The French Buffet
Fri., Jan. 1, 1999
Given this underlying pressure, I choose to shy away from big New Year's events. The gala evening holds no appeal for me, nor does the cocktail buffet for a crowd. Yet as it turns out, the New Year's Eve by which I measure all others was both of these: a gala affair at a French country chateau, complete with cocktail buffet (albeit one like I've never seen before) for hundreds.
Say what you will about the French, they know how to throw a party. Theirs is the land of effervescent Champagne and musky truffles, of woodsy Bordeaux and smooth, buttery foie gras. Come December 31, these and other national treasures star on the buffet table in a fabulous show of gastronomic good taste. Add to these Gallic treats moist slices of smoked salmon from Norway or Scotland, oysters resplendent in their silvery shells, sumptuous canapes of caviar and cod roe, and miniature pastries too pretty to eat, and you have a celebration to make a food lover weep.
When it comes to food, the French seem to be born with a taste for the good life, so it's no wonder that the buffet (as opposed to the bar) is the focus of their New Year celebration. Champagne, of course, has its rightful place, but what really counts is the solid stuff that goes in the mouth. The food must be luxurious enough to usher out the departing year with an emphatic last hurrah and grandiose enough to welcome the new one. I like this maxim. So, while December 31 may never again find me behind a sumptuous buffet in the ornate ballroom of a French castle, I will see to it that my own modest home is well-stocked with smoked salmon and oysters, foie gras and truffles, if only for a day. Oh!, and I'll wash it all down with Champagne. Now that's a celebration!
-- Rebecca Chastenet de Géry
When our motley group of Louisiana exiles sauntered into San Antonio's Menger Hotel, the post-Christmas sales were in full swing and we were searching for a holiday cocktail to usher in the afternoon. It seemed like a perfectly simple request.
"You want a what?"
"A milk punch. It's a drink. You never made one?"
"Never heard of it." The barkeep, a slow-moving teenager obviously looking to skate through an easy lunch shift, didn't seem to eager to improvise. Apparently, he figured that a few seconds of silence and a thoroughly blank stare would force a lower-maintenance alternative ("A nice beer? A margarita maybe?") that was more in his range.
"Hmmmmm." Carla started slowly, glancing over the lineup of bottles against the bar mirror, "Tell you what," she said. "You got any brandy back there?"
Joe and Carla Mouton, our group's official goodwill ambassadors, subtly set to educating our bartender in the finer points of his profession. Carla, as it turns out, spends most of her days teaching social studies to half-conscious adolescents, and Joe, an old restaurant hand, has a gift for translation, especially when it comes to anything edible. So despite his best intentions, this bartender would learn a thing or two during his afternoon shift.
The two teachers patiently led him through a hands-on lesson in the art of the Louisiana milk punch. First, there was the gathering of ingredients ("Good. So you have brandy? What about half-and-half? The white stuff you use in coffee?"), then a quick kitchen trip to fetch items not standard to the barman's garnish tray (small bowls of vanilla extract and preground nutmeg). The rest of the crew looked on as Joe and Carla carefully laid out the correct method and measurements. Pretty soon, it'd be punch time.
The traditional milk punch is as close to the cocktail world as most denizens of rural South Louisiana get. During most of the year, we're content to swill cold beer as our beverage of choice -- a perfect match for steaming gumbos, hearty jambalaya, and other delicacies of the pot. Nobody really thinks to mix a Tanq 'n' Tonic when cayenne-dusted crawfish spill across paper-lined picnic tables. During most casual get-togethers, it's always easier to pop a top.
But during the holiday season, the parties tend to dress up a little bit. Casual gumbo gatherings give way to a month-long string of more formal evening visits and traditional family reunions. Sugar-hyped kids run around in church clothes while adults get their share of special foods and holiday cheer.
