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Gaylord National’s ICE! Is a Cool Christmas Treat

Santa at Gaylord National's ICE

5,000 blocks of ice, each weighing nearly 400 pounds, are hand-carved to make the dazzling display which is comprised of ten different colors and more than 1, 500 specially designed light tubes that are frozen within the ice.

Yes, we have terrible traffic,  high gas prices and a housing market I never seem to be on the right side of, but when it comes to celebrating the holiday season, the Metro DC area knows how to do it right! Having spent the first two-thirds of my life celebrating Christmas in sunny Florida and California, those wintery holiday scenes in TV Christmas movies were quite foreign to me.  So you can understand why I may have been the most excited member of the JavaFamily when MomzShare invited me to see Gaylord National’s ICE! at National Harbor.

If you live locally, you’ve been pelted with commercials and fliers about it, but nothing does it justice like seeing it in person.  I had stayed at the Gaylord National Resort and Conference Center a few weeks earlier for the Blogalicious conference and even I was amazed by the transformation.  The first thing to understand is that ICE! is part of an entire set of Christmas on the Potomac activities.  It is indeed the centerpiece, but there is so much more!

Another thing to know is that previously you had to stay at the hotel to access many of the activities, but this year, the Gaylord National has changed the package pricing so members of the general public may join in the fun of meeting characters and decorating gingerbread houses.  Because there are so many components, I will break down the events and the pricing as I explain our experience — keep in mind if you like more than one activity, you may want to look into a package.

Gaylord National’s ICE!

No doubt the sparkling gem of the Christmas on the Potomac experience, this ranked high with all members of the family.  Each year 2 million pounds of ice, some clear, some colored, is carved to recreate scenes of a popular movie — this year it is Merry Madagascar.  But what we didn’t know until visiting the web site beforehand is that the ice carvers are 40 artisans from Harbin, China, sharing knowledge from an old tradition of ice lantern festivals.  There is a lot of science involved in how the ice is made — the differences between the processes for making the very clear ice, the cloudier white ice, and the colored ice.  For example, clear ice is made using deionized, highly filtered water that is slowly frozen whereas white ice is quickly frozen. I highly recommend watching the videos available online beforehand so the kids can better appreciate the work that goes into building the scenes and know what to expect.  Although it was not busy the day we were there, as part of their “crowd control” you will get a chance to see a video before entering ICE! but it still helps to read/watch video on the web site ahead of time.  I think this made the difference between the kids just running through it and saying “oh yeah, neat” and us really talking about what was done, looking at the details, discussing  the science involved, appreciating the hard work of each part of the process and truly enjoying the artistry.

It is truly cold, 9 degrees Fahrenheit in the ICE! Pavilion, which is a tent across the street from the Gaylord National.  You will be required to wear one of their large, blue parkas (yes, ALL of you), because these are also what are used to slide down the main attraction — the lit ice slides.  They had the parkas in all sizes, even for me as a plus-sized person.  I recommend wearing long underwear under warm clothes, and bring your own gloves/mittens and hats. While we did have jackets and coats that fit under the parkas, you may find that you want fleeces instead to minimize your bulkiness, and scarves may help you keep your faces warm — a friend who had gone previously brought ski bibs for her kids, that would’ve been overkill for my family, you will have to figure out what your family’s comfort level is and I recommend a backpack so you can add and subtract layers as needed. Warm, comfortable walking shoes (no heels allowed on slides) are essential. Try to minimize how much you need to bring in with you. Keep in mind your camera may fog/freeze in that temperature. They will take a souvenir photo of your family in front of a green screen (and lay in a nice backdrop digitally) just before you enter, which is then for available for you to purchase ($20-30) in the large gift shop you pass through on the way out should you choose. Since we knew the kids did not get a decent photo of the two of us inside, we opted to buy the photo.

Ice slidesWhen it comes to the slides, it’s really simple — sit with the long, slick parka tucked under you, feet ahead (no high heels!) and whoosh off you go!  JavaGirl was frightened at first, but once she got going, she didn’t want to stop.  This was, of course, for the kids, their favorite part of the ICE! event. If I felt a little more graceful at the top and the bottom of the slide, I would’ve made more trips myself!  This also seemed to be the coldest, so be prepared to either go up and down the stairs with them a lot (the slides aren’t that tall) or to stand at the bottom of the slides, taking lots of photos and perhaps getting  little red in the cheeks from the chill.

