Children are nestled

Ah, Christmas Eve, and all is done. Children (grandchildren) are in their beds, Riley dreaming of Christmas, and Jack just dreaming. A one year old is truly satisfied with the boxes and wrappings! But in spite of that, he has a few gifts under the tree.

Riley, at three, (alright, closer to four, in just a few short months) is absorbed by the build-up, the grown-ups’ expectations transmitted to her, and her own sense of something Big To Come. Now and then, in the midst of the craziness of the week before Christmas, she’s said, with all the seriousness of an ancient, “This is the best Christmas ever!” Well, who wouldn’t melt at that?

We’ve been here since Friday, coming down to Seattle a few days early to celebrate Jack’s first birthday on the 20th. Watching his big six-tooth smile, his early attempts at walking…he’s taking a step or two at a time and learning to stand and balance without support…and seeing his move from bottle to cup, from “baby” food to simple table food, I’m glad we have this time with him. By our next visit he’ll be more toddler than baby.

Love those presents!

Love those presents!

Riley is the grown-up big sister, learning to build with Duplo blocks, playing with her stable full of My Little Ponies, watching Disney movies. There’s only a couple of years between them, but she seems so big. Literally, she’s as tall as some five year olds. Jack is almost 30 pounds. Stephanie and Matt grow sturdy little people.

Well, you can’t go back in time, but you can go forward. My turn to have children staring up at the lights on the tree has ended. But through the magic of generations, I get to join in the fun again, watching Stephanie’s two. Life is sweet, balanced between the funny and the poignant.

And so we watch. We watch for Rudolph, and Santa, and wonder about the morning. We’ve got cinnamon rolls and sausage balls and Christmas coffee for the adults, and sugar plums for the little ones, snug upstairs. Come on, Santa. We’re ready!

Happy Jack!

Happy Jack!

Merry Christmas!

Song for the season

Just found this recording of Silent Night by Enya, from her album And Winter Came, 2008. Beautiful! I’ve been a fan of hers for many years (thanks to my brother, Steve, for introducing me to her amazing music, many moons ago). She performs with a Gaelic children’s choir. I heard this playing yesterday as I was busily working on some holiday projects…literally stopped me in my tracks. Hope you enjoy!

December prep

Ah, the Monday after Thanksgiving, with a short stretch between now and Christmas to fill with holiday joys, obligations, to dos, card writing, baking, and, oh yes, the routine work that keeps bills paid and life flowing. It will be a short month! I’m feeling excited and overwhelmed: I have a simultaneous desire to get creative with holiday crafting and shopping, and a need to postpone…to say “not yet!

So, in time-honored fashion, I choose to postpone one task with another. I’m spending a day in between: we’re traveling back to Alaska tomorrow, so I have a day before the madness begins. Today I’ve given to lunch with my husband and a family dinner with our son; to pausing before the holiday rush to gather myself; to organize my lists and review finances; to remind myself that just like every other holiday season of my life, this one won’t be perfect, but it can be wonderful; and to breathe deep and sit still, listen to some holiday music, drink some hot tea.

I’m contemplating resolutions, and my word to encapsulate the coming year. I’m setting the tone, right now. I’m imagining how I want these holidays to be celebrated. I’m planning. Because the truth is, the gifts will be bought and cards written, work accomplished. But I’m setting the attitude behind all of it now. I can go through the next few weeks harried and rushed and get the job done. Or I can choose to look for the humor, feel the joy, smile even when I’m frustrated, remember to breathe. I know the days will be long and the hours short. But I want the good stuff to shine through.

Christmas and holidays are so easily derailed…the expectations, the images that we have to live up to dance across our television screens and in store displays. But I’ve found that there are better things than gifts, and perfect tables, perfect meals. The secret is service. I look for ways to serve, and I am filled. I look for people to serve, and I am found.

“I slept and I dreamed that life is all joy. I woke and I saw that life is all service. I served and I saw that service is joy.”  ~ Kahlil Gibran

In defense of Pinterest

It seems there’s a lot of strong opinion out there about Pinterest and its impact on everything from use of time (aka waste of time) to fueling competitive birthday parties to adding new musts to the already jam-packed to-do list of the average American woman. (Notice I’m confining my opinions and observations to the narrow borders of my own country…I haven’t been authorized to speak for all women of the world just yet.)

