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I grew up on the edge of California’s Central Valley. Although I’ve lived in New Mexico for the past 25 years, I often make the drive back to California. When I do, I cross the mountains at Tehachapi, descend to the valley floor at Bakersfield and am then faced with a choice: go up the fast, crowded Highway 99 or cross over to Interstate 5 for a less-frantic drive.
Invariably I choose the former. For years, I loved to be on that rough, fast road. It was familiar, and it felt good to be out of the desert and in that vast, edible valley. But lately I see it differently: a free view of agribusiness, a lesson in its features.
Agribusiness central to region
Driving up Highway 99, the names of towns roll over me, old familiars. They have their slogans, their welcoming gates and arches, and bits of history too. McFarland possesses The Heartbeat of Agriculture. Delano, the onetime home of Cesar Chavez, has two prisons and 29% unemployment. Tulare, its namesake lake once the largest freshwater one west of the Great Lakes (it’s now dry), is the home of the World Ag Expo and an agricultural museum. Fresno is hot and huge. I once lived there for three days before knowing I couldn’t, despite my affection for writer William Saroyan and his Armenian family who made a life there.
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Somehow I feel I’ve had something to do with many of these places, whether knowing a good farmer near Fresno or marching with the United Farm Workers in Davis.
Occasionally, I get off the freeway and drive into the smaller towns. They are mostly narrow. Even in more middle-class towns, you have to drive only a block or two before you come to an almond-hulling yard next to a two-story house, orchards directly beyond. But despite all the food that grows in the Central Valley, there’s few places to eat except chain restaurants, unless you happen to get off in a mostly Mexican town, where you might find something good — and real.
The smaller towns are often very poor — much poorer than I remember from trips years ago. In the summer, you see people stooping to pick low-growing crops in the hot sun, scarves wrapped around their faces to protect from the wind, the brutal valley heat and, quite probably, traces of pesticides that burn the skin. But at other times of the year, there’s no one in the fields, so you have to wonder about employment — who is picking the food, where are they during the winter and how do they live? This valley has produced great wealth, but it’s far out of reach for the many who work in agribusiness.
Other sights on the drive north from Bakersfield include enormous packinghouses for Halo tangerines, Sun World Peppers and other foods. You’ll see John Deere outlets, signs for tarps and tie-downs and yards of pallets, irrigation pipes and tractor parts. Billboards carry advertisements for welding services, residual weed control, trucking services and pesticides (“Stop This Bug From Killing California Citrus”) as well as the frequent reminder that “Food Grows Where Water Flows.”
Enormous silos are filled with feed and grain. The town of Ceres is introduced by its handsome, old, smaller silos, but after driving through it, I didn’t feel much connection to the Roman goddess of grain. When the silos were built, though, someone must have had her in mind. Herds of Holsteins stand in dirt under the shade of enormous sheds. They are fed from troughs, and there’s no grass in sight. These operations look industrial, but if you leave the highway and crisscross the valley, you see that they are family farms, albeit large ones. You can also see enormous fields of corn and gargantuan stacks of hay. Despite the drought, water is gushing from standpipes to irrigate fields of corn and alfalfa.
There are airfields for crop dusters, signs for full-service spreading and spraying, pumps, irrigation systems. You see gondolas for cotton and others for grapes. But you can’t see much of the almond orchards, vineyards, olive trees and other crops until you’re well out of the southern part of the valley. When orchards do come into view, you probably have no idea you’re looking at almond, walnut, pistachio and pecan trees unless you grew up there. Without signs, our ignorance remains intact.
World Ag Expo
One February, I was driving up Highway 99 during the World Ag Expo, so I exited in Tulare and went to see what it was about. In part, it’s a trade show, with enormous and amazingly expensive equipment on display. There are seminars too and domestic programs for the wives. The speaker that year was Oliver North. The previous year it was former President George W. Bush, which suggests the nature of big ag’s political alliances.
The 560-page catalog Ag Source gives insight into the business of farming — the equipment needed along with its size and capabilities. An ad for vineyard/orchard removal shows a bulldozer pushing over a large tree and promises efficient brush, stump and green-waste grinding. “Deep ripping” of land can be had for $300 an hour. Wells can be dug, and there are services that provide workers for harvesting cotton, garbanzos, garlic and other annual crops, as well as the perennial nuts, stone fruits and grapes. There are machines, trucks and tractors from small to enormous, from not too expensive to more than $300,000.