Nativity made of ice.In my opinion, one of the prettiest parts of the display was the crystal ice nativity scene with a quick narration and dramatic lighting to give an overview of the birth of Jesus.  It was breathtaking and frankly, put me in the Christmas spirit.  It is the last room of the ICE! display so if you have objections to the religious meaning, as I overheard one visitor exclaiming, you can quickly scoot out.  Upon exiting, workers will help you return your parka and oh-so-conveniently hot chocolate and snacks are for sale.  You can then exit or go on to ice skating, visiting the Madagascar Penguins or riding the train (extra charges apply).

For many families, this is an “investment” event — is it worth it?  I would say yes, but that it is up to you to maximize the value.  Spend the time before your visit to look at what is involved in creating ICE!  Walk over to the conference center to take advantage of the additional beautiful decorations and some of the free activities I’ll mention below.  Take time to talk about the event afterwards and discuss as a family what you saw, what was your favorite, how do you think they made the different characters, how fast do you think you went on the slides, or whatever other extension activities you can think of.  A week later my family is still talking about it and that to me means it was family time well spent.

Details:  Hours and prices for individual tickets vary by the day so check web site for details but Adult prices range from $35-25, Seniors from $24-19, Kids (4-12) $30-20, Military Adult with ID $32-22, Military Child $27-17, younger Kids (3 and under) are free.  There are also package prices that allow you to save by bundling other events with the ICE! tickets. Self parking is $10 for up to three hours with purchase of an ICE! ticket.  You can buy a VIP Pass to bypass the line and get a cup of hot chocolate and a meet and greet with the Penguins of Madagascar for an additional $15, conditions apply. There are a variety of public transportation options including the National Harbor-Washington DC Shuttle, Alexandria-National Harbor Water Taxi, and NH-1 Metrobus from the Branch Avenue Metro Station Green Line.

Ice Skating, Potomac Express Train

While still inside the ICE! Pavilion, you can buy tickets to skate at the (smallish) indoor rink. $10 for overnight guests, $12 otherwise, includes skate rentals.  This was the first ice skating experience for the JavaKids and the rink was probably just the right size for them. There are no lockers (or none we saw) so again, travel light. There were no buckets or gliders for new skaters (or that I saw) so it was the old-fashioned hang-on-to-the-rail-honey method as I tried to teach JavaGirl how to skate. It was towards the end of our day and we were rushing to get to the tree lighting so we didn’t spend much time here, but it was just enough for us to let the kids get the taste of ice skating, I am not sure how packed it gets on a busy day. In the same space is the Potomac Express Train,  a small train similar to the types that run through many local malls, $3 per ride, or three rides for $5. Here you will see the Madagascar Penguins — as they were on break while we were there, I wasn’t clear whether you had to have the character pass to see them or not.

Activities Inside the Resort

Obviously you could spend plenty of time just inside the tent, but maximize your day and maybe even wear out your little ones (you will definitely be worn out by the end of your visit!) by heading across the street to the resort. If you really want to splurge, book a package for an overnight stay at the hotel so you can spread out the fun — the view of the harbor is truly gorgeous and the resort has 300 acres.  But even if you don’t stay overnight, it is worth it to walk over to enjoy the decor and shows.

Several activities are free while others require tickets. 

Nightly Tree Lighting Ceremony Featuring the DreamWorks Characters

Tree lighting ceremony at ICE!Synthetic candy glass tree at ICE!There is a beautiful fountain in the atrium and suspended above it is a 60-foot Tree of Light made of synthetic “candy” glass. Although gorgeous by day as it sits in front of a large window and radiates from the sun, at night the tree is lit by single light source, one of the world’s brightest light bulbs. In a theme-park-worthy show, DreamWorks characters such as Shrek, Fiona, Alex the Lion, and others come out while the fountains behind them dance to music and change color leading up to a dramatic lighting of the tree. Though the lighting ceremony is at 6:30, my advice is to either get a seat in the atrium (there are a limited number of seats there) or pull a chair up to the glass railing at the Belvedere Lobby Bar one floor above the atrium to get the best view by 5:45 or 6:00 pm and as this is prime kid dinner time, either have snacks handy or order something from one of the many hotel restaurants and bring it with you. The production pulls out all the stops — including indoor snow! Apparently by the end of the season, an average 15 inches of snow will have fallen INDOORS at the Gaylord! This is FREE.  If you do only one free show with your kids, this is the one and getting prime seating is key for maximum enjoyment. 