I was going to be productive today...

I was going to be productive today…

No doubt many of the criticisms are justified. I’ll admit it’s addicting and time-consuming to scroll through my favorite Pinterest theme pages. However, I am still in control of the clocks at my house, and that super power extends to my keyboard as well. So it is within my ability to set an alarm and limit the time I spend on Pinterest.  A little Pinterest surfing is often my reward for finishing a project or task. It doesn’t have to gobble up whole evenings or weekends.

One of my favorite things about the site is the at-a-glance appeal…I only check out a recipe or project if the image is appealing. I think this is an enormous time-saver. After all, if the finished product doesn’t look enticing, why would I waste time trying to duplicate the taste or the look? And I love the links that give great step-by-step instructions with photos…no guessing about how to do the tricky parts!

Often when I’m looking for a recipe or product I begin with Pinterest. I’m rarely disappointed…much quicker than checking out links through Google.

As to feeling that I have to decorate amazing cookies or have elaborate theme parties…well, I get to make these decisions too at my house. I understand peer pressure, and I’ve had my share of mom-guilt motivation. But I’m also able to appreciate good ideas and copy what will work for my needs without feeling that I must do everything to the nth degree. I like to think of Pinterest as an engine to fuel my creativity. Actually, a site like Pinterest is perfect for me because I have almost NO inherent creativity. But I know what I like when I see it, and I can copy like a pro! Knowing when to stop is up to me.

I read a post today about the increasing tendency to turn events into spectacle: gender reveal parties, theme parties, holiday celebrations, and biggest and most intimidating of all, engagements and weddings. No one can use every great idea, and few parties are perfect. No one needs the pressure of one-upping or living beyond means to achieve. That’s no fun at all. When the details of the party become the focus more than the birthday child, or decisions about wedding arrangements create stress and tears, something is certainly wrong.

I’m all in favor of reflection, introspection, and honest confrontation here. I’ll admit, as a mom, as a wife, as a woman, I’ve sometimes been guilty of acting out of pride and perfectionism. But the scenario I picture in the planning stage doesn’t always hold up in the light of reality.

Hopefully I’m wiser as well as older now, and I’ve pretty much given up pursuit of perfection if it includes humans of any sort. And now when a dinner flops in a spectacular way, or my holiday dazzle doesn’t quite achieve the double spread gloss of a Southern Living magazine feature, I’m still content. I’ve learned to value the heart beyond the image, and to know that trying and intention count at least as much as any result I could pin on a Pinterest board.

Naughty, naughty!

Naughty, naughty!

So, to my fellow Pinners…let me encourage you to be mindful about this amazing tool. It can be a wonderful source of inspiration and delight. But remember, if you are fortunate enough to live with other humans…short ones, tall ones, young or old…they’ll likely derail your carefully laid plans, and your photos may not be perfect either. You’ll likely not finish all the crafts you plan for the holidays; your amazing new dish may look nothing like the exotic photo you tried to copy.

Never mind: all is well! It’s all about learning from others, enlarging our creative borders to try things we hadn’t thought of for ourselves. And it’s about coming to terms with messy reality: looking around at the kids you love; the person who sometimes is your soulmate and sometimes is just a fellow warrior in the battlefield; the home that isn’t perfect, but is yours, warts and all, and knowing that you love it anyway.

Not sure how to capture that image for a Pinterest pin, but that’s the one I would be most proud to share with the world.

December wisdom

There’s a lot of wisdom floating around this time of year…I can find advice on how to create a magical Christmas, or how to experience a calm and serene holiday. There are tips for frugal giving and creative giving. There are recipes everywhere. I read how to make peace with your family, or how to find peace in spite of your family. We can all get along, or agree to disagree and not stress…whatever your point of view, there’s an article, or a blog post, or even a book, to support it.

I confess, there are times when almost all of these opinions fit my mood. I have my moments. Who wouldn’t want to create the perfect Christmas scene? Or the memorable family moment? And yet, I also want the quiet, the calm, the focus, of saying “Enough!” I don’t want to be all about the externals and neglect the important. I want to be generous, and yet not foolish…I want to do for others, but I don’t want to be undone by my efforts to do it all, have it all, be all.

