any gifts under the tree, only envelopes tucked into the branches. Agreed, the cards save a lot of shopping hassles and returns after the holiday, but they can never replace unwrapping a bright package of something that was selected just for you. So you don't need another box of stationery; someone thought you did. Usually, the amount of the gift card is put toward an item, and you pay the rest. When you wear the $40 jacket, for which the gift card paid half, and you forked over the other $20, which half is the gift?

There are holiday tradition stories that warm the heart.

Bess Packo has a sweet explanation why she has not one but five Christmas trees, all heavily decorated and brightly lighted. Guests can't decide which is their favorite: the Americana tree, the fruit and vegetable tree she calls the tossed salad, or the big tree loaded with the keepsakes that a decorated the tree when her sons, Mark and Kirk, were growing up. The 2004 addition is a tall spindly tree bedecked with origami objects made by Bess and Virginia Clark. Origami is the Japanese art of paper folding.

She explains why Christmas trees have always fascinated her. Before she was born, on Dec. 9, her mother decorated the house for Christmas, including a large lighted tree. She was born at home. "That lighted tree was the first thing that I saw, and they said my eyes just sparkled when I looked at it."



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