Brightest Star Fountain Show

At the same fountain, the water “dances” while you listen to a narration of the classic Christmas story.  We happened to be sitting at the National Pastime Sports Bar and Grill while this went on and saw/heard part of it from the patio, but I can’t really tell you how crowded the atrium was. I suspect any place that gives you a nice view of the atrium would be sufficient for this show, which begins at 9:30 pm, and that you don’t have to secure a spot as early as you need to for the tree lighting.  This is FREE.

Northern Lights

When the sun goes down, the 19-story atrium sparkles from 6:00 pm to midnight as more than two million lights illuminate the atrium and garden. If you put all the strings of lights in a row, they would equal 12.27 miles! Walking around the hotel and enjoying the ambiance is FREE.

DreamWorks Character Passport

Puss In Boots at ICE!

Meow! Even mommies like Puss In Boots!

Buy your tickets and cross into a tiny village where you can meet your favorite characters from Madagascar, Puss In boots, Kung Fu Panda, and Shrek.  In addition to meeting characters in six locations, children get a keepsake passport stamped at each location and can participate in the Puss in Boots and the Quest for the Magic Beans Scavenger Hunt, which takes you throughout the indoor gardens on an interactive scavenger hunt (warning, lots of counting involved!)  My kids thoroughly enjoyed the scavenger hunt and were thrilled with their prize.  Check web site for dates and times as there are some blackout dates.  Tickets are $35 for ages 4 and up BUT one complimentary guardian or parent is allowed per paying child.  Professional photographers will take photos of your kids and you may buy them online (they give you a card with a barcode on them) but you are also allowed to take your own photos.  Note that not all characters are available for all meet and greets at all times — read all the fine print and make sure you are comfortable with it before booking. I’ll note here that my kids are very wishy-washy about meeting characters – sometimes they’ll run up to, say, the Easter Bunny, but they didn’t care to wait in line to see a character at Disney, perfectly content to watch from afar.  Yet they thoroughly enjoyed this particular experience and are still talking about it days later (my 5-year-old mostly).  So you will have to gauge for yourself whether this is worth your time and money or not.

Gingy’s Gingerbread Decorating

Decorate either a gingerbread family or a gingerbread house at Gingy’s workshop and then meet Gingy!  Prices start at $29.95 (plus tax) and are based on the item you decorate rather than by the number of people doing the decorating.  We did not have time to try this out, but plenty of families looked like they were having fun when we quickly walked through this area.

Santa Souvenir Photo

Although we did not take our photos there, several of our friends did and were thrilled with the results.  A very jolly old elf indeed has taken up residence at the Gaylord National and with photo packages starting at $20, quite competitive with the rising prices of pictures with Santa at the mall. A photo purchase is required in order to gain audience with this Santa, but I’m told he’s quite a good listener. 

There are many, many more activities, including a Brunch with Santa, a ShrekFeast, and spa treatments I would kill for! 

Final Impressions

My husband and I are customer service fanatics. Nothing infuriates us more than rude service and nothing catches our attention faster than excellent service. Every single employee, literally every one of them we came in contact with at the Gaylord National, was polite, friendly, and attentive. Down to details such as noticing that my parka was snug and insisting on getting me a different size, seeing upon exiting the ICE! exhibit that the warm air made my daughter’s nose start running and bringing her a tissue, packing up a Diet Coke in a to go cup for me for the ride home at a restaurant and so on. Wherever we were in our day, each employee asked us if we were enjoying our stay, even the parking attendant as we left asked if we had a good time. The kind of customer service that is rare these days. But imagine my surprise when the next day I discovered I had left my wallet at the Gaylord and didn’t know where after traipsing all over the 470,000 square foot center, the customer service continued at the same level. I was certain there was no hope and yet within hours, they found it for me, all contents intact, and had it at the bell hop desk waiting for me. It is perhaps for this reason the most that I think my family found it quite fun and relaxing to spend many hours at the Gaylord National — we felt truly cared for and away from the hustle and bustle for a while and could focus on just having fun as a family, and have built priceless memories we’ll cherish forever. It was a great reminder that for those of us lucky enough to live in the Metro DC area, you don’t have to travel far to give your family a special experience they’ll remember for years.

The entire Christmas on the Potomac event runs from now through January 8 and you can find more details at www.ChristmasOnThePotomac.com or by calling 301-965-4000.  If you are doing multiple events, packages such as the Freeze and Fun Day are the way to go.  Look online to see if they are running special web deals at the time you want to go.

