Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Their First Eggnog

Every year on Christmas day, after piling the coats on the day bed in the study at Mamy Durandeau's house, I would cross the black and white marble tiled hall and go back into her little kitchen and offer to help. Several consecutive years, I touched the curved banister on the way through the hall and made a point of it. It was as if I was creating Christmas ritual of my own. Every year aunts and uncles wrapped in threadbare aprons would bustle about me and push around me and say everything was taken care of. Every year I would retreat into the living room and find Loic's cousins in their places.

We would sit and patiently wait for Yves to wheel the apero cart into the room. The drinks would all be poured, kirs - peach, cassis, or plain champagne, then everyone would sit in a circle around the room and wait until just the precise moment to take a sip. The platters of little baked things and olives would begin to make the rounds, going round and round until they were empty.

Everyone always sat at the same place at the dinner table, so the transfer was always a fluid affair. The dishes, the decor, menu were always identical. The only things that changed were the years of the wines and the flavor of the buche. These subtle changes in detail always were the point of departure for the conversation, which never strayed far.

I admit, after the first magic Christmas, the rigidity of the ritual in the following years seemed monotonous or even spooky, a little bit like being in the twilight zone, reliving the same day over and over again. For nine years we replayed the same scene. But as I settled into my place at the table, tasting that delicious langouste tail with the velvety light touch of tarragon in the hand whisked mayonnaise sauce, it began to grow on me. While I put little pieces of foie gras little by little to a slice of toasted brioche, making them last the same amount of time, I would think about years past and enjoy the sight of Mamy across the table from me. A sip of Gewurtz. The sun would sparkle in the jelly from one precise angle, the wine would marry with the flavors, Mamy's parakeets hopping from perch to perch in the sun on the window sill. I watched her gnarled hand place the knife just so on its little stand, I came to anticipate it, to wait, to breathe and watch her do it again. I took comfort in the repetition after a few years, and began to feel feel a curious pull of my heartstrings if things wavered from tradition.

Last year, Mamy moved to a retirement home. There was no chapon. There were no langouste tails with lemon wedges from the garden. Mamy came to dinner, sitting as a guest at Brigitte's table. The meal had taken on a strange new tone at Loic's parents' house. The seats at the table were mixed up. Some people didn't come, new guests were invited. A draft was blowing through the room. The light was different. Fred left early, to join her boyfriend's family. Brigitte had chosen to do a dish involving pineapple and crab. The bouche was covered with polka dots! Was it Christmas? Sure. Looking around, anyone could tell it was Christmas.

I was deeply touched by the loss of Mamy's Christmas dinner, but shrugged it off. She seemed quite happy to take whisky instead of kir, and ate the crab and pineapple dish on her plate as heartily and any robust 95 year old would. Not a word was spoken about this drastic change in tradition. Our conversations changed a bit, since we had new table neighbors, and new voices filled the void. Young cousins that had been children were now taking their place at the table, joining in the conversation.

I realized after some reflection that Brigitte had stirred everything up for a reason. Mamy Durandeau needed to know that her move to the retirement home nearby had changed everything for all of us. Christmas dinner cannot so easily be transplanted. The flavor combination from a magazine recipe and the energetic rattling loose of long held rituals was necessary. It was meant to contrast against our memories of the langouste with velvety sauce, foie gras, and chapon that we all knew. It was a loving message to her mother: Mamy's dinner, Mamy's home, Mamy's beautiful Christmas ritual, bathed in sun, overlooking the harbor, cannot be replaced. Like the mimosa and lemon trees blooming and fruiting in her garden, they stayed at her empty house last year.

Just like Loic now cherishes Christmas memories with bow ties, langouste, foie gras and chapon, the never ending story of the ever changing bouche de noel, the kirs and nuts, the platter of 13 desserts, I have my own memories. Memories of traditions I don't want to leave behind. I told Loic about them after the first snowfall at the country house. In years past I could not talk about them, I don't know why. I just clammed up, afraid to let any of it out. At first he didn't think it was a good idea. Our own celebration?

I remember rituals and traditions from snowy central New York. A silhouette of my father's towering form hauling in the tree across the wood planks of our front porch. Maple sugar on snow, hot cider, big red sleds down the Murray's hill, having our own creche made from salt dough. The carols, skating on the pond by Meadowbrook Park. Candy canes, special holiday stories and poems, cookies, popcorn and cranberries on string. An enormous tree that smells just so, skiing, hot cocoa, listening to the old music box while shaking presents under the tree. Settling down warm and cozy after a day trundling through the snow to quietly think and dream and watch the sparkling lights. The ornaments were mismatched, each with a story of its own. Shadows made beautiful shapes on the ceiling at the house where I grew up. Will my children ever know memories like these?

We discussed how children might eventually change the formula. How we might balance it out, ensure that traditions from both sides be honored, discussed the intricacies of attempting to include as much of our extended family as we can while creating our own mix of traditions. Like stockings instead of shoes. Like maybe adding cookies to the 13 desserts platter. Like candycanes on the tree. Presents from Santa Claus. Eggnog. Yes, Eggnog!

