The Christmas Holiday has past, but it is not leaving without first beckoning me to buy more chocolates with cherries and liquor, more with liquid caramel centers, pistachio nougat or praline something-or-other, more hollowed out dark chocolate turtle, santa or owl shapes that crunch when we eat them. The prices split in half for the same weight, or remained the same for twice the weight. I’m filling in all that wasted space in my stomach since I did not stuff myself last year at Christmas dinners. This year at our family get together, my mother-in-law prepared a satisfying and uncharacteristically inexcessive meal. As is often the custom, the in-laws (or outlaws, if you prefer) and their dog, Mallorca, played hosts in their light warm house. My father-in-law searched his wine cellar with slightly shaking hands, opening each aged bottle with a grunt or slight wheeze, pouring crisp glasses of fine wine and reminding us that we had to finish the bottle. My mother-in-law spent most of her time half in and half out of the kitchen. Three quarters of the time she prepared everything, and for one quarter she ate and entertained. Habitually, we women would notice her absence amongst the other guests and offer help with the intent of speeding her return to the table. To no avail. She would just as quickly be lost in her return to the kitchen to finish some other last minute touch.
Dinner at the inlaws is always simple but flavorful. Meals follow the standard pattern. There are small “amuse-bouches” (fun for your mouth) or “amuse-gueules” also called “gâteaux apéritifs”. The choice of gâteaux apéritifs always depends on the host/hostess. During the holidays here, it usually means thin toasted circles of bread topped with smoked salmon or tiny cocktail shrimp and a drop of butter or mayonnaise, small servings of foie gras or fish or pork paté. Each dish is accompanied by its wine, and for the gâteaux apéritifs, the first chilled glass of the night is usually a clear yellow not-too-sweet wine. The serving dishes make the round of the table until there are no more gâteaux apéritifs left. The first dish, called the entrée, I come to recognize as the fish dish. Not eating red meat, poultry or pork, I always get two servings of the fish dish…It is usually a white fish filet rolled inwards on itself, set up on its side in the plate, drizzled with beurre blanc (which is a butter, shallots and dry white wine sauce) and served with boiled or roasted white potatoes and/or slivers of carrots, celery root and leek sautéed in olive oil or butter. This dish tastes good the first time. In the middle of the table there are bread baskets with cut pieces of crisp crusted baguette. This basket will be refilled throughout the meal since the bread inside is often used to clean one’s plate. That habit is considered bad manners in some regions. Around here, I get the impression that it’s bad manners if you don’t clean your plate with the bread. Next comes the main course, “le plat de résistance”, which this year was an oven-roasted turkey served with wild mushrooms and chestnuts. This is followed by a fresh green lettuce salad and homemade vinaigrette, offered at the same time as the cheese platter is sent around. And of course, a good glass of red wine is offered to complete this dish. Then comes the dessert, which this year was a store bought pistachio and hazelnut vanilla ice cream bûche de noël with a sorbet raspberry topping. Coffee, caffeinated or herbal teas are offered alongside the invitation to taste various homemade “goûttes”. The word goûtte literally means a drop or a taste and that’s basically all you need in order to understand what it is. “La Goûtte”, also named “eau de vie” (water of life) is made by allowing fruit or fruit juices to ferment and later distilling them. Most of the time, the smell is too strong and I’m not tempted to taste. But, one time I did taste some goûtte due to some deceptive olfactory alterations. The one I tasted smelled like sweet tangerines. I swirled the two drops of goûtte around in the bottom of my empty tea cup and tipped my head all the way back to get the drops passed my lips and down my throat. Almost immediately I felt a cold sensation as alcohol evaporated from my lips, then I covered my eyes that had begun to water and clutched at my chest as if to stop the violent burning that descended the long bumpy ride down my esophagus. Apparently my tasting convinced some others not to do so. This Christmas dinner ended with the family playing their favorite card game togehter: la belotte. This is always a rowdy bout of yelling, scribbling scores, French cursing, angry fist banging and firm knuckle knocking on the table. Many children learn this game at a young age, but I’ve yet to take the time to understand it.