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Disclosure:  My family and I were provided with complimentary tickets to the Gaylord National’s ICE!, character passports, ice skating and parking as part of a MomzShare media event.  This did not impact my opinion of the event or what I wrote about it (I always tell it like it is), but it did give me an opportunity to share a local event with you with firsthand knowledge.  Shrek, Madagascar, Kung Fu Panda and all related characters and properties © 2011 DreamWorks Animation L.L.C. Merry Madagascar © 2011 DreamWorks Animation L.L.C.  All photos are mine.

Bittersweet Story of Milton S. Hershey School

Cookie Exchange at Milton S. Hershey SchoolIt was unlike any cookie exchange I had been to.  No Christmas carols playing.  Minimal decoration.  And most of the adults in the room were complete strangers to each other 24 hours earlier.  Although no celebrities were in attendance, camera flashes were going off almost as frequently as any red carpet event.  This is what happens when a dozen bloggers exchange cookies with children from the Milton S. Hershey School.

Mere hours earlier, 11 other bloggers and I had been in the Hershey test kitchen, getting an insider’s peek into how recipes on the back of Hershey’s products and in those colorful recipe cards and cookbooks are created.  We were divided into teams and dutifully followed (or tried to) the directions of some of the most beloved holiday cookie recipes.  The sweet results were combined with additional batches of cookies for an exchange with two houses of children from the Milton S. Hershey School (MHS) — essentially a boarding school for underprivileged children, which gives children as young as 4 and as old as graduating high school seniors a second or better chance at life.  The average income of the families the children came from is approximately $15,000 a year.  Some of the parents choose to send their children to the school, in the hopes of breaking the cycle and providing their children with the education and life skills training they aren’t able to provide themselves.  But some children arrive at the school under protective custody, their families completely unaware of where they are.

In a two-and-a-half day trip to Hershey, Pennsylvania and an opportunity to learn about The Hershey Company and its sister company, Hershey Entertainment and Resort, I have learned so much about chocolate, the attractions in this small Pennsylvania town of 21,000 people, and the fascinating failures and then successes of Milton S. Hershey.  There is much to digest (physically and mentally!) from this trip, but one of the most heart-rending is the story of this school and the ideaology behind it, with very few modifications, that has survived the test of time for nearly a century and changed the lives of 9,000 people.

An Opportunity of a Lifetime

Milton Hershey and his beloved wife Catherine, aka “Kitty,” were unable to have children.  November 18, 1909 they created the Deed of Trust that created the school originally named the Hershey Industrial School.  Four students were enrolled the following year, beginning in a classroom in Milton’s original home.  At the time of its creation, the school was for white orphaned boys, since then the school has expanded its student population to include underprivileged children of either gender and all races.  Back in 1909, the idea was not only to feed, clothe, and educate the pupils, but also to teach them a marketable trade so they could make their own way in life after graduation.  Three years after his wife’s death, Hershey donated the majority of his vast fortune to the school which to this day operates on funds provided via the trust and sales of Hershey’s chocolates, and does not accept private donations.

The school currently houses and educates 1800 students, with plans to expand to serve even more.  The children live in group houses under the watchful eye of married couples who serve as Houseparents and who make sure the children not only are cared for, but go to school, extracurricular activities, and church, and also enforce a very structured way of life that includes chores and bedtime. Children have the option to go home for school breaks and five long weekends, but some of them don’t.  Some families are very involved, maintaining regular contact with their children.  Sadly, some don’t.  The homes are divided by gender and level of school (elementary, middle and high school).  High school seniors live in transitional housing that allows them to learn about managing a modest budget, shopping for and cooking their own food, and learning the lessons they need to know before striking out on their own — either in the work world or college.  They earn scholarship money for college by maintaining good grades at MHS.

Although the campus itself is open, rarely are people given the opportunity to go inside a group home.  Before the cookie exchange, my fellow bloggers and I were divided up and given the opportunity to dine with the children in selected houses to gain a better understanding of what life inside MHS is like.

Pizza and Perspective

The Hughes family, a married couple and their 15-year-old daughter, were the housefamily for the home of boys in grades 4 and below that I had the pleasure of joining for dinner.  As a Hershey trolley dropped off two other bloggers and a Hershey rep, the young boys politely lined up just inside the entryway and extended their hands for a firm handshake while introducing themselves.  My own son is a first grader, and I felt a lump in my throat as  I realized that some of these boys were the same age as he is.