The fields you see as you drive by look innocent enough — plants growing in large areas that are no longer punctuated by the farmhouses with dense shade trees one used to see. The scale of everything needed to make California agriculture happen is supersized. If small farms are what you’re familiar with, the scope involved in agribusiness is beyond comprehension. And if you’re unfamiliar with agribusiness, for the price of a tank or two of gas and one or two days, it will reveal its many faces to you. Do it before it all reverts to the desert it is.
Main photo: Corn grows in fields in California’s Central Valley with large stacks of hay in the background. Credit: Deborah Madison
A wine gelée, or jello, is one of my favorite desserts any time of year, but especially at the extreme times — a very hot summer day or a cold wintery one. Not that I wouldn’t take pleasure in biting into the translucent, quivering cubes of a jellied wine whenever the opportunity presents itself, but it’s the very hot and very cold days that I appreciate it as a dessert.
In the summer we don’t have much of an appetite for desserts that involve crusts and cream, so a light, glistening jellied wine with fruit is ideal. In winter we may have had an especially hearty meal so to end, again, with no crusts but the amber cubes of a jellied Marsala with a bit of cream poured over (or not) fits the desire to finish on a sweet note, but not a heavy one.
Just about any wine will do in wine gelée
In summer I make wine gelées with white wines, champagnes, Prosecco, Asti Spumante — anything a bit frizzante is good. Even a vino verde, which can seem a little tart on sipping, works well. A rosé makes a beautiful jellied bowl of wine as well.
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Once it has set, I cut the jellied wine crosswise both ways to make sparkling cubes, then spoon them into individual clear glass or crystal cups, interspersed with raspberries, blackberries or grapes or white peaches or nectarines cut into small pieces. Alternatively you can fill glasses with fruit, then pour the still-warm wine around it and refrigerate until it sets. Turn them out or serve them in the glass.
Toward fall, still a warm time of year, I start mixing figs, raspberries and pomegranate seeds with the gelée. Or I serve the gelée with cut-up aromatic melons, such as Galia, Passport or Ogen. You could serve it in the cavity of a small Cavaillon. A late harvest Riesling would be a wonderful wine to use in the fall.
For winter I turn to heavier wines, like sherry and Marsala, or a red, such as a Zinfandel or American Pinot Noir. A glowing amber or plum jewel-like dish is what you end up with. Instead of fruit, you might choose to pour a little cream over the wine. A nut cookie on the side provides a bit of crunch.
Here’s a recipe that will work for any wine, really. It’s not sweetened but a bit, so add more if you like your desserts really sweet.
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Setting Time: 4 hours to 6 hours
Total Time: 4 hours 10 minutes to 6 hours 10 minutes
Yield: Makes 4 to 6 servings, depending on the amount of fruit used.
- 1 package gelatin
- ⅓ to ½ cup sugar
- 2 cups wine, divided
- 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
- 1 to 1½ cups fruit, cut or sliced into small pieces
- Sprinkle the gelatin over ¼ cup cold water and set it aside to soften.
- Combine the sugar with ½ cup of wine in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil, then simmer, stirring occasionally, until the sugar is dissolved. Remove from the heat, and then stir in the softened gelatin. Stir until it’s thoroughly dissolved, then pour it into the rest of the wine.
- Mix well, then pour into a bowl or compote dish and refrigerate until set. Wine seems to take longer to set than cream or fruit juices, so plan on at least six hours, or even overnight for a firm set.
- Chop the jelly into cubes then serve in the compote or in wine or champagne glasses interspersed with the fruit.
After the wine has set, chop it into cubes and slivers just before serving so the pieces sparkle and glisten. Then serve the broken gelatin in wine glasses, interspersing the pieces with ripe summer fruits. It can also be served plain.
Main photo: Jellied wine with summer fruit. Credit: Laurie Smith
The revolution in food we’ve been witnessing for decades — the chefs, the farm-to-table movement, the pop-ups, the food trucks and all that — has spurred eateries galore featuring good food. Often awesome food.
