Le dîner du reveillon / Christmas (or New Year’s) Dinner
First of all, a shout-out to the editors of WordPress who chose my round-up of Parisian street-art to feature on Freshly Pressed this week. They couldn’t have given this geek a nicer Christmas present. And a hearty welcome to all the new readers!
I’m going to take a (wordy) moment away from street art — which I will start writing on again very soon — and put up another post about food: the French tradition of the “dîner de reveillon”, a family meal held most importantly on Christmas Eve, but also on New Year’s Eve. This post is two days late for Christmas, but hey, better late than never. I’ve only had the delight of experiencing a dîner de reveillon three or four times, since most of my time in France has been in the summer, but it’s not an experience you forget; it’s the highlight of the French culinary year.
In the weeks leading up to Christmas, “qu’est-ce que vous mangez cette année [what will you eat this year]?” is a lengthily discussed question. As we all know the French care a great deal about food and variety of food, which is reflected in the great range of possible reveillon dishes (hence the long conversations debating what to make). I’m a fan both of this mindset and the traditional hours-long meals in which eating is slow and talk is fast and you take your time even more than usual since part of the point is often to stay awake. (“Réveillon” comes from “réveiller,” “to wake up,” a reference to the fact that French Catholics traditionally attended midnight mass in large numbers until very recently – it’s still popular even among non-believers – and to the fact that one stays up past midnight on New Year’s Eve.)
In America, Christmas dinner tends to be relatively simple, if long to prepare: typically, a few set traditonal dishes like turkey or ham; some kind of vegetable, probably yam (sometimes with the delicious marshmellows on top); a casserole or two; mashed potatoes with gravy; cranberry sauce; and, very importantly, more dessert that you could possibly eat in a week (pies! so many pies! and crumbles/crisps and cakes and and and). For example, here’s a photo of a good chunk of the tasty and traditional Christmas dinner I had last night with my American family on the east coast:
I’ve found that, though one of my American aunts cooks things like jumbalaya and pot roast when the cooking falls to her, there is, in general, not much variation across anglo-white American families regarding Christmas/Christmas Eve dinners (which closely resemble traditional Thanksgiving dinner).
[ETA: My friend Julie has pointed out to me, quite rightly, the dangers of even implying that there is a typical American, even an anglo one. She points out that traditional holiday dishes vary wildly by region and ethnic descent. My friend Renée points out that it’s probably more about individual families (certain families, not all of them) holding onto whatever seems traditional to them – I think that’s probably about right. My experience of America is of course limited mostly to the American side of my family, which is vast enough that traditions differ somewhat, though in our instance the meat-potatoes-cranberry type meal I described above tends to hold pretty steady. Anyway! I just wanted to give a disclaimer, and amend this to agree with both the idea that the idea of talking about a typical American – or a typical anything, really – is problematic, and that the cultural difference I’m seeing is probably one of attitude towards how to keep food traditions rolling. Alrighty. Disclaimer over; back to your regularly scheduled post!]
In France, however, things are very different. Culinary traditions are certainly in play – notably those of foie gras, champagne, smoked salmon, and the dessert bûche de noël (the yule log; see the photo at the top of the post). However, one of the main goals of the dîner de revieillon is not just to have luxury foods you normally couldn’t afford (lots of foie gras, snails, oysters, etc), but also to try out fancy recipes. It’s the time when you go all-out on the preparation; it’s the time for the cook to test his/her so-important cooking skills, to show off, to dazzle the family. There’s also an element of fashion; certain foods, especially main dishes, fall in and out of it year by year, and there are an enormous number of main dishes in the rotation, which is ever-broadening.
