Christmas Small Things: Cookie Cutters, Gift Tags & Such

As much as I enjoy my monthly Southern Living magazine, I feel woefully inadequate when the December issue arrives.

The covers always have immaculately decorated multi-layered white cakes with elaborate garnishes. This year’s featured edible vintage ornaments.

One of my friends always posts a picture of the cover on Facebook with the caption: “Another cake that I will never make.”

I was thinking about how our over-the-top holiday expectations relate to a book/Bible study I just finished called Church of the Small Things by Melanie Shankle. The message of the book is to focus on the small things rather than waiting for the next “big” thing.

I’m never going to bring home the 12-foot flocked tree from the Christmas tree farm on the top of my van. (Or is it a vintage red truck?). Fresh garland won’t be running down my staircase and my family won’t be wearing matching monogrammed pajamas.

There are galas never attended (or even invited to), gingerbread houses never made, the “perfect” gift never bought.

And, in Louisiana, none of our Christmases will be white, either.

But if Jesus could be born in the simplest of surroundings, do we really need these things to have a Merry Christmas.

As I tossed the Southern Living aside, I looked at my own Christmas small things that still bring great joy– a grainy photo of my then 12-year old daughter when it DID snow in Louisiana a few years ago. Another is  a fragile cinnamon gingerbread ornament made by my other daughter that has miracuously stayed intact from second grade through pharmacy school.

And, then I remembered my box of Christmas cookie cutters — small things but when put to good use can bring a lot of joy .

My favorites are the smallest ones, part of a boxed set.  I remember the little angel tea cakes I made for a children’s Sunday School party and cheese straw “croutons” in the shape of Christmas trees and candy canes that gave a festive touch to tomato basil soup.

So instead of spending time in this final week making the perfect Christmas dessert or buying the perfect Christmas gift, think about the “small things” or “tiny cookie cutters” in your life that you can use to bring joy this Christmas?

Savoring hot chocolate in a Christmas mug with an old friend.

Making personalized gift tags with old photos or craft your own

Or sharing your faith as big as a mustard seed.

Or your widow’s mite.

Or a word aptly spoken.

Merry Christmas!

 

 

 

Amarillo By Morning, Lunch Time, Any Time

For many people, driving through Amarillo means stopping at a quirky display of spray-painted Cadillacs or the restaurant where you get your 72-ounce steak free if you can eat it in one sitting.

I like to think I drilled a little deeper in this oil boom-shaped town, venturing a bit off of Interstate 40 to discover its beautiful downtown architecture and a less touristyTexas Panhandle Cafe.

I’ll definitely come back.

Our lunch spot, Youngblood’s Cafe, was just a few blocks from downtown, It was so inconspicuous on the outside that we passed it by initially, but boy are we glad we turned around.

I bet I’ve eaten in 200 Texas restaurants during the past 35 years from Daingerfield to Pecos, but this has got to be one of the most authentic Texas cafe experiences that I’ve had. To get to our table, we passed by three massive dining rooms with its walls covered in Texas decor (from a longhorn skull painted like the Texas flag to  a cactus Christmas tree. We were served by a “sweetie-saying” waitress wearing a T-shirt saying: “I’ve got glitter in my veins and Jesus in my heart.”

The chicken-fried steak came topped with green chili sauce. After lunch, I read this cafe was once at the Amarillo Livestock Auction, one of the largest cattle auctions in the world. The owner was trained at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America and was once executive sous chef at the Plaza Hotel in New York, but don’t let that deter you. Our two meals were great and totaled only $20.30 tax included. We would have gotten free banana pudding if we had gotten there earlier.

To walk off a little of that hearty lunch, I took in a few blocks downtown to look at the historic buildings. Amarillo had a building boom right before the Great Depression, and many of those buildings have been restored.