Usually it’s urban food. A friend who just returned from Brooklyn told of how wherever she looked there was exceptionally good food to buy and eat, and how much of it she sampled.
My own recent experience in Portland, Ore., was similar. It was impossible to walk down a street without being tempted by good things to eat that were beautifully prepared and presented. My friend and I ate food when we weren’t even hungry simply because it was so enticing.
A tiny shop across from Ace Hotel on Stark Street had but a few small tables, excellent brewed loose tea and a very small number of perfect pastries — from homey oatmeal-date bars to an exquisite Paris-Brest. Who could resist? We couldn’t and we didn’t, even though we had just had a very satisfying lunch at Clyde Common.
In the very short time we spent in this city, we ate much, drank much and spent much to support Portland’s edible economy. And it was all worth it.
Good food making its way out of the big cities
But what I really value about the sea change in cooking is not so much the excess of goodness on a city street, as gratifying as that might be, but what you might find in a small town, away from an urban center.
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Take McMinnville, Ore., an hour away from Portland and a place that qualifies as a small town. On this trip, it was the Red Fox Bakery that seduced us. I’d been there before and especially enjoyed the sandwiches. They don’t read as if they’re going to be exceptional — it’s the usual sandwich fare presented on the bakery’s sliced bread. But the bread is so good and so fresh you can’t believe how delicious what seems to be an ordinary-sounding sandwich can be.
Not only are the sandwiches tasty, but they are substantial without being heavy, and it feels like a meal. Real food. Nourishing. The macaroon that comes with each sandwich is a generous nod to dessert, although you might be tempted by a fruit pastry as well. I always am.
Because it was chilly and wet when we arrived in McMinnville, we first paused at the Red Fox just for a look, but the look turned out to be for a cup of hot soup to warm us, a thick slice of that good, fresh bread and then a rhubarb galette.
The next day was Mother’s Day, and although they said they’d open at 8, so many people came by to pick up pastries for their wives or mothers that they were serving by 7. That day our breakfast was a galette as well, this time filled with the blackest of blackberries. And a cup of Illy coffee.
Red Fox cares about its wheat more than forming the perfect croissant. The pastries may look a little funky, but they’re good to eat. Not only do the bakers bake with the best local wheat they can get, they sell it at the counter in flour sacks printed with flowers, the same sacks of wheat we had encountered at the farmers market in Portland. Red Fox is a farm-to-table establishment and not that unusual except for being in McMinnville rather than Portland. As it says on its website, “We’re an artisan, small-batch bakery that specializes in unique flavors, wholesome and all-natural ingredients, and that strives to support locally grown produce and agricultural goods.” And so they bake with this local wheat. It’s not necessarily old-variety wheat, but it’s good wheat. And they use the good local fruits that grow so well there.
The building that houses the bakery is the kind you can find only in small towns and big cities that haven’t yet “arrived” on a food scene — a barn-like space that hasn’t been touched by a designer of any stripe. There’s the big stack oven, the sacks of wheat on the counter, the racks of bread behind, a menu board, a few tables and stacks of cups for the Illy coffee brew.
The tables are mismatched, which hardly matters, but my favorite touch is the bumper sticker slapped on the door that reads “Grateful for gluten,” a courageous statement in a day when so many are, or claim to be, gluten intolerant. Again in the owners’ own words, “… We believe the healthiest sweets and baked goods aren’t necessarily low-fat or gluten-free. … Cost and profit isn’t the bottom line. Seeing a person’s eyes light up as they bite into one of our cupcakes is.”
I like that sentiment. Both of them. It sounds big city, but it’s actually small town.
Another good little find in McMinnville is Thistle, a restaurant with a window facing a side street that recalls the mood of Kinfolk magazine — a small wooden work table, some old equipment, the stove in the background, the promise of something “artisanal.” The small bar (“… an ode to the pre-Prohibition era, a time when the cocktail was king …” its website says) and few tables provide space for some very good wines and farm-to-fork food that rivals any Portland restaurant. No doubt other treasures like these are around, but for a short visit — less than 24 hours — these were good to find and ones to return to.
I love that good food is not just stuck in urban areas but is showing up in smaller places more and more. This is hardly the only example of that, but being such a recent experience, it reminds me how good it is to be able to eat well in small towns too. And shouldn’t this be the ultimate result of all those kids going to culinary schools?
