Merry Christmas!

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Your moment of zen:

How to be a ski bum

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What you’ll need: sicky pow-pow, big air

Songlist: anything by Snow Patrol, I’m Going Down by Bruce Springsteen

Further reading: Skiing and Snowboarding: Everything You Need to Know About the Coolest Sports

Today, December 19th, I look out into my backyard in Minnesota and am more than a little disconcerted. For I can see the ground. Not only is it visible, there is absolutely no snow even lightly dusting the grass. And while I don’t long for last year’s winter–there was approximately 10 feet of snow on the ground by this point–I am, as Bing Crosby so famously put it, dreaming of a white Christmas.

For a few years running, my family went on ski vacations in Wyoming for Christmas, where there was never a lack of snow. In fact, the ski resort we’ve always gone to, Grand Targhee, frequently has some of the best snow in the country.

I loved skiing as a kid but, being from Minnesota, I’d never understood what it was like to ski on a mountain. We learned on “Afton Alps” and at “Welch Village,” names that give quite a sense of grandeur to prairie hills.

Grand Targhee is different. On our very first day at the resort, a guide took us up on a Sno-Cat through acres of fresh powder and we schussed down through it all day long. At lunchtime we stopped at a little clearing with the Tetons just behind us. It was glorious. I remember the end of the day, thighs burning, falling into a deep pile of snow and being unable to get back up, yet grinning nonetheless.

As much fun as we had, I was a tiny bit jealous of the guide. I mean, he was getting paid to have this much fun. And he probably got to do it several times a week. I felt sorry for the other resort workers, the ones who had to man the chairlifts and rent out skis in the morning. But then I found out the incredible truth–they all got paid to play. Maybe they weren’t all lucky enough to be trail guides, but on their days off they could ski to their heart’s desire! I felt like I’d stumbled on a well-kept secret–wouldn’t everyone take this job if they had the chance? I assumed one day soon I’d be wearing the black-and-red Targhee jacket, helping skiers onto the lift and honing my technique in my down-time.

But now, I’m sad to admit, I haven’t been on a ski slope in four years. The job doesn’t seem quite as appealing anymore–a friend of mine works at Winter Park, Colorado and hasn’t spent Thanksgiving or Christmas with his family in four years–but I do miss the mountains. Someday soon I’ll be back in the powder, schussing away.

Grand Targhee trail map

How to be a beer brewer


What you’ll need: grains, hops, water, yeast

Songlist: Beer for My Horses by Toby Keith, 99 Bottle of Beer on the Wall

Further reading: How to Brew by John Palmer

My brother was only home for 48 hours this Thanksgiving, but it was enough time for a new family tradition to be born. The day after Thanksgiving will now officially be Brewing Day, the resulting beers ready just in time for Christmas. Perfect!

In fact, our brewing is better referred to as a return to family tradition. My great-great-grandparents owned a brewery in Elizabeth, New Jersey. They called it the Rising Sun. The Rising Sun had been in business since 1887, but officially closed its doors in 1920 to abide by Prohibition laws. They reopened in 1933, changed the name to Seeber Brewing Co, changed the name again in 1937 and then closed forever in 1939.

Or so some of our virtuous ancestors would have had us believe. In fact, the Rising Sun was run by gangsters (including New York’s Public Enemy #1, Waxey Gordon) and continued to brew beer illegally throughout Prohibition. It was raided at least four times, and led to the death of a Prohibition agent in one of those raids. The gangsters escaped but were picked up again in a speakeasy…in St. Paul, Minnesota, my hometown. Ah, family history, how full of strange coincidences.

A Rising Sun beer bottle

So if we say that beer flows in our veins, it’s not just because our blood alcohol content is getting dangerously high. I think when my mom picked out a home brewing starter kit for my dad last Christmas, it must really have been her ancestral inheritance calling out to her. Fermentation systems! Malt syrup! Pale Ale!

I was on hand to help her pick out all the necessary tools, from a glass carboy to a beer thief (there sure are a lot of weird words in beer brewing–kraeusen, trub, wort, zymurgy…) We marveled at the specialized additives one could choose–berries, spices, orange rinds–and dreamed of the experiments we might someday make.

For beer brewing truly is an exciting experiment. On Friday, my parents and brother and I gathered around the how-to DVD, pausing after important parts and racing to the kitchen to make sure we were doing everything right. We mashed the grains and stirred in the malt syrup, added the hops and aerated the wort, sterilized the funnels and bung, measured the specific gravity. We even sampled the dried hops, unfermented beer, and malt syrup–it was all disgusting. And after three hours of this hard work we were the proud owners of five gallons of burping pea soup.

The beer now sits down in the basement, letting the magic happen. And in about three weeks we’ll transfer it into beer bottles we’ve saved up–there are about 80 sitting empty in the basement–and then come Christmas we’ll have a taste of the holiday cheer. Here’s to holiday traditions, new and old!