I am not a party girl, and I had only accepted after she assured me that I didn’t absolutely have to stay up until midnight.
Then she springs the hat thing on me!
Rick and I often go to Gatlinburg for New Year’s so we can have a cozy evening by the fire and watch the fireworks from the unit we rent at the Highlands Condominiums, a ten-minute drive up the mountain from the thriving metropolis of Gatlinburg, Tennessee.
But here’s the truth. It is usually too warm to build a fire at that time. We eat frozen pizza, watch Netflix, read, and fall asleep, usually long before the launching of the midnight fireworks.
So you see, it was no great sacrifice to give up our usual low-key celebration for what I knew would be a delectable meal prepared by our longtime friends, Terry and Pann Webb, their daughter, Katie, and Katie’s friend, Lisa Sinclair.
But I’d have to wear a hat?
This isn’t the first time the Webbs have lured me into an adventure.
Pann was our daughter Allison’s Girl Scout leader, and she hornswoggled me into chaperoning their overnights. Like the time we “slept” at the Loveland Castle under the too-attentive eye of a stocky “knight”in army boots. And the bathroom was outside. Oh, that was fun . . . but pretty funny, as I look back at the experience.
Or the time we climbed Mt.Le’Conte. Pann and Terry assured me they had selected the easiest trails to scale and descend the mountain. And they made much of the big meal and hot chocolate that was awaiting us at the top. They charged way ahead of me, badass mountain folk they were. While Pann and Terry identified bark and leaves and scat, their son Andy saved me from certain death when I nearly fell off the mountain.
When we arrived at the lodge, there was indeed a meal. And mouse droppings in my hot chocolate cup. Bears were outside, and so was the bathroom.
Then there was the night of the Murder Mystery Party. I am sure the Webbs tempted me with one of their home-cooked meals and their indoor plumbing, but it was a costume-mandatory event where you were required to stay in character and accrue clues to solve a murder case.
“It was Colonel Mustard in the library with the wrench,” I declared ten minutes in. I am really not a very good sport about these things.
And once Pann tricked me into going to church by inviting me to cooking lessons. Now, I’m not much of a church goer, but there’s that irresistable cause/effect relationship between cooking and eating, so she didn’t have to ask me twice. The classes were taught in a Presbyterian church by Muslim women from Turkey. It was a delicious, spiritual, and meaningful experience and, as promised, there was no sermon. And I didn’t have to wear a hat, or a scarf, either.
I had heard about the Webb themed New Year’s Eve dinners for 15-years.
The Alice in Wonderland 2006 Bash featured dishes inspired by phrases from the classic book: Queen of Hearts tarts; Carrots in a Row; drinks with labels imploring guests to “Drink me.”
There was the Gulliver’s Travels 2010 New Year’s Eve where all food items were big/little proportions, like Prodigious and Petite Pickles, Burly and Bitsy Bread, Whopping and Wee Wings, Strapping Salmon and Stunted Sardines.
In 2011, British chef Heston Blumenthal, was their muse as they created entrees that looked like dessert (like meatloaf cupcakes iced with mashed potatoes) and dessert that looked like a traditional English breakfast.
A visit by two British friends was the impetus for ThanksPresiChristmasWeen of July New Year’s, with a menu featuring iconic dishes for every American celebration–an all-American cookout with Halloween treats and other holiday fare.
In 2013, the hosts were inspired by their ongoing kitchen renovation. Since the kitchen island was the only viable serving surface, that New Years Eve Dinner was Greek Islands on the Island. (Sane people would have just canceled the dinner.)
I was intrigued enough to overcome my hat aversion. I knew it would be an adventure. And I’m always hungry. And if I took a nap, I could possibly make it until midnight.
So, yes, I got a hat at Cappels, along with a few bags of feathers and Tacky Glue. I got my Martha Stewart on and created something along the lines of race regalia, in line with the 2015 theme: Triple Crown. The Triple Crown is the honor for winning the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes. (This had to be explained to me. I thought the Triple Crown was that thing the Pope wears, and that’s why we had to wear hats.)
We were ten minutes late and the last of the twelve guests –eight mares and four stallions–to arrive. The guests were a noisy lot, all in hats. As soon as we walked through the door, we were caressed by layers upon layers of aromas we could not identify.
Before us on the Webbs’ kitchen island was the First Race. As the DD, I selected Ale-8 One (pronounced “A late one”), a Kentucky ginger and citrus flavored soft drink, and passed up the Mint Julep, Black Eyed Susan, and Belmont Jewel.
The Second Race, “a taster before the main event,” quickly followed and included crab cakes, Nathan’s Coney Dogs, and Kentucky Hot Browns. As I filled my plate, a veteran of the Webbs’ NYE raised his eyebrow and whispered, “Pace yourself.” Good advice for a horse, or a guest who can eat like a horse.
The evening’s fare was listed on the very professional-looking programs embellished by a variety of jockey silks.
We each put a buck in the purse and were given a horse’s name, which I found rather insulting, until I figured out that I could Win, Place, or Show at the end of the evening. At the conclusion of every race/course, we all threw dice to see who won. I never really figured out the tally, but it was clear my nag, Seattle Slew, was a loser. At the end of the night, I had only calories and a goofy hat to show for my efforts.
We still had to cross the finish line of the Third Race– including Kentucky Burgoo, shrimp pickled in a mason jar, salad, and Benedictine Deviled Eggs—before we hit the entrees.
And the Fourth Race: I was slowing down, but anyone betting on my ability to consume all the New York Strip Steak, Maryland Fried Chicken, Beaten Biscuits with Ham, and Sherry Maccarony walked out empty handed. I strapped on my feed bag and went to town.
We all ate, decked out in our fetching hats. The conversation was lively, every minute. Although we had met all the other guests before, we didn’t know them well, but we were folded into the veterans’ conversations.
I sat next to Carmo, a fun and funny widow from Brazil who received calls during dinner from her South American relatives as well her daughter who lives in Scotland. Another widow spent her first New Year’s Eve alone among her and her late husband’s longtime friends. The Webbs and Lisa planned every detail of this “happening” for months, starting with a search for race-related paper goods right after the Kentucky Derby. At the end of the evening, I told Lisa and Katie, “When I’m with you I feel so beige!”
Katie and Lisa are already plotting next year’s theme. They are considering “The Best of New Year’s Eves.” Lisa, tongue firmly planted in cheek (I think), suggested “Offal New Year’s”–as in heart, tripe, liver, and tongue. Hmm, we may have a reservation in Gatlinburg.
It was art, really, this evening of cuisine, costumes, competition, and colorful conversation. The composition was as carefully considered as the paints in a picture, the choreography in a dance, the chords in a song–all just for the guests’ pleasure. It was like live theater, when it’s over, it’s over, but the memories endure.
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