I did a double-take as one small boy introduced himself as Nugget.  I later learned this was not his given name, but his preferred moniker, which reflected his small stature.  Luis, the largest of the boys, was less talkative, and had only been at the school for four weeks. 

We sat down to a dinner of pizza (a treat provided by the PR team) and were riddled with even more questions from the houseparents than we had for them or the boys.  Guests are infrequent, and they were curious why women who had no apparent connection to each other would travel from states far and near to come share Wednesday night dinner with them.  We, had lots of questions, but speaking for myself, felt like it would be indelicate in such a short time to delve deeply into them — the most obvious being, what brought each boy here?

Several of the boys from the home I visited.

Instead, we asked what their favorite subjects were (math seemed to be the predominate favorite) and what they wanted to be when they grew up.  Watching my own boy grow in his obsession with Star Wars over the past few months, I asked if any of them were fans, and was met with questioning looks.  “They are a little young for that,” Mr. Hughes replied after a brief silence.  It was just one of the moments that drove home to me how different their lives — even before arriving at MHS — had been from my son’s.  Upon noticing the missing baby teeth of several of the boys, one of the women made a remark about the tooth fairy, and once again an awkward silence fell.  “Who is the tooth fairy?” one of the boys asked.  The tooth fairy had not visited them at their original homes, apparently.  While friends of mine volleyed back and forth on Facebook about the going rate for the tooth fairy in their respective neighborhoods, these children had never even heard of such a creature.  Remembering that the average family income of the pupils was approximately $15,000, I could see why the tooth fairy had not come by.

The most enthusisasm seemed to come with the discussion of sports and extracurriculars.  Just like my son, many of them enjoyed playing soccer.   A couple of the boys were enrolled in tap dancing classes.  And just like my household, Mrs. Hughes found she needed to write everyone’s schedules down to make sure everyone arrived at the right place (and came home!) at the right time — although I only have our family of four and she could have as many as 12 MHS kids as well as her own family to keep track of.

A bedroom at Milton S. Hershey School

A bedroom at a group home at Milton S. Hershey School.

Both houseparents ensured all the children had eaten all they had wanted, and then the boys quickly cleared the table.  Luis gave us a brief, but matter-of-fact tour of the house, which included a well-organized laundry room and mud room, a neat living room complete with a decorated Christmas tree and display case of Mrs. Hughes’s personal collection of Hershey memorabilia, and a large, shared bathroom.  Each bedroom could hold up to two boys, who were provided with a twin bed, a dresser, and a desk with a hutch.  The linens on the beds were themed by room — one room had football players on the bedspread.  We silently took note of how unadorned the rooms were.  One boy had a photo of himself as a baby with a woman I presumed to be his mother.  Luis had three posters – two of WWF wrestlers, and the other an advertisement for Diary of a Wimpy Kid.  In most cases, the shelves over the desks were empty.  A PR rep later told us that was because the children often arrived with virtually nothing more than the clothes on their backs.  Though there were plenty of books in the common areas of the house, few children come to the school with their own personal collection of books, or even a single beloved one.  Their clothes are provided for upon arrival, but memorabilia and cherished items, those are things a child acquires over time through gifts and treats — a luxury few of them ever had.  Clutter is a problem that comes with middle class or higher status, not with poverty.

And while I still felt shell-shocked at the idea of a parent sending such a young child away to school (even if in some cases, it was an act of purely unselfish love), the story of MHS seems to be predominately happy.  Both in a documentary and via clips on the school’s web site, one can see and hear over and over again how MHS transformed lives.  There is a light in the eyes of these alums as they talk about how the school changed the direction of their lives that tells even more than their stories of leading healthy, productive, successful lives.  Many students return to work or volunteer for the school in some capacity later in life — grateful for the love, education, and opportunities provided to them.  And that is the sweet part of the bittersweet story.  Listening carefully to their words, I realize that more than anything, what changed the course of their lives was the understanding that someone — including the long-deceased Milton S. Hershey — believed in them.  Someone cared enough to create this school and to expect them to make something of themselves.  This gave them the power to believe that they could achieve more than their original set of circumstances might have allowed.

