Houston, home to the swaggering Stetson-headed ranchers and oilmen, crazed though often disappointed baseball and football fans and noisily hopeful soccer and basketball aficionados – a testosterone-fuelled city some might say. But Houston also has a thriving cultural scene from opera to theatre to ballet to a plethora of museums, each well patronised, often by the aforementioned ranchers and oilmen.
Each year in the same venue that sees giant structures, and miniature replicas of rigs and drillships, and all manner of gadgets and services at the Offshore Technology Conference, the diametrically opposite Nutcracker Market is also housed. Halls full of heavily made-up matrons and ladies-who-lunch with blonde hair, carefully coiffed or artfully mussed, replace the suited and booted.
For many the precursor to the Christmas frenzy, the Houston Ballet’s major fundraising event is four days of fevered shopping for things you never knew you needed; such as a silicone lid shaped, and coloured, like a lily pad that magically seals a variety of bowls, and is microwave proof. Yes, I succumbed yet again to a kitchen gizmo. Or delightful nutcrackers from tiny to tremendous. Or how about a neoprene suitcase cover for the nomad in your life? Gingersnap cookies purported to be Barbara Bush’s favourite Christmas gift do a roaring trade.
Mimosas, Bloody Marys, and Cosmos, along with the more prosaic wine and beer, aid the shopping extravaganza with jammed bars at the end of avenues of stalls, each outdoing their neighbour in kerb appeal. Glitz and glitter is the order of the day.
Gaggles of women move in concert, often wearing cutesy reindeer antlers that flash, or some other identifier for their posse, along the aisles. “Oh my” and Oh my gosh” and “Oh how cute” ring the halls along with filtered carols and as I am confronted by one such entourage I falter in my quest. There is something most alarming about being faced by such abundant glee and I feel a bah-humbug burble up. I quash it and remind myself it is almost the season of goodwill to all women.
Not often do I lament not living on the same continent as my granddaughter, there is no point, but I come close at the Nutcracker Market as year after year I see rocking horses and teepees being scooped up by doting nanas and grandmas. There was one in camouflage fabric stating Travis was the proud occupant or one, a pink and mauve confection, for Tiffany to powwow in. But it was the piebald horses on wheels that took the weight of a number of amply padded bottoms that tempted me most. Watching one proud parent parade the aisles trailing two such steeds brought on a pang of regret.
But I was easily distracted – this time by branches of opalescent pink, grey and cream pearls. Pearls strung together, strung on leather thongs, strung on gold or silver cascading down into pools of luminous orbs. Jewellery is bountiful, as are ribbons and bows made of every shimmery material known to woman.
A crush of such magnitude greeted me as I turned a corner and I nearly faltered, but putting my best elbow out and my shoulder bent to the task I forged ahead. Curiosity has always been my downfall. And then I remembered. Donne di Domani. A group of dedicated Houston Italian-American women make their secret recipe for marinara sauce just once a year and sell it at the Nutcracker Market, donating all the proceeds to local charities, two million dollars in 22 years. That’s a lot of jars of $10 sauce, variously called ‘frisky’ and ‘mystical’ by food critics – I’ll have to believe them I’ve never managed to get my hands on a jar, it sells out so fast.
In good Houston tradition the Nutcracker Market, now in its 33rd year, is run entirely by volunteers, about 700 of them. 300 plus vendors and reported today, 104,000 motivated shoppers this year alone, over the years have helped raise upwards of $22 million for the Houston Ballet Foundation. That’s a lot of sugarplums dancing in our heads.
Dropping my bag wearily on the counter at home, I pulled out my haul. The aforementioned magic lid, the cutest little outfit for my granddaughter – well I had to if I couldn’t buy a horse, and few glittery ornaments that begged to adorn my tree and a couple of things I can’t mention. I had glitter on my cheek, aching feet, and the ringing of thousands of women’s voices swirling in my head.
I’ll be back next year – if only to do my bit to ensure the Rat King and the Sugarplum Fairies continue to dance on the Houston stage!