The Present Rules

April 18, 2010

“Don’t buy me flowers anymore,” my mother said when I arrived at her house with a bouquet of Lilies of the Valley. It was her birthday, and I’d looked everywhere to find her favorite flower. “They’re only going to die. It’s so depressing.”

Mom’s birthday was last week; she would have been 102.  I spent the day missing her – and being grateful that I didn’t have to think up any more presents.  Because once she’d lain down the present rules, things got very complicated. What do you get for someone who:

  1. Says she has too much stuff and doesn’t want one more thing cluttering up her house.
  2. Will buy her own books, thank you very much.
  3. Never once wore anything purchased by anyone other than herself.
  4. And has very little interest in food.

Despite item number four, if you’re me, you cook.  The question is, what?

The year after the Lilly of the Valley disaster, I baked Mom a cake. It seemed like a reasonable solution; after all, she could invite people over to share it. I even brought along a few candles.

Mom called a few days later. “I’m adding cakes to my list of forbidden gifts,” she announced. “It was delicious, but it was so much work! I decided to invite a few people over for dinner, since I already had the cake. And since it was a large cake, I ended up having ten people. So please, no more of that.”

“Okay,” I said, “no cake.” The next year, after a great deal of deliberation, I decided to bake her a giant brioche. She’s always been partial to those rich buttery rolls; in fact we once had a cat named Brioche. I delivered it – and waited for the inevitable phone call.

Sure enough, brioche had joined the no-gift list.  “It was wonderful,” she said, “but do you have any idea how much weight I’ve gained?  Please don’t do that to me again.”

I spent the following year worrying over what to make Mom for her birthday. In the end I was certain that I had the perfect solution. One early April morning I showed up at her door with a gallon of homemade chicken stock, neatly packed into two-cup containers ready for the freezer.

“That,” she said the following week, “was the best present anyone has ever given me.  It’s a great comfort to know that it’s there, just sitting in my freezer. Let the storms come; now I feel ready for anything.”

Mom’s no longer eating chicken soup, but every year on her birthday, I make a memorial batch. Then I find someone to give it to; it really is the perfect present for just about any occasion.

Recipe for Chicken Stock

Cover 6 lb pounds of chicken parts with about four quarts of cold water in the tallest pot you’ve got. Add a spoonful of salt, and bring to a boil.

Skim off the froth. Add 1 whole onion, unpeeled, a rib of celery and a carrot. Toss in a handful of peppercorns, a few sprigs of parsley and a bay leaf. Let the pot come back to a simmer, turn heat down very low, and let it cook at a bare burble for about 4 hours.

Strain. If you’re fussy about clarity, strain again through damp paper towels.

Chill overnight, or until the fat has solidified into a stiff white cap on top. Remove it.

Divide into small containers. This will keep well in the freezer for a few months.
Makes about 2 quarts.

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