Now, if we could just find this food in our schools, I might be tempted to think that all is well, or at least getting there.
Main photo: A Grateful for Gluten sign hangs in a window at Red Fox Bakery in McMinnville, Ore. Credit: Deborah Madison
Among the items I brought home with me after my mother’s death were her two recipe files. One was lodged in a long, metal box that I suspect once held part of the town’s library card catalog. The other was a delicate wooden box that could be hung on a wall.
I was surprised she had squirreled away so many recipes, any recipes for that matter, for she never seemed that interested in cooking, aside from making sweets. She owned only an old edition of “The Joy of Cooking” plus the cookbooks I had written. My mother’s recipe collection was a mishmash of handwritten recipes and a great deal more torn from magazines, mainly Sunset and Gourmet and occasionally Good Housekeeping, which is kind of ironic because my mother, by her own admission, was hardly a good housekeeper.
I’ve mused before about the mystery of handwriting and how it has the power to touch us in a way an email, without its texture and quirks, can’t. But these folded bits of printed paper and yellowed cards, most of them typewritten, introduced me to my mother in a new way, helping me see her as a person I hadn’t known.
Recipe box about the why, not just the how
I had to wonder, why these recipes? And did she ever make them? She didn’t, at least that I know of. Her own handwritten categories weren’t necessarily related to the contents. Filed under “meat,” for example, were recipes for pomegranate jelly, orange jellies, orange breads, cakes, pickles, guava preserves and even a guava chiffon pie — none of them meat and none of them foods we ate. Not once.
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The many recipes based on oranges were labor-intensive undertakings that involved taking apart then reassembling the fruit, something my mother would not have had the patience to do. Maybe she wished she had been that kind of person, a woman who would spend hours in the kitchen instead of at her typewriter writing novels or at her easel painting. (I suspect the reason that there were so many orange recipes was because in the 1950s my parents moved from the East to California, where we had orange trees, which must have seemed miraculous.)
But where were the meat recipes? Elsewhere. Here and there. My mother was not a fan of meat and was mostly vegetarian, but perhaps meat recipes were dutifully collected for my Midwestern carnivore father. There was a surprising recipe for roasted lamb neck. That my mother, a person so sensitive to the lives of other beings, would even have such a recipe was shocking. I’m sure we never ate such a thing. The recipe instructs, “Have your meat man cut each neck into 2 or 3 slices about 1¼ inches thick.” Now that butchery is emerging again, perhaps it’s not impossible to “ask your ‘meat man,’ ” or “your meat woman” for that favor.
Meat dishes we did eat were mostly in her “Armenian” file, which also contained Indian recipes — dolmas, shashlik, kebabs a miscellany of curries. There’s a recipe for koefte from the 1950s, long before Paula Wolfert introduced us to more than 50 kinds. One card scrawled instructions for pickled tongue with raisins. Again, I doubt my mother would have made the tongue. We did eat tongue, but my father was the one who cooked it.
A relentless diet
There were menus for dieting that would practically demolish one’s life force, menus that started each day with half a grapefruit and a cup of coffee. Ravenous by 10? Then you might want a cup of very lean vegetable broth. (“Guaranteed to help you lose weight, even if you have to eat out,” the introduction promised.)
Simple vegetable dishes were filed with early weight-watcher recipes. I don’t recall that my mother was ever fat, but she must have thought she was. When her doctor cautioned her, in her 90s, that she was awfully thin, her reply was, “Why thank you!” The diet desserts she collected were based on egg whites, gelatin and, of course, oranges. Although Jell-O was our standard dessert, perhaps she really did intend to make that Frozen Fruit Cake and the Shoo-Fly Pie that appears twice in her collection. A great many of my mother’s recipes were for desserts, some elaborate, some of the more quick-and-easy type, and not all of them diet-related. There was her recipe for cottage cheese pie, a dessert we did eat, which my father meanly scoffed at, saying, “So this is what the rich eat?” A cheesecake would have been prohibitively costly, but there was a recipe for that, too. Maybe one day she was able to make it. And eat it. I hope so.