Instead of preparing dinner, we could’ve gone out. On Christmas day, it is common for restaurants to serve large and small families. My first Christmas in France and the first time I met my husband’s paternal side of the family was in such a restaurant. When standing at our seats, the chairs barely scraped the back wall. While seated, it felt to me like a beach of walruses unable to move around but for great effort. I met many people I did not remember, brushed many a cheek with my own while kissing into the air, and as promptly as I could attempted to melt into my chair. Some refused to let me melt away and sat with me the whole 3-4 hour meal, poking at me with their chattering tongues as if I were to come alive in my petri dish. These charming people I come today to appreciate as true friends, if not yet family. But at that instant, I felt petrified, utterly embarassed, unprepared for the noise and the crush of people, including some that gave the “bise” with cold eyes. This reunion was so noisy that the following Christmas, we went to a different restaurant, one with separate rooms for individual families or groups. Our room was facing farthest south. The cold air and the stink of cigarette smoke rushed into the warm room every time someone opened the door. The room was big enough and painted a shade of peach that reminded me of my grandpa in New York. At this restaurant, there was no seating chart and the room quickly split into three groups: the elders, the too-good-for-you-crew and everybody else. The elders sat together, the too-good-for-you-crew sat together and everybody else sat where they could. Those in the crew yelled out funny things from the safety of their herds, but never acknowledged the intelligence nor the comedy of anyone else. So, I endured being ignored by the crew and endured the gentle interrogation by several elders as to why, after 4 months, I continued to breastfeed my son, as to whether or not I truly believed my breastmilk to be healthy…
And until the year 2008, that’s about where my French Christmas restaurant experiences have ended. I refused to attend any others. Perhaps, I was wrong to do so. But, I was not alone, neither in my refusal nor in my absence. Instead the family decided to meet up at the end of summer for a barbecue at my inlaws’ house. I arrived with my husband and two children, feeling anger broiling inside of my chest just at seeing certain familiarly nonchalant expressions. I stayed away from the crowd because I had to skewer my marinated shrimp for the barbecue. They were all brown and spicy smelling from the cumin and soy sauce. My heart beat quickly and I moved from one foot to the other as the translucent grey flesh slowly gave way to an opaque coral pink. The crackling fire licked tatooes of caramelized molasses onto the side of the shrimp. The metal tongs scraped the edge of the white serving dish as I piled on the copious amount. I sat down at the end of the longer of two wooden makeshift tables, at the end of lewd jokes and bursts of raucous laughter, deep rumbling money talk, high pitched-baby cries and gurgles, next to granny gushings. J came over to be served and I quickly spooned cold mixed salads onto paper plates, passed plastic utensils and sat her in a chair next to me. Unbeknownst to me, the shrimp plate had been picked up and had managed to switch hands four or five times before I realized it was no longer where I had placed it on the table. My husband and a couple other young men had prepared serving platters full of sausages and pork chops! Why eat my sole plate of shrimp, the only “meat” prepared for me? With a sharp tone of voice, I stopped my shrimp from advancing any further down the table. Keeping an eye on their faces, I began to prepare my own plate. And they sang a short song, more like a refrain, which is common at French gatherings, but this time they sang for my shrimp. I smiled confusedly, but I was gleaming on the inside. And for the rest of the day, things followed the standard pattern of meals. But there was a little less tension, especially on my end. Many empty wine bottles were piled up at the end of that day, more card games were played, a bunch of us got drenched in a sudden afternoon downpour of bitter cold rain while others settled for naps in cool shaded rooms. The groups mingled and inch by inch brought down their guards in order to talk with each other. This was a much nicer Christmas celebration, although not at Christmas, that captured the spirit of a true reunion. Perhaps, we just needed to meet on common ground and truly spend the time together.
The end of the Christmas season comes shortly after New Year’s Eve with the Epiphany. The beloved “galettes des rois” dominate the windows of all boulangeries and are prominently displayed in supermarkets. There are two kinds of “galettes des rois”. One is called the “couronne” and is a brown crown-looking pastry, literally having a hole like a doughnut but much larger in width and height, that has a medium to dark brown exterior and butter yellow interior with no sugary sweet taste. It is soft and smushy to the touch, like Charmin toilet paper rolls, and is eaten with sweet things such as jellies or jams. The second one, my favorite, is a solid tart with a buttery flake upper and bottom crust. Its center is made of an almond paste called frangipane. Both galettes have one single fève in them. The person who bites into this hard cooked clay ornament the size of a nickel becomes the king or queen and receives a tacky gold crown. Although, I’ve never personally experienced it myself, I’ve always been told that the king or queen then is allowed to choose his or her queen or king. For me the galettes des rois are another reason to get together and offer a small gift to people you admire, love or like. We purchased a frangipane and spent a lazy Sunday afternoon with the inlaws snacking and chatting about the New Year. We will invite our nearest neighbors for slices of galettes to thank them for when we needed them during the year or for just being good neighbors. And we have invited a good number of our friends over for the end of the month also to taste a galette. It’s like being invited for dessert everywhere you go, but this dessert is in season once a year. Another action that shows the end of the Christmas season is the national sales kick-off. In France, there are no individual store sales. All stores slash prices during this national sales period and do not have sales outside of the national sales period. As far as I can remember, this sale takes place twice a year and the first national sales period began on January 7th.
As we come to the end of this season, I’m shocked to find that I write mostly of food and people. When I was living in the US, and especially as a child, Christmas always meant lots and lots of presents. As I grew up, my mother became religious and it became more about Jesus Christ. Today, I live in a different country and I’m learning different traditions and customs and at the same time attempting to create Christmas meaning and memories for my own children that mimic some of my best memories. I’m not religious, but more spiritual in nature. And I believe the origins of the season are necessary to keep in mind. No matter where the origins stem, be it the pagan celebration of light or the Christian birth of a Savior, I’m glad that we have it. To me, it is about giving gifts, tangible and non-tangible, such as sitting down and sharing what we enjoy the most with the people we love and perhaps with those that we don’t yet understand. What is Christmas for you?