Santa Fe Building, Amarillo
Santa Fe Building, Amarillo
Paramount Building
Paramount Building

The most iconic of the buildings is an Art Deco high rise built in 1930  as the regional headquarters for Santa Fe Railroad. It now houses county offices.  Another landmark building is the old Paramount Theatre, which has been restored with its neon shining bright at night. Two classic Five & Dime buildings are well preserved.

Renovated Woolworth Building will house several restaurants.
The old Kress building now houses a furniture store.

Early afternoon on a late autumn day,  the West Texas sky was as blue as I’ve ever seen it. I liked the way this bank sign looked surrounded by it.

The Amarillo National Bank is the largest 100 percent family-owned bank in the United States. It was started by a cattleman and Amarillo early settler.

I only had about 20 minutes, so I didn’t see all of the historic buildings. Just before I left, I found this classic parked outside of a lawyer’s office: A man and his dog and a 1930 Chevrolet pickup.

I’ve heard the food is really good at the bright yellow Big Texan Steak Ranch, the steakhouse with the big steer at front and gaudy billboards and signs pointing the way along the interstate. We may stop some time on our way through.

Who knows maybe I’ll pull over at Cadillac Ranch for a photo op.

But I’m really looking forward to a return trip to see the progress downtown, maybe even checking out Old Route 66 Historic District, a mile-long stretch of art galleries, antique shops and restaurants, along the old Mother Road.

For more information, check out this Amarillo Visitors site.

 

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A Beautiful Day in the “Agri-Hood”

Phoenix suburbs may conjure up images of golf courses and swimming pools. But at Agritopia in Gilbert, southeast of Phoenix, it’s all about gardens and front porches.

Agritopia is a suburban development built around a citrus grove and urban farm. The  neighborhoods foster a strong sense of community. –7,000 square-foot houses next to 1,800-square-foot ones. Most are built in craftsmen style so you barely see the difference in size.

American flags and welcome signs abound.

Plus, there’s a farm-to-table restaurant that’s been featured on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, family garden plots, a tractor shed turned into a coffee shop, a farm store with payment on the honor system, a Christian school, retirement home, a dog park, a winery.

The aptly-named development is a version of “utopia” created by Joe Johnston, whose family bought the land and began farming cotton and wheat there in 1960. The farm is in Gilbert, a suburb east of Phoenix once known as the “hay capital of the world.”

The restaurant, Joe’s Farm Grill, was originally the Johnston’s family home. Built in 1967, the restaurant serves burgers and other casual fare in a diner-style interior with plenty of shaded picnic-style seating outside. Trees look like they would be great for climbing until you see the “risk of scorpion stings” sign. I got a tasty gouda bacon cheeseburger with a milkshake made with Medjool dates grown in the area. The soft drink options weren’t Coke or Pepsi but drinks from the upstart Tractor Soda from Idaho.

Joe's Farm Grill
Joe’s Farm Grill has been featured on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives

I’ve read that Joe Johnston is often seen tooling around the 166-acre Agritopia on his Vespa motor scooter.

No Johnston or Vespas were seen on the day I was there. But it was fun strolling across the street from the grill and along the  grapevine-covered Agritopia Community Garden Trail to the community garden area. Families pay $250 a year, which gets you a 20×20 plot, access to water and compost. I saw everything from sugar cane to sugar snap peas with each plot decorated to reflect the personality of the owners. More acreage is devoted to Agritopia’s certified organic garden, which supplies Joe’s Farm Grill.

Grapevines drape the trail to the community garden area.

The Johnston family has an intriguing past. Joe Johnston’s great-grandfather was an engineer with Hobart Manufacturing, which developed the early-stage Kitchen-Aid food processor. The ingenuity continues at Agritopia. A converted Quonset hut houses several crafts including a brewery, letterpress print shop and Johnston’s own company that prototypes new cooking tools.

Agritopia has been listed as one of the top “agrihoods” in the country. It’s also part of Arizona’s Fresh Foodie Trail, a collection of agriculture and food manufacturing ventures in the Phoenix-Mesa-Gilbert area.