Christmas with Karl

Karl Wells
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Being a contest 'prize' has its advantages

"'Miss Furlong, what shall I send you?' he asked. 'A wing or a slice of breast?'"

- "Dubliners," by James Joyce

Being in the media limelight in a place like St. John's means you get asked quite often to donate your time to various causes. For example, recently I was asked to do Christmas readings for the Cantus Vocum Christmas concert, Night Before Christmas. (It was a great success, by the way, and thanks to everyone who attended.)xOften, because of my work for The Telegram, I am asked to donate my time to events that have a "food" component.

On the weekend I attended a dinner where I was a prize, sort of. The Newfoundlandxand Labrador Health Archive and Museum sold tickets on a draw where the winner got to invite seven other guestsxtoxaxbeautiful Christmas supper with all the trimmings. I was a "trimming," the special guest who also acted as host and wine pourer. I pride myself on being able to pour wine like a pro, with that little twist of the wrist at the end that prevents the spilling of a single drop. Unfortunately, later that evening guests discovered I am quite capable of spilling wine when not pouring.

Mary Keilley (second from left) and her helpers prepared the full-course turkey dinner. Photo by Karl Wells/Special to The Telegram)

"'Miss Furlong, what shall I send you?' he asked. 'A wing or a slice of breast?'"

- "Dubliners," by James Joyce

Being in the media limelight in a place like St. John's means you get asked quite often to donate your time to various causes. For example, recently I was asked to do Christmas readings for the Cantus Vocum Christmas concert, Night Before Christmas. (It was a great success, by the way, and thanks to everyone who attended.)xOften, because of my work for The Telegram, I am asked to donate my time to events that have a "food" component.

On the weekend I attended a dinner where I was a prize, sort of. The Newfoundlandxand Labrador Health Archive and Museum sold tickets on a draw where the winner got to invite seven other guestsxtoxaxbeautiful Christmas supper with all the trimmings. I was a "trimming," the special guest who also acted as host and wine pourer. I pride myself on being able to pour wine like a pro, with that little twist of the wrist at the end that prevents the spilling of a single drop. Unfortunately, later that evening guests discovered I am quite capable of spilling wine when not pouring.

Seasonal finery

The yuletide event took place at the home of archive director Kay Daley. The house was quite beautiful, an open concept design with kitchen, family room and dining area as one large room. There was a separate formal dining area as well. I arrived an hour before the other guests to get the lay of the land and check out the wine, wine glasses, corkscrew and seating arrangements.

The place was aglow. There was a Christmas tree with colourful, twinkling lights surrounded beneath by a ring of presents. The dining table sparkled with formal place settings that involved silver chargers, crystal stemware, printed menus and place cards with golden script. A tray of French, as well as new world wines stood with an arrangement of glasses on a sideboard.

The irrepressible Mary Keiley - an archive board member - did most of the cooking with the help of archive staff. Mary is a gentle, compassionate lady with a low voice who is always ready to pitch in and lend a helping hand. That night she put me in mind of Mrs. Santa Claus, as she was wearing the kind of decorated apron with pockets that my grandmother used to wear.

Mary reminded me of the time members of her family lived below my family in a basement apartment in central St. John's. For years, her relations have been dining out, so to speak, on my misdeeds as a 10-year-old devil-skins. Being a child starved for amusement, apparently, I had the habit of knocking on their window and running away. What a joker! Slightly paranoid, I wondered if Mary had felt obliged to keep an eye on me, in case I pulled any similar stunts.

I was on my best behaviour when the guests arrived. Geraldine Sinnott was the winner of the draw and she came with her husband Bill and various in-laws and friends. One of them went by the name of "Muffin." I noticed that her place card - in true Dame Edna style - simply said, "Muff." I'd spoken to muffins and other baked goods before but never a human Muffin. Muffin sat next to me at dinner and was absolutely delightful.

Knee-knocker

The starter wine - selected to accompany stunningly good Coquilles St. Jacques - was a Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2005. With great style and panache I worked my way around the table, pouring sauvignon blanc and twisting my wrist in a grand ballet that might have been choreographed by Mary Keiley's talented daughter Gillian. With equal style and grace I placed the bottle back on its serving tray and moved to take my place next to Muffin at the table.

As I stooped to slide onto my chair and place my legs under the table in one seamless motion, I knocked a table leg with terrible force. Suddenly, half the wine I'd just poured flopped out onto the lily-white tablecloth and gleaming silver chargers. The beautifully laid table looked as if it had become the victim of a malfunctioning sprinkler system. In a split-second I went from being sophisticated bon vivant to clumsy, wine-spilling buffoon. Thankfully, my embarrassment was tempered by the reaction of gracious guests, including Muffin, who pretended not to notice.

After the awkward start, our Christmas dinner proceeded without incident. I managed to pour, somewhat confidently, bottles of Chateau Les Vallees 2003 Bordeaux, La Ciboise 2005 Coteaux du Tricastin, Cotes du Rhone Blanc 2005, Kittling Ridge Estates Icewine and Brandy and Chateau d'Orignac Brandy. The latter two were served with dessert.

The main course was a traditional Newfoundland Christmas meal of roast turkey, pease pudding, vegetables and Mary Keiley's extraordinary figgy duff. This was supplemented by bowls of hot gravy and cranberry sauce. Everyone savoured each morsel while making interesting, witty and amusing conversation. Dinner topics ranged from politics (Mulroney v. Schreiber) to media, to music, movies and whether Nicole Kidman is using too much botox.

Decadent delight

Our evening ended with a smorgasbord of desserts - all donated by local bakeries and catering companies. There was berry cheesecake, fruit tarts, apple strudel, chocolate mousse cake and Christmas fruitcake. It was a crescendo befitting the special occasion. I especially enjoyed the chocolate mousse cake but it seemed that most people had a taste of everything. Why not? It is Christmas, after all.

After we bid the guests goodnight, Mary Keiley gave me a lift home. It was a great evening. I was very happy.

On my way to Mary's car I even thought about knocking on someone's window and running away again. Sadly, I'm too old and much too sophisticated for such hi-jinks now. Darn.

Karl Wells is a restaurant panellist with enRoute magazine. To reach him, log on to his website: www.karlwells.com.

Organizations: The Telegram, Newfoundlandxand Labrador Health Archive and Museum

Geographic location: St. John's

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