So, in the spirit of seeking balance and vision during this month of magic, which is also a month of stress, consider these pearls:

Stop the glorification of busy.

Think the best of each other, especially of those you say you love. Assume the good, and doubt the bad. ~ Jeffrey R. Holland

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Practice the pause. When in doubt, pause. When angry, pause. When tired, pause. When stressed, pause. And whenever you pause, pray!

“Talking about our problems is our greatest addiction. Break the habit. Talk about your joys.” ~ Rita Schiano

 

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“Grace isn’t a little prayer you say before receiving a meal. It’s a way to live.”

“I will hold myself to a standard of grace, not perfection.”

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Clarabell, the Christmas Cow

For a heartwarming story that has the perfect elements of Christmas…a child, animals, Santa…check out this link to Clarabell, The Christmas Cow.

For many years, my father-in-law read this story at Christmas family gatherings. We are not always with extended family at this stage in our lives. Some years the most we can do is attempt to get together with our kids. So now Rob reads this story for our little group.

If you’ve never heard of Clarabell, take a few minutes and get to know her. She’s quite a character, and more importantly, she has character. This is a story that teaches the meaning of selfless giving, and the reward of doing the right thing.

Happy reading, and Merry Christmas!

I’m taking Gingerbread to Seattle

We got home from Prince of Wales (POW) this morning. The little plane…not a float plane, this plane has wheels, and it seats about a dozen people…left the island at 7:00, and by 8:00 we were crossing over on the airport ferry to Ketchikan. After three weeks away it is good to be in our own space again. But no rest for the weary! This is Saturday, and we leave on Monday evening to meet our kids in Seattle, so today has been about catch up.

First we made the rounds for errands. Picked up the mail, bought a few things at Wal-Mart, stopped by the bank, dropped off a couple of things to ship at the mall. We were sidetracked a few times, but eventually made it back home. Good to get comfy, put on Christmas music, turn on our twinkly lights…no tree for us this year as the next two nights will be our only time at home before Christmas. So I miss having the scent of a fresh tree, and feel I’ve let the Boy Scouts down by not giving them my business this year. But it was not to be. (And I have to admit, the bright spot is that I don’t have to put away all the ornaments in a couple of weeks.)

After sorting the mail, I’m adding to my to-do list. I have a few Christmas cards to finish, some work on a project I should complete before we leave on Monday. But the most important thing to do this weekend…more than laundry, online work, or the other chores on my list…the most important thing I have to do is make gingerbread cookies.

We get to see Alex next week, and Stephanie and Matt, and little Riley. I’m excited to spend a few precious days with them, and it is a bonus that these days come at Christmas. We don’t get that every year. This one will be a little different. Last year they were with us in Ketchikan, and it was easy enough to do all the traditional things, have the favorite foods. But not this year.

This year, Stephanie and Alex and Riley are arriving in Seattle only a day ahead of us. Matt is out of the country on business and won’t be home till next Tuesday. Alex flew out to Arizona earlier this week to drive with Stephanie and Riley from Prescott to Seattle so Stephanie didn’t have to face a multi-day drive with an 18-month-old by herself. The nice thing is that he’ll be able to stay over a few days, so we get to see him. He goes back to Atlanta on the 23rd.

We’ll be in a hotel. Matt and Stephanie are literally still in the process of their relocation to Seattle, and as they are hardly settled, this is not the year to be creating home cooked feasts. So, I’m taking the homey touches with me. And the iconic treat for Alex is gingerbread cookies. He loved these as a little guy, and to this day, if I had to name one thing I make that he enjoys most, it would be these cookies.

I know the point is that we’ll be together, and that this holiday will not be about food, at least not the homemade variety. Except for this one thing. And I’ll admit that I’m taking gingerbread as much for myself as for Alex. Not for my taste buds: for my heart. You see, he loves to eat these cookies. But I love to make them for him. This is one of the few ways I can reach out and touch that little boy that used to live at my house. At 24, there isn’t a lot he needs me to do for him. But this is a gift from my heart to his, and he understands that.

