Susan Tully's Wassail Christmas

Christmas comes a little early to Chow Bella this year -- in the form of some darn good holiday storytelling. Today, Susan Tully shares a booze-filled tale of love and cheer.

The first time I met my next-door neighbor, I was a guest at his annual Wassail party. His Wassail was a legendary concoction of fruit juices, holiday spices and applejack brandy that smelled heavenly as it simmered on the stove throughout the evening. This warm mug of holiday booze was so good that people forgave him for the food: a paltry spread of semi-frozen bagels, a half-empty bag of Lay's potato chips and a block of cheese plunked down on top of the plastic wrap in which it came. Though the food was bachelor party cliche, the guy behind that pot of Wassail intrigued me. Maybe he was the reason I left the party feeling all lit up.

By the time his next Wassail party rolled around, we were engaged. Wanting to contribute my piece to the holiday festivities, I dragged my decorations next door to his house, doubled the guest list and vowed to make all the food from scratch.

The fact that I didn't know how to cook wasn't the problem.

The problem was that this story took place long before the Internet or Food Network existed. Before the era when anyone who's ever turned the stove on can battle for bragging rights in a televised competition where a panel of quasi-famous, self-serious judges rates your ability to cook with an outlandish mystery ingredient; or bids you to drive cross-country selling porkless buckwheat tamales in a corn oil powered, vegan fusion food truck; or grants you 90 minutes to construct an animatronic wedding cake topper with 20/20 vision and a beating heart.

Long before food blogs and competitive cupcaking, aspiring party hosts like myself did things the old fashioned way: by culling through a multitude of spiral bound cookbooks [published compilations of recipes] put out by the Sunny Acres PTA. Or thumbing through hand-me-down copies of Betty Crocker with the pages stuck together. People who would have been considered "foodies" before the word existed made trips to the library [a municipal building where patrons can borrow reading materials] to check out holiday cookbooks or if they were really sophisticated, raked through dusty piles of Bon Apetit magazine on a forgotten shelf in the basement [an underground... oh forget it].

My weeks of research turned into days of labor. In pursuit of a great party, I literally took my life into my hands by peeling, cooking and kabobing 2 pounds of shrimp despite my deadly allergy to shellfish. I rolled and browned dozens of cocktail-sized meatballs that fell to pieces the minute the guests tried to stab them with festive multi-colored toothpicks. The fancy hors d'oeuvres I assembled the day before the party to save time, consisted of water crackers smeared with cream cheese and layered with rich smoked salmon, slivers of tangy red onion and dotted with delicate capers. With no cooking experience and no Internet, wikiHow was I to know that by the time I served them, they'd become soggy fish wafers that our guests gummed sadly.
Back then I didn't know of another invention that would revolutionize and homogenize every holiday party-neighborhood potluck- kid's birthday- end of season soccer- co-worker retirement--heck, every American party henceforth given.

Its name was Costco.

Now with no effort at all, you - and every person you've ever met-- can serve spinach and artichoke dip in a fancy bread bowl or a platter of crispy pita chips and creamy hummus. If a more sophisticated affair is what you are after, grab a wheel of brie en croute, an antipasto platter, and a 3-pk of Kirkland champagne. And for your guests with a sweet tooth, no dessert table would be complete without a selection of brownie bites, white chocolate macadamia nut cookies or shovel-sized slabs of warm apple pie. Your holiday party is sure to be adequate a raging success!

As we get ready to host our holiday gathering this year, I harken back to the lesson that long ago "bachelor party" taught me: Do just one thing and do it well. My husband will make his famous Wassail while I declare the rest of the party BYOB. Bring your own bagels.

BCT's Wassail Recipe

2 qt apple cider

2 c. orange juice

½ c. lemon juice

2 c. pineapple juice

2 stick cinnamon, crushed

1 tsp cloves, heads removed

1 dash nutmeg

½ c. brown sugar

Cook on high until boiling, then simmer 15 minutes. Pour a half jigger of Applejack Brandy into bottom of each cup, then cover with Wassail. The hot Wassail will "kick in" the brandy quickly. More than ½ jigger and your guests won't make it to midnight. Aslo, don't mix the booze in early, it will cook off. When done, you'll have 10-12 servings.

Decent Applejack is distilled under the Laird's name for $13 a fifth. If needed, you could also put the mix in a Crock Pot and let it simmer all day.

Serve with semi-frozen bagels.

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