A reflection of progress
My mother’s recipes also reveal something about how times have changed. “Betty’s Armenian Casserole,” torn from a magazine, calls for processed white rice, a No. 2 can of tomatoes, Burgundy wine and garlic salt. Teaspoon is abbreviated “teasp.” Many recipes from the 1950s and ’60s call for garlic salt, which made me cringe every time I saw it listed, until I remembered that when I spent summers in the Adirondacks in the 1970s, garlic still came packed two heads to a box, and they were always moldy and unusable. So the garlic salt made sense, at least until really great garlic started to appear in farmers markets starting in the 1970s.
There’s a kind of generalization in many of the recipes — Eurasian Eggplant, Egyptian Stew, Victory Garden Meal, curry — that’s hard to imagine today, with so many knowledgeable cooks writing in great detail about food cultures.
My mother may not have cooked most of these recipes, but she was reading about food and encountering, at least in print, dishes that suggested flavors new and exciting to a transplanted New Englander. A frugal New Englander, I might add, which is one reason why, I suspect, these clippings and cards played a greater role in my mother’s imagination than reality. Maybe it was the taste of adventure she sought, and that was enough.
Main photo: The recipe boxes. Credit: Deborah Madison
They’re definitely not a glamorous holiday vegetable, but there they were, a box of 20-some rutabagas sitting on my porch, where the mail carrier dropped them beyond the snow just after Thanksgiving. Lucky me, and I mean it!
They were a gift from Charleen Badman, one of my favorite chefs. Her restaurant is FnB in Scottsdale, Ariz., and it was during a recent visit there that I was introduced at last to the Gilfeather rutabaga — a vegetable I had known about since it was boarded on the Slow Food Ark of Taste years ago but had never seen until then.
I met the farmer who was growing them the Friday before Thanksgiving, and Badman served them at a luncheon she made the next day, adding them to a menu based on recipes from my cookbook “Vegetable Literacy.” It was a week later that the enormous box of rutabagas arrived on my doorstep.
Gilfeather rutabagas a tasty treat no matter how they are prepared
What to do with them? Could they possibly be my holiday vegetable? I lay awake at night wondering, then during the day made a soup, then a ragout. But I kept thinking about what Badman did with her rutabagas, something that yielded a handsome heart-shaped golden slab. Working out my version of her dish, I steamed the roots whole until they could be pierced with a sharp knife, let them cool, then sliced away the skins.
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Unlike the yellow-fleshed rutabagas we are mostly familiar with, Gilfeather rutabagas (also called, though incorrectly, a Gilfeather turnip) are white skinned and fleshed, so what I ended up holding in my hand to peel was a large, pale-skinned tuber. (Unlike turnips, they have a long root and two bands where rootlets appear running down their sides.) I sliced it lengthwise about a half-inch thick, then heated up a grill pan and brushed it with butter mixed with sesame oil.
I cooked the slabs over low heat until they were well marked, then I turned them to make marks in the other direction, flipped them and did the same on the second side. They started to color up due to their sugars caramelizing, and they were tender and surprisingly mild tasting. My husband and I had them for breakfast and found them to be almost sweet except for the blast of horseradish mixed with sour cream I added as a topping, which is truly great here. Indeed these became the appetizer for one holiday meal.
But I was curious — what other seasonings would work with this vegetable? I tried dark sesame oil, ghee, Aleppo pepper, smoked paprika, minced celery leaves, smoked salt, Maldon sea salt, isot pepper flakes from Turkey and dried oregano. They were all good — I’d go with any of them any day and I have. But I have to say that the grilled rutabagas were especially good with the leftover juices from the Christmas short ribs — a slick and shiny dark puddle of sauce under the white and gold heart-shaped vegetables.
I also turned to our more familiar variety of rutabagas, those with the purple tops and yellow flesh. They aren’t all that different — perhaps somewhat less mild than the Gilfeather — but the color is luscious and distinctly appealing.
Gilfeather rutabagas are named for Vermont farmer John Gilfeather, who grew them in the early 1900s. To protect his vegetable/product, to which he gave his name and the odd choice of the word turnip, he trimmed away the long roots and the top matter so no one could possibly propagate them. Eventually, others did figure it out. Today, if you want to grow them, you can look for the seeds at Fedco Seed Company, also in Vermont. If you do grow them and have the chance to leave them in the ground until after a good frost, you’ll be rewarded with extra delicacy and sweetness.