And during the festive season, milk punch makes its annual appearance. Essentially a cluck-free eggnog, the basic milk punch is made with three parts light cream (half-and-half), one part dark liquor (usually bourbon or brandy), and various grace notes that fine-tune the concoction's flavor (sugar for sweetness, vanilla, and a pinch of grated nutmeg). At full strength, the rich cream masks the liquor's warm kick and makes it a perfect brunchtime alternative to the Bloody Mary. The final product can be mixed in punchbowl batches to satisfy an evening's worth of revelers or blended to a rich slushlike consistency (Carla's preference) for a quick internal freeze.
However it's made, the milk punch remains an integral holiday tradition in most of South Louisiana. During the countless family gatherings that mark the season, adults mill around with "company's coming crystal" sipping before dinner, after Mass, or during the New Year's feast. Parents are also known to mix a special batch with trace amounts of liquor for "older youngers" playing grownup -- all the illusions of maturity with the potency of rum raisin ice cream.
Back at the bar, the Moutons' training process took about 10 minutes -- mixing, pouring, and blending included. In the end, the misplaced Cajuns contentedly sipped their spice-dusted holiday drinks in the Menger's grand historic barroom, happy to have a little homestyle tradition in far-flung surroundings. Our illustrious barkeep tasted the smooth final product and after a moment, gave a slow nod of the head. "That's a good drink," he said slowly, "I'll have to remember that one for next year."
-- Pableaux Johnson
Chinese Food for American Jews
Rosh Hoshanah, the Jewish New Year, arrives with the birth of a new moon, sometime in early September. It's a day which Jews mark with celebration and traditional foods that suggest a sweet life, such as honey cake and apples. It's also a day that launches annual repentance. But should their recharged resolve weaken, Jews get a second chance on the first of the secular year to re-enlist in diet wars or to be a kindly neighbor, when they can finish the Chanukah wine and eat Chinese.
It might be nice to think that maybe Jews feel a cultural camaraderie with the Chinese people, who also celebrate their New Year on another day, and this might be the case for some of us. But, truth is, Jews have long nursed a year-round dependence on Chinese food. Almost any need we have for takeout is filled first by Chinese, on any date, but particularly on those dates when most other restaurants are closed, such as Easter, Christmas, and, yes, New Year's Day. Though more restaurants today open for the January 1 crowd, during my childhood business would boom at my family's neighborhood Chinese place on New Year's Day, as it would on the other "gift days." Like many American Jewish families, rather than strand ourselves in our homes with few options for dinner but canned soup, frozen pizza, or (God forbid!) home cooking, we made it a custom to eat Chinese when our Christian friends would have ham.
Still, as one might expect, there are more historically complex reasons for Jews' affinity for Chinese food. Scholars trace this culinary relationship to the roots laid down by immigrant Jews in New York, where they arrived en masse from Eastern Europe near the turn of the century. According to the recently published anthology The Taste of American Place, these Jews considered Chinese food cosmopolitan and themselves urbane and sophisticated for having taken to it. As the testimony goes, some weren't exactly smitten with their old homeland cuisine and became eager gourmands. But even to those who kept kosher, Chinese food seemed relatively safe; the food was chopped small and often masked by sauces and rice, and it didn't combine milk and meat, which the kosher diet prohibits. Also, Chinese food was somewhat familiar to Eastern European tastes, with its use of overcooked vegetables, sweet and sour flavors, wantons (which are similar to Jewish dumplings called kreplach), and hot tea. Generally, as new immigrants, Jews felt more at home in the Chinese restaurants than in the city's other ethnic haunts. Chinese restaurants -- unlike, say, Italian bistros -- were decidedly non-Christian; they did not constantly remind Jews of their religious marginality. In fact, Chinese food was a venue for Jews of different origins to forge a common identity, one based on what it was like to live in New York. This carried over to subsequent generations, even if they moved their families from the East Coast.
Over the years, Jews inherited a loyalty to Chinese food, though they became more socially acclimated and discovered more fashionable ways to eat. Some lenient kosher homes would stock separate dishes for dairy, meat, and take-out Chinese. Sometimes they'd cook from one of several kosher Chinese cookbooks, which are still some of the few ethnic kosher cookbooks around. And, ultimately, "going out for Chinese" became a very "Jewish" thing to do.