To date, we have been able to see Stephanie more often than we see Alex. Part of that was due to his life in the army. Now that’s ended, and he’ll have a bit more flexibility than when he was in the service. But he lives in Georgia, at least for now, where his wife is based at Ft. Benning. Now Stephanie and Matt will be a short flight away from Ketchikan, and I’m already planning frequent visits. Hard to resist Riley’s little face, or pass up an opportunity to connect with my favorite daughter and son-in-law. So I anticipate that we’ll continue to see Stephanie more often than Alex. Maybe he’ll eventually relocate. Or who knows? Maybe we will.

Regardless, for now, when I have a chance to make gingerbread, I’ll do it. I’ll be the one flying down Monday night with a tin of homemade cookies. And no, I’m not the white-haired grandma. I’m the mom, anxious to see the young man who makes me smile, challenges me to watch him play games, sends me funny texts, walks with me down memory lane when we share this treat together. I’m taking gingerbread to Seattle, baked from the heart.

GINGERBREAD
(Recipe from Colonial Williamsburg)

1 cup sugar
2 teaspoons ginger
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup melted butter
1/2 cup evaporated milk
1 cup unsulphered molasses
3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract, optional
3/4 teaspoon lemon extract, optional
4 cups stone-ground or unbleached flour, unsifted

Combine the sugar, ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, salt, and baking soda. Mix well. Add the melted butter, evaporated milk and molasses. Add the extracts, if using. Mix well. Add the flour 1 cup at a time, stirring constantly. The dough should be stiff enough to handle without sticking to fingers. Knead the dough for a smoother texture. Add up to ½ cup additional flour if necessary to prevent sticking.

When the dough is smooth, roll it out ¼ inch thick on a floured surface and cut it into cookies. Bake on floured or greased cookie sheets in a preheated 375° F oven for 10 to 12 minutes. The gingerbread cookies are done when they spring back when touched.

Monday morning Cinnamon Rolls

So tomorrow I’m bringing cinnamon rolls to work. These are not from a bakery or out of a refrigerated roll tube. These are homemade, gooey, delicious and oversized. These are the real deal. The recipe follows below.

But first, let me tell you that this isn’t just a bit of holiday festivity for co-workers. No, this is part of my work philosophy. I believe in doing a good job of fulfilling my responsibilities. But there are things that go along with doing a good job. This is what I do try to do:

~ Try to say “yes” more than “no.” Be positive. I call this my “yes policy.” This is not about being a “yes man,” or about letting others dump on me. It is about being willing to try, and being gracious.

~ Be transparent; apologize when necessary; take responsibility!

~ Smile; have an attitude of gratitude. But be sincere; you can’t fake this.

~ Commit to what you’re trying to accomplish; coach it; be it.

~ And last, bring food. I’ve never worked in any setting where good food isn’t appreciated. This isn’t about getting anything in return. This is about now and then sharing a treat, whether homemade or a pickup from the local doughnut shop. I used to buy ice cream fudge bars or ice cream sandwiches in the summer to take in at a past job. It really doesn’t matter what the treat is. Just do it, and do it regularly.

Cinnamon Rolls
(thank you, Ann!)

I’ve never had a failure with this recipe; it was given to me by a dear friend whose skill in the kitchen is legendary! This isn’t a recipe to make if you’re watching your calories. But for those occasions when you want a wonderful breakfast treat, to pull out all the stops, this is a winner. Although the instructions are long, each step is actually quick and easy…don’t let the lengthy instructions intimidate you!

The dough is easier to make if you have a stand mixer (like a Kitchen Aid) so the mixer does the work for you. You do not have to knead the dough by hand, you only need to mix it with the dough hook. (If you don’t have a stand mixer, you can mix the dough by hand, that’s easy too).

I break this into three steps and it keeps the whole process from being too lengthy. To have warm rolls for breakfast, (this is our standard Christmas morning treat) mix the dough the afternoon or evening before. I usually try to mix the dough early enough in the afternoon so I can let the dough rise six hours and then roll the dough out and slice before going to bed. When the dough is rolled out, sliced, and the rolls are put into the baking pan, I cover the pan with Saran wrap, slide the pan into the fridge, and leave it overnight. In the morning, I put the cold baking dish into a cold oven. (Very important! Never put a cold dish into a hot oven; if the baking dish is glass it might crack.) I put the oven on the lowest temp, about 170 degrees, let the rolls rise about half an hour, or until the rolls have at least doubled in size, then turn up the oven to 350 degrees and bake the rolls for approximately 35 minutes. While the rolls are baking, mix the icing. This only takes a couple of minutes, so the whole process in the morning is just a matter of putting the rolls in the oven and drizzling the icing over the rolls after baking.