After the tour, we bundled up in coats and made the short trip to a group home of similar aged girls to have the cookie exchange party.  Some walked, a blogger named Linda and I ended up driving over in a van with Mrs. Hughes and her daughter.  This gave me an opportunity to ask what life was like as a Houseparent.  Our time was brief and the answers were unsurprising, but it helped fill out the picture.  After 18 years of serving as a Houseparent, Mrs. Hughes has seen a few changes — at one time kids stayed with the same housefamily throughout their school career, rather than “aging out” of a home by a certain grade as they do now.  She feels like she was able to form a deeper bond with children under that model.  Recently a child had to leave the home because his emotional state was questionable and he needed to be somewhere where he could get the assistance he needed.  While her fifteen-year-old daughter has known no other life, her older children — now on their own — had a harder time adjusting to the new way of life when they first became Houseparents.  When I asked about how involved the students’ parents were, she said some were very involved, others barely communicated with their children.

Though she had no hard statistics, she did think the issues of bullying and drug use were significantly lower at MHS than in the town’s public schools due to the regimented schedule of student life at MHS.  Since she took care of younger boys, she didn’t know much about teen pregnancies but said she only recalled about hearing of one case in recent times.

Although the children referred to the houseparents at both houses quite formally as Mr. and Mrs. So-and-so, I also noticed how often they would come up to their houseparents for a quick hug.

A Holiday Party Like No Other

“Are you ready for some cookies?!” asked one of the PR firm representatives.  The ensuing squeals of delight were nearly deafening.  After a brief discussion of who should go first, the boys or the girls, the boys politely deferred to the girls.  They picked up plain tins and lined up for their allotment of six cookies and were instructed that they could decorate the tins at the craft table.

A young girl named Angel struggled with tying a ribbon onto the round tins, so I stepped in and asked if she’d like some help.  We selected a sticker to secure the ribbon on the bottom of the tin and I tied a clumsy bow for her and showed her how to fluff it for maximum effect.  I then asked if she’d like some glitter glue, and when we found the glue pen a bit tough to squeeze, I offered to do the squeezing while she put her little hand over mine and guided it into the shiny swirls she desired.  She turned down the offer of Hannah Montana stickers, opting instead to adorn the tin with smaller Tinkerbell stickers.  Then she selected a T0:/From: gift tag.

“Are you going to eat the cookies or are you saving them to give to someone?” I asked.

“I’m going to give them to my Grandma!  When I see her at Christmas Break!” she said.  The crafter nearby, a pretty blonde named Grace, joined in, “that’s just in 10 days!”

I asked where her grandmother lived.  In Dover, RI. 

She asked for help in spelling “Grandma” and in her best handwriting carefully filled in the To: section of the gift tag. 

“She’s going to really enjoy this,” I said.  Angel smiled.  It struck me how many of the children were using their tins as gifts for loved ones, rather than immediately gobbling up the enticing sweets.

Kids from the Milton S. Hershey School

The children enjoyed being in and taking photos.

The children also made cards and seeing that there were plenty of cookies, were invited to a second round of adding cookies to their tins.  Angel sought me out to re-tie the bow on her tin.  After doing so, I asked if she would be willing to take a picture with me, and she was.  Remembering how much I loved to take photos as a child, I entrusted my beloved digital camera to another girl, and showed her how to take a photo.  Quickly other children asked for turns both to have their picture taken with me, and to hold the camera and take photos.  Though my camera is rarely far from my hands, I knew that if they should drop it, it would be far less painful for me to replace it than it was meaningful to them to hold it.

Grace came up to me and handed me a homemade card and a bag of cookies.  I oohed and aahed over them and reached out to hand them back.  “No, I made those for you!” she said.  I tried to protest, letting her know that I had some cookies of my own from earlier that day, but she reiterated that she had filled the bag specifically for me.  Decades ago I learned that there are times when it is far more appropriate to accept a gift graciously than to try to refuse one out of principle.  I thanked her enthusiastically and both items carefully made their way home with me the next day.

I have no idea if the day the women from many states arrived on their doorstep will have any meaning to these children next week or even years from now, but I know that I will forever remember this evening, this school, this sneak peek into a world I didn’t know existed prior to my trip.  And while yes, I did actually receive some cookies at this cookie exchange party, for me what I received was far greater.  I got to see a spirit of generosity that has survived a century, and the proven results of what can happen to young lives when someone — or many, many someones — decide to make it their life’s mission to make a difference.  That is the best gift I’ve ever received at Christmas time in my life.

It certainly was unlike any cookie exchange party I’ve ever been to.