My family had our favorite Chinese place. It wasn't very good, mind you, just close to my parents' suburban Philadelphia home. However, like many Jews, we didn't require that Chinese food be at all spectacular. In fact, we'd easily settle for cheap, gloppy Cantonese -- what friends and I call "good/bad" Chinese. Besides, with our frequent culinary faux pas -- like me spreading hot mustard on an eggroll as if it were a ball park frank, like my sister eating her wantons with a fork, like my dad saturating his green tea with Sweet N' Low, and like my mom embarrassingly requesting "rice with brown sauce on the side" -- it's probably just as well. We weren't gourmet guests.
Still, for all our lack of sophistication, on New Year's Days when we'd stuff ourselves full of bowl-game chili, we'd still make a customary trip to the local Cantonese place. It was where my parents could discuss forecasts of snow and the projected winner of the Super Bowl with neighbors we'd see only there, and where my sister and I would do a check of bloodshot eyes to see who made the most of the night before. We'd bring gift cards to our hosts each New Year in thanks for their gracious service and for a comfortable gathering place. They'd hand us extra fortune cookies on our way out the door, and we would choose from among them our fate for the coming year.
-- Ronna N. Welsh
Last year, my Puerto Rican friends Marta and Carlos Guzman invited me to a New Year's celebration that included a stellar rendition of the national treasure arroz con pollo, savory rice and chicken studded with tangy olives, and a luscious libation called coquito. The rich tropical cousin to eggnog and milk punch, coquito is made with coconut milk and rum dusted with cinnamon, and it packs a profound, if velvety, wallop. I still haven't forgotten its decadent richness. During my research on New Year's traditions, I called Marta Guzman for more details about the holiday festivities on her native Caribbean isle and learned all about the outrageous tradition of las parrandas.
"During the holidays, everyone in Puerto Rico knows to keep groceries and party foods in the house in case of a parranda," she explained. "Parrandas are when a bunch of friends get together and go from house to house visiting, very late at night." The object of the progressive party is to make lots of joyful noise, eat several meals, drink plenty of rum, and gather more revelers in the group as the night progresses. According to Marta, the partiers arrive at someone's home laughing, honking horns, playing guitars, singing carols, and demanding to be invited inside for food and drinks. "You're supposed to give them hors d'oeuvres or chips and dips, maybe even make some arroz con giandules. And everybody drinks coquito and cuba libres. Then you get dressed and go with them to the next house." The last lucky host usually serves breakfast to the weary revelers. Evidently, many people are known to miss work as a result of this tradition.
I'm not sure how I'd react to being rousted out of bed to entertain a bunch of rowdy friends, but Marta assures me that it's a beloved custom played out mostly on holiday weekends starting in early December and likely to last until Twelfth Night in early January. When I asked her if she'd be going out on any parrandas while she's in Puerto Rico this weekend for her parent's 50th wedding anniversary, all she would say was, "I'm only going to be there four days, but you never know what will happen this time of year."
In Marta's childhood home, the Suarez family celebrated New Year's by eating 12 grapes at midnight to ensure financial security in each month of the coming year, though she's not sure if that's a Puerto Rican custom or one borne of her parents' Spanish Galician heritage. Regardless of the origin, eating prosperity grapes and sipping an elegant coquito at midnight sounds like a lovely way to welcome the newborn year. But no one should ever come to my house at 6am expecting a warm welcome or a hot meal.
Peas, Greens, Cornbread
Did you ever do something with absolute confidence for years and years, knowing full well that you're at the apex of the trend, only to find out later that you've been doing it all wrong? I've been eating black-eyed peas on New Year's Day for good luck and prosperity in the coming year all my life. The lack of prosperity in my life should have held portent ... I should have realized mistakes have been made! I had the peas for pennies part down pat. It was the foods for the big bucks that were my shortcoming.
