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Commentary: Homes for the holidays

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Commentary: Homes for the holidays

Me and my grandmother, affectionately known by my family as Maw-Maw

Me and my grandmother, affectionately known by my family as Maw-Maw

Photos by Cory Bilicko | Signal Tribune

Me and my grandmother, affectionately known by my family as Maw-Maw

Photos by Cory Bilicko | Signal Tribune

Photos by Cory Bilicko | Signal Tribune

Me and my grandmother, affectionately known by my family as Maw-Maw

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It was so nice to be home for the holidays this past season… all four of them.

The first is Long Beach– which I’ve called home for more than two decades, after having moved to Southern California from New Orleans in 1995.

This holiday season, I tried to spend time with as many Cali friends as possible (including my friend Julie, whom I’ve known for decades, since we attended Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, Louisiana in the late ‘80s) – eating, imbibing and being merry– before hopping onto a flight to Atlanta three days before Christmas. My sister Brandy picked me up from the Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport then drove us to her house, which is in Dallas (yes, in Georgia), an hour’s drive north of the capital city.

She lives in the house my parents built there– out in the country– in the mid ‘90s. That’s my second home, and it’s so comforting to be there with Brandy, her hubby Chris, my nephew Dylan and my niece Morgan. I get that feeling of “coming home” as soon as I walk through the front door– so many memories of my mom, numerous Thanksgivings and Christmases past, and all the kids before they grew up way too fast.

One of those kiddos is my niece Ciara, who’s now 25, a college graduate and recently engaged to a truly great guy Chad. They live only about 15 minutes from Brandy, a short distance for which I’m grateful.

One of my favorite parts of being in rural Georgia, especially during the holidays, is the trees. I love being outside– hiking and camping– and, when I’m there with my family, I get the best of both worlds: the coziness of home and the serenity that comes with the gray and brown trunks and twisted branches, yielding leaves of rust, gold and chocolate hues.

Me and my 12-year-old niece Morgan, making frosting for my “pancake” cake

This December, I was even treated to another of my favorite things: rain! I love rainy weather, and, of course, I don’t get enough of it in So Cal. (January notwithstanding, of course.)

When the precipitation had subsided, Morgan and I set out on an hour-plus hike to enjoy some (badly needed post-Christmas) exercise amongst the trees and the Georgia red clay, a product of the warm, humid climate that weathers acid crystalline rocks on hills over time.

Of course, you can’t talk about visiting the South without mentioning what you eat.

While in Dallas, I enjoyed my sister’s shrimp and okra gumbo–rich and savory– which she, characteristically, served with her creamy potato salad.

My niece Morgan showed me the way through a red-clay trail in Dallas, Georgia

Brandy and I also pulled out our mom’s old recipe cards from the ‘80s and made rum balls, peanut-butter fudge and pralines using those tried and true recipes. My sis also used one of her own recipes and made something magnificently decadent– chocolate-covered-cherry cake balls!

And, because four sweet treats weren’t quite enough, I also baked a cake that I’d “invented” a few years back. I call it a pancake cake. It’s a two-layer yellow cake flavored with real maple syrup, covered with an icing made of cream cheese, butter, powdered sugar and yet more maple syrup. Since I’m a big fan of pecan pancakes, I covered it with those nuts as well.

Ciara and Chad hosted us one night and served us tacos made with chicken he cooked in his smoker outside. He served it with his homemade salsa and Ciara’s guacamole. (Who’d have thought I’d be grubbing on tacos after traveling from California all the way to Georgia? But they were so scrumptious, I certainly wasn’t complaining!)

My sister Brandy and I pulled out our mom’s old recipe cards from the ’80s this Christmas and made rum balls, peanut-butter fudge and pralines (pictured) using those tried and true recipes.

After spending a week at that home, we all made our way farther south– and westward– to Biloxi, Mississippi, my birthplace, and also where my beloved grandmother (we call her Maw-Maw) resides. Maw-Maw turned 90 this year, and we could tell she was ecstatic to see all of us.

Eventually, I had to hug my family goodbye and set off for Bay St. Louis, which is another town in Mississippi. That’s where my longtime friend Scott now lives. I spent two nights with him, and our main form of entertainment always consists of hours upon hours of sharing music with each other, being that we’re both die-hard fans of indie rock and music by the label 4AD, which we’ve loved since the ‘80s.

At Scott’s, we had tortellini with large shrimp from the Gulf there, and I made a delicious sauce (if I do say so myself) to complement it.

From there, I made my way to New Orleans, to stay three nights with another longtime friend, Melanie, who has been my friend since high school.

Before making my way to her house on the West Bank, I hit up the French Market in the French Quarter, where there are usually two ladies who sell the coolest reading glasses for five bucks each. I always stock up on readers when I go there. Unfortunately, though, I’d forgotten– they’re only there on weekends. Darn!

However, I was elated to discover that I’d made it to the Quarter just in time for a New Year’s Eve parade! Almost as good as a Fat Tuesday parade itself, it featured floats with folks tossing beads, cups and candy, as well as my favorite part of any such event– high-school marching bands! (I don’t know why, but I always get teary-eyed when the throngs of young musicians pass by in formation, especially the drum lines.)

I got lucky and caught a parade in New Orleans on New Year’s Eve!

At Melanie’s, once again, I was treated to tacos, and, once again, I didn’t complain about it. She made them the crunchy kind, with blue-corn taco shells and ground turkey. It’s the kind of tacos we grew up on in the South, and it wasn’t until I’d moved to California that I became enlightened about the more authentic type my Mexican friends would make. But having the hard-shell variety like this brought me back to when my mom would make them when I was a kid.

One of the dozens of high-school marching bands in a New Year’s Eve parade in the New Orleans French Quarter

For New Year’s Eve, Melanie and I got decked out and attended two parties– one a Purple Rain-themed shindig and another a house party complete with seafood-sausage gumbo, Mardi Gras king cake and something I’d never seen before– a boudin king cake. Boudin is a type of Louisiana “dirty rice” pork sausage that my mom was completely hooked on, but I’d never seen it baked into a king cake before. Those Louisianians have always got something crazy and fun up their sleeve, let me tell you.

The food was so irresistible, I did way more eating than drinking. And I’m cool with that. I’d much prefer a fantastic-food hangover than the alcohol kind– any day.

Well, as I finish this commentary about visiting all my homes for the holidays, I’m 37,993 feet above New Mexico on a Southwest airliner, fast heading back to the place I call home about 340 days of the year. I always have mixed feelings on the trips back; I already miss my wonderful family and friends down South, but I’ll be so happy to step off this plane and set foot on Southern California soil. Despite my lonesomeness for my loved ones back “home,” I have so many great pals in Cali that I look forward to seeing– especially since I’ll be counting on them to help me out a week from today, when I turn 50!

But that’s a whole other story.

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Commentary: Homes for the holidays