An alternative, if you have time, is to allow the rolls come to room temperature and rise till the dough is at least doubled. If your timing allows (perfect if you are serving these at brunch), just take the rolls out of the fridge in the morning and let them sit for at least a couple of hours prior to baking. If they still need a little more rising, you can always speed the process along a bit by putting them into a low-temp oven as described above.

Dough
1 cup softened butter
1/4 cup sugar
1 cup hot water
2 eggs
2 tsp salt
2 packages of active dry yeast
1 cup warm water, or you can use 1 cup of warm milk instead of water
6 cups of all purpose flour

Combine the butter, sugar and hot water in mixer bowl. Stir until butter is melted. Allow this to cool until just warm (if mixture is too hot, it will kill the yeast). Add eggs and salt to butter mixture when cooled. Combine yeast with 1 cup of warm water (or warm milk if substituting milk for water). Give the yeast a few minutes to proof (it will foam up). Add yeast mixture to butter mixture. Add flour 2 cups at a time and combine using mixer dough hook. When all the flour is added, cover the dough in the mixing bowl and refrigerate for six hours or overnight.

Filling
1/2 cup (1 stick) softened butter
brown or white sugar, 1 1/4 cups (more or less, to taste)
cinnamon (use a lot, these are cinnamon rolls!)

After dough has risen in fridge, (dough should be at least doubled in size) remove from mixing bowl and roll out on floured surface. Roll dough out to about 1/4 inch thickness in rectangular shape. Spread surface of dough with softened butter. Sprinkle buttered surface of dough with granulated or brown sugar, then with cinnamon. Cover the dough liberally with sugar and cinnamon. Roll up jelly roll fashion and slice rolls about 1 inch thick. Arrange slices in baking pan and allow to rise. You can let the rolls rise at room temperature for a couple of hours, or turn the oven on the lowest temperature (about 170 degrees) and let the rolls rise in the oven for about half an hour, as described in notes above.

When rolls have risen (at least double in size) bake at 350 degrees for approximately 35 minutes.

Icing
Combine a couple of tablespoons of melted butter, powdered sugar (I use two or three cups of powdered sugar) and milk (drizzle a little milk in until the icing is the consistency you want. It can be spreadable or pourable). Add a teaspoon of vanilla to icing and spread over warm rolls. If you make too much icing, this will keep in the fridge for several days. You can also use this icing on almost any dessert…handy to keep around for pound cakes, etc. For those who love cream cheese, add 3 or 4 oz of softened cream cheese to the icing and blend to remove any lumps.

Orange Rolls

I stumbled on this option (I was out of cinnamon and discovered my predicament at the last minute when I was making these recently) and it makes a nice citrusy treat.

All the steps for making the dough are the same, through rolling the dough out and spreading with butter and sprinkling the dough with granulated or brown sugar. I use less sugar in this variation, and I don’t measure these amounts, but I cover the dough a little more lightly with sugar than when I am making the cinnamon version. This can be adjusted to personal taste. After spreading the rolled-out dough with butter and sugar, using a jar of orange marmalade, (I use Smuckers marmalade) spread this over the sugar, roll up, and slice rolls to place in baking pan. (The marmalade can be a bit tart, and I use the sugar in the filling to cut the tartness of the orange peel in the marmalade.) Allow rolls to rise and bake as described above.

For the glaze, instead of adding vanilla extract and milk to thin the glaze, I use orange juice and a few drops of orange flavoring, or you could grate a little orange zest in the glaze if you have a fresh orange. Don’t add cream cheese…you just want to punch up the orange flavor.

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My kids are coming home

Sometimes you have to experience to understand. I knew as a child that my parents loved me. But I couldn’t understand that fully until I had my own children. Now, seeing the cycle repeat through Stephanie’s eyes, watching her fall in love with little Riley, I know that once again, the parent/child magic is at work.

