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Serve baked potatoes with condiments of choice

Years ago when I lived in eastern Oklahoma, heavy, mixed timber covered our land. Every kind of tree imaginable grew there except Christmas trees. Scrub cedar trees bore the closest resemblance to Christmas trees, and you needed a good imagination to see much resemblance.
   At that time, we didn't have a lot of money, and buying imported, out-of-state Christmas trees, like Douglas fir, cost a small fortune. Trees that sell for $20 here cost $70 and up back there.
   One year we decided to cut one of the cedar trees and decorate it, even if the needles were a little sparse, prickly and small. So what? It would be fun, a real homespun kind of Christmas.
   My son, Lee, spent weeks scouting the woods for a good tree, and all three of us went out together to cut it one cold Saturday. It didn't prove to be much of an expedition because the darn trees grew everywhere, and the house sat a stone's throw away from the chosen tree. Still, it was family memory-making time.
   We lived in a small house, with a miniscule living room. We hauled the tree into the room, and right away we saw that we needed to remove some furniture because the circumference of that tree suddenly grew by at least three feet. Not only that, the top two feet of the tree bent over against the ceiling when we stood it up.
   Here's a good piece of information to remember when cutting Christmas trees. Trees always look smaller in the woods than they do in the house.
   A few adjustments later, the tree sat ready to decorate. My mother-in-law loved to make Christmas ornaments, as I did, so we owned a huge box full of lovingly made family keepsake ornaments.
   Those cedar trees don't grow strong, thick branches. They're rather spindly, in fact, and don't support heavy ornaments, especially toward the tip of the branch. This tree presented a decorating challenge.
   We embraced the opportunity, though, and when we had finished hanging ornaments and icicles, I thought the tree looked pretty and so homey. This was our tree, from our land, and it made me feel all warm and fuzzy just to look at it.
   We heated with wood, and we kept our house pretty cozy against the cold Oklahoma winds. The living room especially stayed warm since the wood stove sat on the opposite wall from the tree, and my wood cookstove sat in the kitchen not far away.
   By that evening, a strange odor filled the house. We couldn't figure out what it was, just that it smelled as if some critter had died inside our house.
   The next day, the smell got worse. It was almost enough to make us gag, and it got worse with each passing warmth-filled hour.
   Apparently, therein lay the problem. Warm air must make the sap rise in those trees, and the sap does not produce the usual piney Christmas smell of true Christmas trees. No, our tree smelled like the Grim Reaper from A Christmas Carol.
   Suddenly, our homey little tree had turned into a monstrous, skeletal imposter of Christmas that needed to be removed - right away! We stripped off ornaments and lights and silver icicles, and hauled the offending evergreen out of the house.
   We spent the rest of the Christmas holiday treeless, but at least our house smelled like Christmas again, filled with the inviting aroma of sugar cookies and baking bread.
   If you go out to get your tree and want dinner already started before you return, you ought to try Slow-Cooker Baked Potatoes. Tina Simmons and Andria Mitchell of Prineville told me about these potatoes, and they're pretty darn good.
   You can wrap them in foil or not. I've tried it both ways. Wrapping in foil makes the skins softer. Pick up a deli chicken from the grocery store and a salad in a bag, and you'll have dinner on the table before you can sing "O Christmas Tree."
   Sharon Vail lives in Powell Butte, where this year her tree will bear no olfactory resemblance to anything dead. Readers may contact her "at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . "Cooking from the heart of Oregon.
   Slow-Cooker Baked Potatoes
   Russet baking potatoes, as many as you want to serve (you can get about 6 medium-sized potatoes in a 3-quart slow cooker)
   Butter or margarine, optional
   Prick each potato with a fork. For chewier skins, rub each potato with butter or margarine and place in slow cooker. For softer skins, wrap each potato in aluminum foil and place in slow cooker.
   Cover and cook on high for 2-1/2 to 4 hours, or on low 8-10 hours. DO NOT ADD ANY WATER.
   Serve hot with butter, sour cream, cheese, bacon bits, green onions or whatever you like to decorate your baked potatoes.
   For a quick and easy dinner, serve with a roasted chicken from the grocery deli, a salad and a loaf of hot garlic bread from the store.