Top photo: A Gilfeather rutabaga before and after being cooked. Credit: Deborah Madison
When my husband was invited to practice his art of painting in rural — the word was emphasized many times in the acceptance letter — Ireland, we jumped on it and decided to go right away rather than wait until summer. Our stay was from Halloween to Christmas, covering the major holidays, which were pretty much nonexistent for us that year.
Winter is perhaps not the most perfect time to be on the rough and wild Atlantic coast of the Emerald Island — which, as you quickly come to understand, has to do with the copious amount of rain that falls. It was cold. And damp. Our cottage was stone, and there were gaps in the ceiling that allowed a view of the sky. My husband’s studio was heated, but for me, getting warm and staying that way was the challenge of each day. The recipe called for lots of hot water and alcohol.
Finding warmth in Ireland
Here’s how it worked. First, we were told not to use hot water unless it came from the night storage, a concept we found hard to follow but eventually understood: Electricity is cheaper at night than during the day, so water heated at night is more economical than water heated during the day. So I started the day by submerging myself in water that was as hot as I could stand and staying there until I really couldn’t stand it anymore. Then I dressed in an infinite number of layers that padded me like the Michelin Man, but they kept me warm until noon, when I repeated the process.
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About 3 p.m., when the light caved, I joined Patrick, my husband, in the pub across the street from his studio, where I had a hot whiskey with lemon and clove — divine because it warmed my hands as well as my insides. Then maybe I had a second one just to seal in the hint of warmth that I was sure was coming on. These drinks were pretty mild as alcohol goes. Even two weren’t nearly as strong as the real Irish coffee I had in a pub in a nearby town, where the combination of caffeine, sugar, booze and cream was simultaneously such an upper and downer that your day was done by the last sip. By comparison, the hot whiskey was like tea.
When we returned to our cottage, it was dark outside and cold inside. The first task was to light a peat fire in a fireplace that would never become hot it so dwarfed our expensive bundles of peat logs. There was a heater on one wall, which, if you leaned against it, could make a small portion of your bottom warm, but that was the sum total of its effectiveness.
Because cooking dinner helped produce some warmth, we headed to the kitchen. When Patrick would get a bottle out, it wasn’t that nicely chilled red wine temperature we’ve come to appreciate, nor was it frozen. But it was so frigid you might want to wear mittens to handle it. The wine glasses, too, were like bowls of ice. So we lit the burners on the stove, placed the bottle and glasses among them, and waited until the bottle felt right. By then the glasses would be, too, and dinner would be nearly prepared. We ate it huddled against the big metal fireplace that at least suggested coziness.
Finally, I’m ashamed to say, the best part of each day came, and that was getting into bed and lying on the enormous heating pad that worked like a reverse electric blanket: warming the bed rather than lying on top of you. Finally, here was warmth, and it stayed — regardless of the wind and the rain, which sounded like it was shot from nail guns. While in bed I read a lot about the famine years and tried to comprehend how people could be this cold and starving and yet continue on, while I was being such a wimp about it all.
Christmas in Dublin
By Christmas we were in Dublin, which felt very far from County Mayo in every way. The hotel room was warm; people were festive and jolly; the food was varied and good; there were amazing cheeses to be found; and a farmers market was filled with treats. The pubs were bustling, and there were warm cobblers with cream or mushrooms on toast for breakfast. I’ve never loved Christmas that much, but in Dublin it felt like a real celebration, with music on the streets and a big feeling of happiness in those around us. Of course, that’s when the Celtic Tiger was a big glossy cat, but it was last year, too, when we were there and the economics were quite reversed.
By far, the best holiday scene was one I had the good fortune to happen upon, and it had nothing to do with food. I was walking down a street when I noticed at least a 100 Santas standing together in front of a rather grand building. They were talking and smoking in their Santa outfits. That alone was quite something to see, and I would have been utterly content if it went no further. But then all at once the door of the building opened, and the president of Ireland, Mary McAleese, stepped out, and all the Santas burst into boisterous song: “We wish you a merry Christmas, we wish you a merry Christmas, we wish you a merry Christmas and a happy new year!” And they cheered the president in her red dress, and I think they might have tossed hats into the air.
Top photo: County Mayo, Ireland. Credit: Deborah Madison