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Disclosure:  This experience was part of an expenses-paid behind-the-scenes tour provided to me by The Hershey Company, Hershey Entertainment and Resorts and their PR company.  However, this was not payment for writing nor did it unduly influence what I wrote about.  I plan to write additional posts based on my experiences during this trip.  You can see my tweets and tweets of other bloggers on the trip on Twitter using the hashtag #Hershey.

Delayed Gratification

 

Look what I the kids got for Christmas!  I’ve waited a long time to get for the kids to be old enough to get an Easy Bake Oven!  I remember how much I loved mine as a little girl, foisting impossibly tiny cakes on my parents.

Now that I’m the Mommy, I realize just how awful those little cakes really taste when you aren’t bursting with that I-made-it-myself pride.

I scream, you scream, we all scream for SNOW CREAM!

2008-01-17 first snow039The Floridian in me never ceases to be amazed when it snows enough to actually stick to the ground. I just love looking at the whole world being draped with a nice, white blanket of snow.  And of course, the JavaKids and I have to find a way to turn it into a way to make something in the kitchen!

I’m linking you to a post from earlier this year for snow cream and snow candy — both delicious and easy to make!  I was going to add photos, but to be honest, unless  you a professional food photographer, snow candy while still in the snow does not look much different than — uh– yellow snow from a dog — and once you lift if out of the snow, it is in a child’s (or Mommy’s) mouth so fast, you can’t get a photo of it!  Snow cream doesn’t look like much more than white mush in a photo!

You can also mix up a little food coloring and water and get out there and do a little snow painting.  Or just go out and roll around in the white, fluffy stuff!  Just have FUN!

When you come in, mix up a huge batch of my favorite hot chocolate, read a good book, indulge in a bit of Robert Frost, and relax!  (Until it’s time to deal with those sopping wet jackets, snow pants, boots, mittens and so on….)

Foolproof Way to Roast a Turkey (and Cornbread Stuffing, Too!)

This is not really a foodie blog, but apparently that is where my mind is at during the holidays!

When I made my first Thanksgiving turkey nearly 15 years ago, my mother sent me a sage, yet humorous email, with instructions.  I printed that email out and pulled it out year after year and managed to keep it despite moving cross-country twice since then.  I’ve also picked up a few tricks of my own along the way and have written them in the margins and finally got wise last year and wrote up my own version for future generations on our family blog (and also because I was terrified of losing all those precious notes!

So for anyone who may not have the benefit of such notes, I share with you, a time-tested way to roast a (usually extremely large) holiday turkey, complete with humorous asides and a to-die for cornbread stuffing recipe from my mother!

Turkey Prep (notes written for myself and future generations)

We buy a local brand of turkey, Shady Brook Farm, rather than Butterball and I think it makes a difference.  But my second choice would be a Butterball.  I prefer fresh to frozen.  If you have to buy frozen, remember to give it several days to thaw in the fridge.  If it is still not thawed, you will have to let it thawed in a bucket or sink filled with cold water and make sure the turkey is fully submerged.

I also prefer a covered roasting pan (you’ll need a really, really big one if you follow my tradition of cooking 20+ pound birds).

Ready… this is the part JavaDad and I always forget.  BEFORE YOU PREHEAT THE OVEN… remove the second rack and make sure to put the remaining one at the lowest level.  Should you forget to do this, say every year for 9 straight years, you can always put the rack out in the cold on the deck.

Oh yeah, now is a good time to make sure that your roasting pan is on the counter, ready for the big bird.  Not, say, down in the basement.

Preheat your oven to 500 degrees.  Nope, not a typo, you are going to cook it for 30 minutes at 500 degrees to give the bird a beautiful tan and seal the juices in.  It takes a while to get up that high, so turn that oven on now.

Always check the neck and chest cavities for a plastic bag with the gizzards and liver, and also for the neck itself.

Rinse the turkey inside and out with cold water and put it in your rack.  Make sure you rinse out the sink and anything else you may have touched (faucet handles, etc.) and Clorox them as well afterward.

Stuff the turkey (some of your relatives are anti-stuffed turkey — they don’t realize that the turkey is merely a gigantic cooking/flavoring hole for the stuffing, why else would I cook a turkey?)  You need to not pack the stuffing very tightly, it needs to go in loosely.  I make sort of small loose balls to put it in.  Don’t forget you can put stuffing in the neck cavity as well.  You will remove the stuffing before carving the turkey — do not let stuffing sit in the turkey after it has been cooked!  And remember, your stuffed turkey will take longer to cook than a non-stuffed turkey.

