Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Same Latitude, Same Celebration, But........

Dropping off my hot chocolate, Julian, our usually quiet cafe owner, hesitated.


“Yes. “

“Do you always eat turkey for Christmas?”

I could tell he meant “you” as in all Americans. How could I answer for an entire nation?

My immediate thought was yes we do eat turkey, but then my brain said it’s not fair to say that everyone eats turkey. How far into family preferences or regional detail should I go? or should I just stick to the story book version of an American Christmas meal.

My quandary was solved when Julian said, “I watched a Christmas classic on TV last night. Is that what it is really like?”

Based on last nights holiday drama, and years of other shows like it, he had some very specific questions. 

Here were his questions:

Where were the oysters?

Is the turkey always so big?

What do you eat with the turkey?

I didn’t see them serve the foie gras?

How about the cognac and armagnac?

What kind of cheeses do Americans like?

Like all of us Julian’s visual and taste references are based on his childhood memories. His family is 4 or 5th generation Bourdeilles and they have never ventured from the classic french Christmas dinner. Marriages have been with other local families so the holiday meal traditions are straight out of casting for a Perigordine feast.

Julian’s questions gave me pause. How could I balance gross generalizations with explanations of why a “typical” American family does not sit down to the same meal that a French family will.

Starting with the oysters I try to explain that most Americans live far away from the sea coast and that makes fresh oysters a delicacy that few families partake in. How could I demonstrate the space between Boston and somewhere in Montana to someone for whom a trip to Pairs, 6 hours away, is like going to the moon?  Instead I said my family holiday meals got started with a good glass of whiskey and maybe some peanuts before we went in to table. Sometimes a little smoked salmon.

“But what about the oysters” Julian muttered. I could tell he loved his oysters.

Next was the question of the turkey? How could a family possibly eat a 12 kilo (25 lb) bird? I know it does not occur to him that there has to be left overs. France is a country that has yet to embrace sandwiches (outside the train station baguette with butter and ham). We laughed as I explained that my oven here would never be big enough for an American-sized turkey. His dubious smile suggests that he wonders if my kitchen is really that French.

The side dishes are what really got to him. Cranberries, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, stuffing, rolls, vegetables vegetables…..  
Where are the chestnuts, baguettes, leeks, cepe mushrooms…….?

And there was a gaping hole in the courses. Where was the foie gras? When does that appear on the table? How could I tell him that the chances of there being foie gras on an American’s Christmas table are about 1 in a million? No foie gras at a holiday meal is sacrilege to him, to his clan, to his Perigordine economy!

Dessert was sort of easier to sort out. Of course there is dessert, no cultural difference there, except I know that when I say apple pie he is picturing tart and when I say pumpkin pie he’s seeing weird.  Who in your family knows the secrets of how to make the perfect traditional buche de noel?

He has worked he way through the courses, now for the hours of sitting back and relaxing…. What, it’s not automatic that you sit back from the table and have a cognac something to crown off your wonderful hours of eating? I figure most American families clock in about 2 to 3 hours around the table. Here your celebration has been a failure if you don’t spend at least 5 hours around the table.

Suddenly he realizes he hasn’t asked about the cheese course. How do I tell him that if we had cheese it would have been way back with the glass of whiskey? That course would have been some sort of cheese ball with crackers -- explain a cheeseball to a frenchman.

It was sweet how he wanted to understand what and how Americans would navigate a Christmas meal, but my explanations weren’t really sinking in. Several times he would ask his question again in a different way to see if maybe I’d give a different answer. Sometimes I’d try to rethink my answer to see if I could illustrate a point better or maybe generalize a little bit less, create a picture of my childhood traditions.

The last thing on Julian’s mind was how do Tom and I celebrate Christmas now that we are living in the heart of gastronomic eating? He was happy to know we would eat with a friend that is known for her expertise as a French cook.  We would be set in our own Perigordine movie. Mostly Julian just wanted to be sure that there would be foie gras and that we would eat it! (Me, yes; Tom, no.)

(By chance this was the year that we had a tasting comparison of duck foie gras versus goose foie gras. We were split on preferences and reasons for them.)


Trish said...

Your description sounds like a typical Thanksgiving dinner held in the US. Christmas for my friends throughout the US is indeed filled with regional or family traditions which can take on many cultures. Our Christmas dinner included Foie Gras, Champagne, figs, oranges, potatoes dauphinoise, beef, venison sausages, cheese, Pomerol and a homemade bueche noel. And we are in Iowa! Have a wonderful new year and keep writing.

Mary Jo said...

Fascinating. I love that your conversation with Julian was driven by his curiosity after seeing a movie about an American Christmas. How different our customs are. What struck me most strongly was the hours spent around the table. Growing up, we might spend an hour, max, with children needing to get moving again and grandparents wanting to play cards after the dishes were done. Even now, we spend less than an hour--perhaps because of the family's roots in farming and the needs of animals in the evenings, plus the work ethic that one must be constantly productive with so much to do. I love the image of a group of adults luxuriating around the table enjoying conversation, cheeses and a variety of spirits and the evening wears on. But life is good, either way. Thanks for sharing.