New Year's Eve: Getting it right
New Year's Eve is one of those holidays that I’ve always had a hard time getting right. My better judgment has steered me away from participating in activities that would require driving around on a night when the sobriety of the other drivers is questionable. The years that we decided to have a quiet celebration at home usually resulted in us falling asleep way before the clock struck 12. Going out of town to celebrate New Year’s Eve has had mixed results. Last year’s New Year’s Eve will probably be my most memorable, but more about that later.
In 2000 we decided to celebrate New Year's Eve Y2K in New York City. We then enjoyed a concert of Afro-Cuban music by the Buena Vista Social Club at the Beacon Theater. The music was uplifting and inspiring. After the show we hit the streets to celebrate the dawn of a new century. All I remember was the bitter cold, no place to sit down and warm up, the streets and sidewalks were packed body-to-body, my bursting bladder, no restrooms, and the queue to the subway entrance snaking around the block.
For the first New Year’s Eve after my wife’s passing I drove down to Tennessee to attend the Grateful Ball put on by Bluegrass Underground. The all-inclusive holiday package included meals and overnight accommodations at a state park lodge and a concert in a cave 700 feet under the ground featuring music of the Grateful Dead performed by the Traveling McCourys and the Jeff Austin Band. That was definitely a unique and eclectic experience, and though several hundred reveling partiers surrounded me, I drank a bit too much champagne, which brought me to a state of sadness and loss rather than joy and excitement.
Last year I rented a beach cabin on stilts in Louisiana on the Gulf Coast to celebrate the new year. The cabin slept six, so I invited some friends to join me. The Harris brothers – David and Kevin, as well as their spouses Margie and Karen – have always been receptive to my schemes and accepted my invitation without hesitation.
On the morning of Dec. 31 I picked up corn, onions, little potatoes, andouille sausage and six pounds of Gulf shrimp at a local grocer in preparation for a New Year’s Eve shrimp boil and headed to our cabin at Cypremort Point State Park. Upon arriving, I realized my idyllic notion of a midnight shrimp boil on the beach wasn’t going to happen. The bitter cold 30 mph winds suggested that an indoor shrimp boil was a better option.
The overachieving Harris’s arrived a few hours later with a whole trunk full of oysters, crawfish, crabs and a ridiculous amount of shrimp that they had picked up along the way. “My God, “I declared. “What are we going to do with all these shrimp? We’re on vacation!” “Hey – we’re going to shell them and bag them for the freezer!”
The cabin had a screened-in balcony porch with a big table, so the Harris boys spread newspapers and proceeded to decapitate and shell a mountain of jumbo shrimp, saving the heads and shells for stock. I couldn’t help but wonder how many people bring boxes of freezer bags when they go on vacation. Watching them work, I was impressed by their teamwork and efficiency. “Sometimes we buy shrimp right off the fishing boat and clean and package them in the parking lot next to our car.” After packing the bags of shrimp into their coolers and carrying the heavy loads down to the cars we moved inside to thaw out our hands and warm our bones in front of the fireplace.
As an aspiring chef, being able to plan a meal around an abundance of pristine seafood is a very rare and special treat. I made a mignionette with champagne vinegar and shallots I had brought from home and proceeded to shuck six dozen oysters. While we savored the oysters and sipped prosecco I put my 3-gallon stockpot on to boil with pepper mash, a byproduct of the Tabasco-making process. I spread newspaper on the dining table. The first course of our seafood boil was shrimp with potatoes, onions and spicy andouille sausage. We followed this with boiled blue crabs, which we cracked open by whacking with the handle of a table knife. By this point we were all quite full, the evening was young and the prosecco supply was getting low, so we called a time-out and opted for naps.
When I’m overstimulated sleep does not come easily, so I got up and started making shrimp stock from the heads and shells and some coleslaw to balance out the protein-centric feast. I let everyone nap until 10, but, fearing that people would sleep through the night unless I intervened, I put on some peppy Cajun dance music to restart the party.
The final course of the evening was crawfish. The mudbugs were chilling out in a burlap bag on the porch. I cut open the bag and dumped the contents onto the porch’s newspaper-covered table. They were alive and started crawling around like little drunken lobsters. Inside, my pot was already boiling, so I lifted the bottom of my apron and pulled an armful of the squirming crawfish onto it for transport into the kitchen. We said a blessing to my apron full of crawfish and dumped them in the bubbling cauldron.
The activity of eating fresh crawfish and blue crabs truly qualifies as “slow food.” A disproportionate amount of effort is required to extract small amounts of protein. Eventually all that remained was a pile of shells and empty prosecco bottles. Midnight had finally arrived. We toasted the new year with a shot of ice-cold Aquavit and said goodnight to each other.
I decided to relax in front of the fireplace and enjoy the fire before retiring. I dozed off in the chair. Sometime later I was startled out of my slumber by something crawling on my face. I opened my eyes to a crawfish on my nose. Two more were crawling on my chest. I realized I was still wearing my apron and the three crawfish had been stowaways in the apron pocket!
2018 will have been a pivotal year in my life. Relationships have changed. I will have retired from 40 years as a dentist. I’ll have started a new career as a chef. I will say goodbye to all things past and greet the future by attending the New Year’s Eve Concert for Peace at New York City’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine with one of my 2018 Illinois Times interviewees, folk music icon Judy Collins. My hopes and prayers are that 2019 will be the year we make America kind again. Happy New Year to all!