Oh, and I leave the “pope’s nose” (fatty bit just under the chest cavity) on the turkey, but Grandma E always cut it off.  It adds good flavoring to the drippings.

After you’ve stuffed the turkey, rub some poultry seasoning all over the skin — everywhere.  Then rub softened butter all over the skin (I find it easier to do the poultry seasoning first, then the butter).  I tend to put a few bits of butter on the top of the exposed stuffing as well.

Pour some water (about 1/2 cup) into the bottom of the pan.  Don’t worry about any stuffing or butter that has dropped into the pan.

Put tin foil over the wing tips and ends of the drumsticks to protect them from burning.

Put the bird in the oven with no lid for 30 minutes at 500 degrees.  I put about half a stick of butter into a bowl and put that on top of the middle part of the stove so it softens during that 30 minutes of time.  When the time goes off, baste with the melted butter and also the pan drippings, then put the cover on, turn down the temperature to 350 degrees, and set timer for another 30 minutes, repeat butter softening trick.  I baste every 30 minutes to 1 hour (depending on how frantic the other food prep is).

Do not rely on the “pop-up” device in the turkey to tell you when the turkey is done.  Use a thermometer.  Or if something terrible has happened to your thermometer that year, you will know your turkey is done when the legs move freely at the joint and the juices run clear.  When using the roaster, my turkey usually cooks about an hour faster than the timetable says it should.  Make sure you check both the turkey itself and the stuffing when you use a thermometer.

Because you have browned and sealed the turkey at the beginning of the cooking, you will not have to worry about removing the lid/tin foil at the end of the process to get that golden color, so if you are looking at other cooking instructions, ignore that part.

The turkey carves better after it has been allowed to “rest” — I usually let JavaDad take the pictures when it is right out of the oven, then I have him make one cut at the breast to ensure the turkey is cooked through.  Then I put the lid back on and let it rest and stay warm while we put the casseroles in the oven.  (Note:  At this point I usually announce to everyone in the house that I am about to go into “crazy mode” because I am going to assemble 3-5 casseroles at once so I want no one walking into the kitchen or talking to me for the next 10 minutes, please because I am trying to keep measurements and times in my head and am criss-crossing the kitchen.  Regardless which side of the family is visiting, they will take this as their cue to come in and fix drinks at that exact time and ask me lots of questions.  Even JavaDad, who should know better because I have threatened his very life if he does that yet again this year.  If you ever figure out a better plan, let me know.  I still love them all – I just have never figured the mystery of this out.)    You can cook the squash, green beans, and sweet potatoes at the same time, even if the recipes contradict each other as to temperature.  I usually go with whatever is the highest temp and then reduce the cooking time for the other dishes accordingly.

Remember to remove that stuffing from both cavities!

By the way, it is apparently a weird Newby family tradition to ask each other what size bird you are cooking.  I didn’t realize other families didn’t do this until I got married and had married friends.  Keep up the tradition, for my sake.  : )

Grandma’s Cornbread Stuffing
You may want to make the cornbread the night before.

Cornbread
(Makes 7 cups, I usually double the recipe)

  • 2 cups cornmeal
  • 1 cup flour
  • 3 teaspoons baking powder
  • 3/4 teaspoons salt
  • 2 eggs
  • 1.5 cups milk
  • 1/2 cup melted butter

Preheat oven to 425F.  Sift dry ingredients together.  Combine with well-beaten eggs and milk.  Blend well.  Stir in butter.  Pour into well-buttered shallow baking pan.  Bake at 425F for 15-20 minutes.

Stuffing
(make twice the recipe, then stuff the turkey with as much as you can and bake the extra stuffing in a pan.  NEVER stuff a turkey and leave it to sit – stuff JUST BEFORE cooking and empty the stuffing from the turkey as soon as dinner is over.)

  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 1/2 cup celery with leaves, chopped
  • 2 teaspoons poultry seasoning
  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • dash black pepper
  • 2 Tablespoons parsley
  • 5 cups cornbread crumbs
  • water to moisten the stuffing

Sautee vegetables in butter until tender, but not browned.  Combine seasonings and crumbs.  Toss with vegetable mixture until well mixed.  Add enough water to moisten crumbs.  When you have a separate pan of extra stuffing, make sure to add even more water to that batch b/c it will not benefit from the juices of the turkey.  Put some water in it at prep time, then sprinkle a little more just before it goes into the oven.

What’s YOUR favorite recipe for the holidays? Post it on your blog and link here or post your recipe in the comments section!