Christmas feasts feed both the body and the soul.
Thursday, December 14, 2000
Eating messy krushchiki and listening to mystic kolendy as a child at the home of my mother''s best friend always made me feel the magic of Christmas. Those Polish "angel wings"--a twisted, deep-fried cookie liberally sprinkled with powdered sugar-- and those Polish carols were the heart of the festivities.
Sometimes before we ate, our hostess would break an oplatek into pieces and share the flour wafer with everyone as a sign of peace. We ate spiral cut ham for dinner with gourmet additions like veal pâte flavored with Cognac. This early glimpse into Slavic culture set me on the path to becoming a global gourmet.
Later in high school, my best friend and I would debate whether or not to actually bake the buttery, pecan dough for Russian teacakes or just eat it uncooked out of the bowl. We''d purposely add too many dark morsels to the chocolate chip cookie dough so the delectable ovals would bake into a warm, messy goop.
I also exchanged cookies with a Mexican friend, whose mother made empanadas, pumpkin turnovers flavored with anise. I liked the way she folded dough to make a beautiful scalloped edge for this Christmas Eve treat.
The French, like the Mexicans, traditionally celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve, as I discovered when I married into a French family. On my first Christmas in France, we attended midnight mass and got ready for an "all nighter" at the dinner table.
Hors d''oeuvres appeared one after the other: smoked salmon, rillettes (pork cooked and preserved in its own fat, resulting in a salty, creamy spread) and foie gras. Next, we had pieces of monkfish tail in a dish called lotte a l''americain. The recipe is of Basque origins but is dubbed americain because sweet peppers, a New World food import, are used to make its sauce (along with olive oil, garlic, onions, white wine, armagnac and pureed tomatoes).
I was ready to crawl under the table and sleep by this point, but, then, uncle Jacques entered the dining room carrying a yard-long platter holding slices of his salmon terrine with a spinach and cream topping. He decorated his fish dish with lemon sails and seashell pastry rows to look like a Mediterranean galley. After this, we ate salad with round slices of chevre goat cheese. Dessert was a chocolate cake log called a buche de Noel.
The party broke up at 6am, but we were expected back at noon for another meal. We began our "light" meal with raw oysters, another salmon terrine, roast turkey with chestnuts, and finally, homemade chocolates.
Between courses during both meals, we sang carols, listened to my brother-in-law play the piano and Grandpa the violin, made toasts and drank more wine. My pleas for water garnered me a round of Gallic scoffing. "Water is for flowers and fish," I was informed.
Back in the USA, a German friend gave me an Advent wreath to celebrate the 24 days before Christmas. I had never celebrated Advent before and decided to adopt it as one of my traditions.
Now during Advent season, my daughter and I read the Christmas story from little calendar books that double as tree ornaments. We also sing carols, read Christmas stories and bake cookies.
On Christmas day, my daughter helps me in the kitchen. Together we select pretty stationery on which to write our menu. This menu goes up in a frame by the dining room table and stays there until the next holiday meal. Old menus go in a scrapbook.
Our favorite menus always have guests'' names on them, memorializing them both in our hearts and our memories.