The dîner de reveillon is thus profoundly different from what I’m calling the traditional American (meaning white/Anglo American) holiday meal. Turkey (“dinde”) is served at times, but it’s largely gone out of fashion. Poultry is by no means the only type of main course served, but the French serve an amazing variety of it, from goose to chicken to duck to partridge to cornish hens to things I don’t even know the English names of. (I’m told a few years ago there was an ostrich fad – I assume ostrich counts as poultry.) This year the fashion in poultry seems to be roast goose, and – as it was in 2000, the last time I had reveillon dîner – roast capon:
A far wider variety of main dishes exist other than poultry, as I said. Another fashion this year is salmon steak (in part because people are trying to save money given the economic crisis), but if you troll the internet for serving ideas you come across innumerable dishes, both newfangled and old-fashioned. An old standby, for instance, is tournedos rossini, a filet mignon topped with a slice of fresh foie gras and garnished with truffles:
Meats/game comes in an amazing variety, though, and the French seem to always be searching for new things to try (not just in terms of meat, but here I’m talking about meat). My French friend JM showed me a picture this week of a store shelf in France upon which was being sold, among other things, zebra and kangaroo (I am not joking, though I doubt they’ll catch on). Lamb, rabbit and venison are more established standbys:
Seafood is an element of the dîner de reveillon that is strikingly absent from any traditional anglo-American holiday dinner I’ve ever been to. First we have the requisite smoked salmon:
This is pretty much a necessity at every réveillon meal, like the foie gras and the bûche (though the bûche can be supplemented, and in sad cases even supplanted, by something like vacherin, a meringue-y iced cream cake). Another very common starter or “entrée” – Americans use that word backwards from a French p.o.v. – is a plate of oysters:
Then there are often filets of fish in some sort of fancy sauce, baked fish, crustaceans (generally expensive ones like lobster, since as I said part of the point is to go all out, to splurge). A big favorite is “coquilles saint jacques”, or scallops:
But back to foie gras, which I’ve mentioned too often not to address more specifically. Whatever you may think of foie gras and how it’s produced, it holds enormous importance in French culture. Last week, at the Monoprix grocery store nearest my place in Paris, the foods most notably being sold in bulk were chocolate/candies (traditional Christmas gifts between adults), champagne (wine is consumed in great quantities but champagne is all-important) and more types of foie gras than I knew existed.
This is a huge section for a store the size of that Monoprix, which should give you an idea of the cultural importance of foie gras. (On a side note, foie gras is far cheaper in France than in the States, so people aren’t generally shelling out $50 for a 3 oz tin unless they’re after buying a snooty brand name; it’s not seen as an elite food the way it is here, though it’s not an everyday food either.) The stuff is prepared in a wide variety of ways, from being pan-seared to spread on toast to tossed with green salad. Foie gras, according to the way I was raised and everything I see around me in France during the Christmas period, is simply not an option during the holidays (unless, of course, you’re vegetarian/vegan – which it’s not easy to be in France, where vegetables are traditionally served in copious quantities at every meal and salad is a must, but not eating meat is practically inconceivable). Foie gras is the celebratory food to end all foods. I don’t think it’s too much to say that many, if not most, French people treat it as a sort of art form (even more than other foods, already an art); certainly a lot of people have strong feelings about the proper way to prepare/serve it, because of its importance. Foie gras is the one culinary Christmas thing that my mother and I try to keep the tradition of here in the US, when we can obtain it without paying an arm and a leg (rare, given the import laws and tariffs).
(Note: Fashion or tradition has it that you’re supposed to eat foie gras with Sauternes wine, but a good French friend tells me that this is snobbery as Sauternes is very expensive, and that any good rich red will do. I must admit to not being up on my wines.)
This is getting very long, and props to you foodies who have made it this far. I will go back to street art very soon, but Christmas brings up food to everyone and perhaps the French even more than most. So, despite my enjoyment of my American Christmas Eve and Christmas dinners, I will go daydream of saumon fumé and coquilles saint-jacques and salade au foie gras and feuilletés (flaky pastry dishes) and patés and vacherins and confiseries (candies/chocolate) and the oh so beloved bûche de noël…which I need to learn to make. If you’ve got a recipe, I’d love for you to send it my way! And happy holidays to all, whichever you may celebrate – and for those of you who have already celebrated them, may they have been full of joy.