Friday, December 18, 2009

The Cheese Stands Alone

As the Winter Solstice approaches, I sorely miss the company of friends.

While we lived in Omaha, our house was in a constant state of controlled chaos with major repairs and do-it-yourself projects, children, toys, pets and company. For most families, the holidays would create even more havoc, but for us it didn't seem to. Both Stephen's family and my family all lived back East in Massachusetts or other far away places in the country so we rarely saw extended family at holiday time. Our situation in Omaha with our growing young children allowed us to continue some combined family traditions and create new ones of our own.

As winter solstice arrived, we made candles in the traditional pioneer dip-the-wick method. We used these candles on December 21 as the shortest day of the year grew increasingly dark and we rejected the use of any artificial light--which included opening the refrigerator door! It was interesting as we all noticed that as the day progressed and sunlight grew dim, we all gathered closer and closer together into one room. By the time Stephen arrived home from work, the house would be completely dark and we'd find ourselves around the dining room table, reading, snacking (no cooking was done on Solstice), or sharing some simple family activity by candlelight. Most times, Stephen would share stories of his days as a young refugee from Cyprus which captivated the kids' interest.

When we moved to New Jersey, we continued this tradition, but expanded it to include the new friends we'd made through Andrew's participation as a drummer in a Bag Pipe band. We enjoyed this new circle of friends so much that we started a Summer Solstice celebration that we could have outdoors and include more people. We'd invited over 25 people, and I prepared several Greek recipes from Stephen's family to lay on the buffet tables set up on a large deck off the kitchen.

Since Summer Solstice is the longest day of the year, the party lasts much longer than Winter Solstice, so by the time sun had set it had been a long evening of eating, laughing, and visiting. But the highlight of the party was to be the traditional Cypriot cheese dish called Saganaki. A generous portion of Haloumi cheese--imported from Cyprus--cooked in a shallow dish, doused with Brandy, ignited, and quickly extinguished by squeezing a lemon over the flame. It's very dramatic, everyone yells "OPA!" when the flame ignites, and we enjoy the savory warm melted cheese with home-made pita breads.

Throughout the evening, I had been describing this event to heighten everyone's anticipation for it. Few had seen it before, and were keen to experience it. When the moment arrived, I went to the kitchen and prepared the special pan and heated the specially prepared (expensive) wedge of cheese. I pre-measured the precise amount of (expensive) brandy. The children gathered around as everyone expectantly waited on the deck outside. I gave the ceremonial lemon to one of the kids and asked that it be delivered to a new acquaintance who was expecting her fourth child any moment and seemed to sit quietly by herself most of the evening. I wasn't confident that she was enjoying herself. I asked that the lemon be cut in half.

As the kids and I paraded the blistering hot pan out to the deck in front of all of our guests, I poured the brandy over it and with great flourishing gestures, Stephen struck the match to ignite it.

No flame.
No "OPA!" Silence.
Stephen struck another match.

We dashed back to the kitchen and splashed more brandy over the cheese, quickly came back and Stephen repeated his performance.


The cheese and pan were immediately and completely engulfed in flames and everyone shrieked! I gestured and shouted to the woman with the pre-cut lemon to quickly pass it over, but the had kids neglected to ask her to cut it in half. It was still whole.

Now realizing what was necessary, she asked for a knife, but the only one immediately available was a plastic picnic knife so with that she proceeded to saw away at the lemon rind, while I barked "Hurry-up!" at her. "I'm trying." she timidly replied though frantically attacked it . The knife promptly broke and only cut a small incision in the lemon.

By now the cheese was bubbling and the pan was nearly too hot for my oven-mitted hand, so I snatched the lemon from her, and tried to squeeze what juice I could from the small cut over the towering flame while everyone watched in horror.

The pan was too hot, the flames were too high; I shoved the lemon back at her and screeched at her to "CUT IT IN HALF!" as Stephen presented his Swiss Army Knife from his pocket. He struggled to find the correct blade in the same panic-stricken manner of a victim who is being chased down in a parking garage and finally gets to their car, but has to find the correct key on the crowded key ring before the killer catches up. While we all watched in slow motion frenzied anticipation for her to reveal two lemon halves, I held the inferno at arm's length not noticing as the flaming molten cheese slid out of the pan over the deck railing and onto the grass down below. Everyone promptly ran to that side of the deck and watched as the cheese undulated and its flames slowly died while singeing the surrounding grass.

They applauded.


  1. What a wonderful, funny story and so well told. I can't wait for the next one.

  2. Such a fun party, yet this disaster is the most memorable part of it. Tell me another one!

  3. Oh my sides hurt from laughing so hard!! LOVE it! Sometimes disasters make for the funniest stories!