As an adult, I knew that it was meaningful to my parents and to my inlaws when we visited.  They told us so, they thanked us for coming, for making the time to be with them. For most of our marriage, we have lived many states away from both sets of parents. Visits home were at best a couple of times each year. And some years the trips back to  family were supplemented with visits from our parents to us, in our home.

Now, still in the early years of our children being out of the nest, I realize more fully what a gift it is to parents to have adult children come for a visit. I can’t explain how it is different, having my kids back in our home, rather than visiting them in their homes or meeting somewhere for a vacation. Each scenario is enjoyable. But there is something unique about welcoming them back, about planning their favorite meals, about planning to spoil them a bit in the home setting. It isn’t about control or trying to turn them into children again…too late for that! But it is about recognizing that when they are “home,” there is a unique opportunity to mother, to enjoy having them under our roof again. It reminds me that our bonds, created over the years of childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood, have stood the test of time, have weathered the stages of growth, and that now, we are not only parents and children, we are friends. We call each other out of choice rather than obligation. We look for opportunities to share.

They have left the nest, but they come back to renew the connection, to reinforce the ties. We’ve done it: we successfully launched two fully functioning young people into their own lives. We let go, and now, we reap the reward of seeing their futures unfold. And next week, we’ll spend time with them here, at home, and it will be good.

Small town Alaska

I live in a small Alaskan island community. Ketchikan has a Wal-Mart, a Safeway, a small mall with mostly local stores. The only restaurants in town that are not local are McDonald’s and Subway…oh, and Godfather’s Pizza. I’ll admit, I frequently miss living in the foothills outside Denver…largely for friends and intangible things. But I also miss the wonderful variety of retail shopping, the plethora of restaurants throughout the city and suburbs, the option of choice. Let’s face it, when Wal-Mart and the hardware stores are out of Christmas lights, you don’t have other possibilities a mile or two away, living on an island. And the funny thing is, Ketchikan is the big city for other surrounding island communities! People come over in droves on ferries to spend the day shopping here…maybe that’s why Wal-Mart is out of colored Christmas lights.

But small towns have other good things. The checkers in the grocery are friendly, and I hear people wishing each other “Merry Christmas” when I’m out and about. Ketchikan puts up Christmas lights and you could almost believe you have stepped back in time at the mall, except that everyone walking by has a cell phone in hand. There are singing Christmas tree productions, holiday celebrations listed in the paper. No one seems to be agitated if the term “Christmas” is used. Of course you can say “Merry Christmas!” This is small town America…no controversy about being politically correct here! 

Alaska has an interesting combination of residents. There are a lot of transplants, like us, who have lived in the state a few years but will likely not be here too long…too far from family and the life we have had in the past. This is a passing through for us. But there are people who have multi-generation roots here. The state only just celebrated 50 years of being a state. And a lot of people who have spent their adult lives here came as children or young adults looking for adventure and higher pay. They say that Alaskans are independent in spirit, and maybe that is true. Alaska is also called the last American frontier, and that is definitely true. You need to be a bit hardy to live here, or at least to live here long. I think we’ve done ok because it is an adventure for us. The inconveniences are still mostly novel. But they also insulate the state from a lot of things that are more common “down south.” One of the positives is that life does seem just a bit more mellow here, a bit more old-fashioned. I actually have an account at the hardware store. I go in and charge to the account, not my Visa card. I never had a local account before. I also have that with the fuel oil company. Who knew these practices still existed? I thought everyone used credit cards almost exclusively now!

I’m not sure where we’ll live next…larger city or another small town. That decision has yet to be made. But regardless, I’m glad I’ve had a chance to experience small towns in Alaska, first Kotzebue and now Ketchikan. It has given me a glimpse of a world that I thought was largely gone, a world where you actually know people in stores or at the post office, where small kindnesses frequently happen and community events bring neighbors out to participate. Alaska still has Norman Rockwell charm, in spite of the rough and tough image people know from TV reality shows. And if you’re fortunate enough to visit Ketchikan, “salmon capital of the world,” check out the local restaurants for chowder and fish and chips…chain restaurants don’t get their fish fresh from the dock an hour before serving to customers. Small town grace and the best seafood you can get…now that’s a great combination!