All this hubbub about certain foods and rituals on New Year's Day for luck and bucks in the year to come originated in China (more on that in a future article, re: the Lunar New Year), but trickled down to us Southerners by way of Britain and their concept of the "First Footing." The Brits brought it over in the old days, and we adapted it (with a little African influence) to suit our needs.
In the British Isles, the procedure is multi-faceted, beginning with the burning of a kept piece of coal, which has absorbed all manner of bad mojo from the previous year. All the windows of the house are thrown open at midnight, and pots and pans are banged loudly to scare out any residual bad luck that might have accumulated during the year. And, as with the Chinese, lights or candles are burned in every room all night long to ward off the spirits of the dark. The clincher is that the first step over your threshold after midnight (or the next morning) sets the tone for your luck in the coming year. For that reason, that first foot should belong to a person of unusual good luck: a new bride, a new mother, an especially handsome man or woman, the preacher, anyone born on January 1, or a tall, dark man. This person also bears the piece of coal to be placed on the mantle for bad mojo absorption in the coming year, and in return is entitled to copious amounts of food, drink, and kisses. Prominent first-footers were in great demand, and would make the rounds from house to house, quaffing and kissing aplenty.
In the South, our forefathers figured out that the window thing was a good idea -- fling them open, keep the lights on, and let bad spirits fly. We now use fireworks instead of the banging of pots and pans to scare away those devils and doppelgängers. But the food thing is where the African influence came in. Black-eyed peas originated in Asia -- they were eaten in India as long as 3,000 years ago -- and were a staple of ancient Greece and Rome and Africa. They were introduced to the U.S. through the African slave trade. The traditional African-American dish for New Year's Day was Hoppin' John, a blend of black-eyed peas, pork, and rice. (Some experts attribute the name to the custom of inviting guests over -- "Hop in, John" -- or an old ritual in which the children of the house hopped once around the table for luck before eating the dish). In large areas of the South, Hoppin' John is still the de rigeuer dish of choice. But in most areas, black-eyed peas in any form are acceptable.
Black-eyed peas won't bring wealth in the new year by themselves, however; it's the combination of foods that brings the big bucks. The basic rule seems to be: "Peas for Pennies, Greens for Dollars, and Cornbread for Gold." My mom told me that when she was a child in East Texas, you were supposed to place a heads-up penny under your bowl of black-eyed peas to turbo-charge the luck of the peas. The greens can be of any persuasion -- cabbage, collards, mustard, beet, kale -- as long as they're green to represent paper money (and in Georgia, it's important to drink some of the potliker as well). The cornbread connection to the color of gold is obvious, and there's no better way to sop up the juices of the previous two dishes than a steaming slab of hot, buttered pone. In years past, I've always made my cornbread with white cornmeal, but since comparing that color to white gold or platinum might be a stretch, I'll be using yellow cornmeal on January 1 from now on.
So this year on New Year's Day, you can guaran-damn-tee that I'll be seated squarely behind a veritable groaning board of black-eyed peas (with a penny underneath), greens and cabbage (with a chug of potliker), and bright, golden cornbread. I'm leaving nothing to chance. The windows, lights, coal, first stepper, fireworks will all be in order. I will eat to a point just short of explosion, sit back, and wait for the luck and bucks to come rolling on in.
-- Mick Vann
COOKING BLACK-EYED PEAS
Salting the cooking liquid for dried black-eyed peas slows the cooking time and toughens the peas; add it later or don't use salt at all (I use rich chicken stock to cook mine). Simmer, don't boil. Boiling makes the pot overflow, makes the peas fall apart, and causes the skins to separate from the peas. For the softest peas, cover the pot while cooking and add a little oil if you're not adding fatback, saltpork, ham, or bacon. To reduce flatulence, change the soaking water twice during the soaking process and once after the peas have simmered for about 30 minutes. One pound of dried peas equals about 21/2 cups of uncooked peas, or about 51/2 to 61/2 cups cooked. Be sure to pick through the dried peas first to remove any dirt clods or pebbles. And remember, no self-respecting Yankee would ever eat a black-eyed pea; they consider them to be fit only for fattening up cattle. Go figure! -- M.V.
I decided to write about New Year's traditions in Ireland as an excuse to get back in touch with my old friend Ciaran McAleer, a freckle-faced, ginger-haired boy from the North that I met while studying at the University of Glasgow in Scotland. I suspected that I already knew what Ciaran would tell me in his singsong-y voice when I tracked him down:"Well, we all get pissed, you know, and then run around the town and drink some more and maybe have a curry. The next day, we watch telly and pop ourselves open a Guinness if we aren't too ill."
But I was off the mark. Ciaran was as singsong-y as ever, and he did mention Guinness a few times, but he was adamant about steering me clear of his own country's practices. "No, no, no, you've got it all wrong -- see, it's the Scottish that have New Year's sewed up. In fact, Scotland has world domination when it comes to New Year's: Robbie Burns, the National Poet of Scotland, wrote the song, and it's them with the traditions. They invented Hogmany!"
This said, he passed the phone to his Scottish girlfriend Anne as it started to come flooding back to me.
Of course. We've all sung "Auld Lang Syne" a million times, and I've even studied the Scottish dialect that makes a simple song about remembering old times with old friends so confusing. But I wasn't in Scotland at New Year's and all I could recall was a holiday called Pancake Day when classes were canceled and we spent that time sitting eating crêpes sprinkled with lemon juice and sugar -- a better than average day if you ask me. However, I needed a refresher on Hogmany.
"Hogmany -- the 31st of December -- used to be more important in Scotland than Christmas, you know. People would make a big fuss then and not a lot at Christmas, but that was in more pagan times, really," laughed Anne.
"On the night of the 31st, chimes ring at midnight. This is called 'the bells.' After the bells, everybody does what we call the 'first footing.'
"The first footing is when everybody goes around and visits their neighbors. You're supposed to take them a bit of cake or a lump of coal, and it's unlucky to go into somebody's house unless you've got some kind of present for them.
"The best thing that can happen to you on Hogmany is if the first foot in your house belongs to a tall, dark, stranger. That's supposed to be incredibly good luck.
"As for our personal traditions, my mother's is that just before midnight on Hogmany she empties all the bins. She thinks it unlucky to have any rubbish in the house when the bells go.
"But all in all, the holiday is a great affair for family and friends. The next day, we all get together and eat steak pie for lunch. Of course, it's also a drinking time. The hugest."
In the course of further research about Hogmany, I read that it is indeed a time for wee drams, and also Het Pints, a combination of ale, nutmeg, and whisky. The drams and the Het Pints undoubtedly generate another traditional activity that Anne didn't mention, sparked when the bells ring at midnight: lots and lots of kissing in the streets.
Glasgow and Edinburgh have hugely popular Hogmany festivals for which people need to reserve tickets in advance, but kissing and visiting neighbors are the most common activities, perhaps because the original activities that the holiday revolved around sound so silly now. For instance, Hogmany was originally in celebration of the solar divinity called Hogmagog. That explains why it was bigger than Christmas -- the original revelers weren't Christians.
This is speculation on my part, but a celebration for a solar divinity was probably a celebration of light. And before the age of electric lights, people living at Scotland's latitude would probably go to any length to get light back into their lives in the beginning of January; if I remember correctly, at this time of year the sun rises around 9am and has left the sky by 3:30pm.
Ancient Hogmany activities included lighting bonfires and throwing blazing torches, but the most interesting custom involved people dressing in the hides of cattle and running through their villages, being whacked with sticks. I couldn't figure out the origin of that one, but after a Het Pint or two and a series of wee drams, it might sound like a good idea to anyone, especially someone with a spare cow suit lying around.
For the most part, the Scottish have narrowed the scope of their Hogmany celebration to be less paganistic. However, they still make it a point to bring in the New Year by focusing on some of the important things in life: good friends, good drinks, good kisses, good luck, and the fond remembrance of days gone by.
-- Meredith Phillips