This year, since the baby hasn't come yet, we are again at his childhood home. I decided though, to introduce eggnog to his family, their first. Elise's recipe at Simply Recipes worked quite well as a good base, although I did add more Rum than was called for and increased the cinnamon and cloves. I loved the way it thickened up when chilled. It is a recipe to be doubled, and noted in your kitchen notebook! Stick to your guns, don't give in when Seb says it would taste good flavored with mint, or served over lime sherbet!


yield: 6 servings

4 egg yolks
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 cups milk
Pinch of cinnamon
2 whole cloves
1 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
3/4 cup good rum (6 oz.)

Put the 2 cups milk, the cinnamon and cloves on to heat in a saucepan until hot and steamy but not boiling (you might opt to add 1/2 a vanilla bean at this point into the milk and skip the extract later). While it heats, put the yolks in a bowl with the sugar. Whisk for a couple of minutes, until the mixture turns pale and fluffy. When the milk is hot, turn the heat to very low, and pour half of the hot milk into the bowl with the beaten egg yolks. Whisk the yolks and hot milk until fully incorporated, then transfer the egg yolks and milk back into the saucepan with the remaining hot milk. Stir over low heat with a wooden spoon until the mixture thickens enough to coat the spoon. This can take a while, be patient. Do not turn up the heat and do not let the mixture boil, because it will scramble the eggs. Once it thickens, remove from heat, add the heavy cream, vanilla, and rum. Run through a strainer (to remove the cloves) and funnel into a wine bottle. Let cool, then refrigerate for at least one hour. The drink will thicken nicely when chilled, and the flavors will mellow. Serve cold. Omit the rum for kid friendly eggnog.



Blogger Don McNulty said...

Merry Christmas and a Happy and Healthy New Year.

7:03 PM, December 24, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sweet, Lucy. Joyeux Noël!

9:14 PM, December 24, 2008  
Blogger ArneSalvesen said...

Your own Christmas? Are you mad? :-) We experienced the exact same trepidations when Janine & I hosted our first family Christmas dinner. Once the ice was broken, it made it easier for others to do the same. Tomorrow, my Danish sister-in-law will be adding her traditions to the mix ... along with a smoked turkey from yours truly!

We're having your New York Christmas this year. There's over a foot of snow on the ground now, and another foot yet to fall! Very unusual for Vancouver.

From Janine & I, to you and Loic, we raise a Communard and wish you the very happiest of Christmas's.

9:59 PM, December 24, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is so nice to hear of the union and the melding of Christmas cultures and traditions. I will always cherish the memories of laying on the olive green carpet and watching "cartoons" on the ceiling in our nightgowns, of Mamas's russian tea and the cake from Snowflake Bakery. The snow this year in CNY is crazy, like when we were kids. I wish for one more ride on the red plasic sled. We didn't have lobster but we made great music at the dinner table.
Love, YS

11:50 PM, December 24, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Beautiful. It is sometime hard to start a new tradition, but we all have to do it and it always is what you make it: Wonderful!

11:52 PM, December 24, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a beautiful post (as always) Lucy! I'll hold down some Upstate NY holiday traditions for you this year, but next year you're on your own ;-) Merry Christmas! May it be full of beauty and light.

4:08 PM, December 25, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So well written-you really captured the magic of the family traditions. A very Merry Christmas to you!

5:01 PM, December 25, 2008  
Blogger "Diva" said...

Brava! My Italian story is similar, repetitive meals at family for holidays. last year we were uninvited at the last minute. Family has changed, Andrea's brother is a grandfather now- and they have let their son take over the holidays and we were not included in the "new" family. When the matriarchs go- so does tradition and like you we are now creating our own!
Buon Natale Lucy!

11:26 PM, December 25, 2008  
Blogger Connie said...

Family traditions, especially around Christmas are so interesting- I love hearing about how everyone makes the holiday their own. But its also good to change it up a bit. Glad everyone liked the homemade eggnog- that truly is the best

2:47 PM, December 26, 2008  
Blogger Slippery Rock said...

As we walked to our car on Christmas night, I took part in my annual Christmas night ritual. I start at my parents house and work around Circle Road saying out loud the families that used to live there. I always end with the Sellars at 117. For a brief moment, you, Frodo, Serena, Reed, Lisa, your Mom and Dad and even Scuttles, the crazy barking dog, are there. It's a bittersweet reality when I realize time has passed. Just for a moment, you and I are on that red plastic sled, careening down the hill for the ride of our lives. We laugh and scream at the same time as we hit the wall and go sailing thru the air. We land in a pile of cold and fluffy snow. We look back up to the top of the hill and begin the climb. Another ride? Wouldn't miss it for the world. Love you, sister. Clare

4:01 PM, December 27, 2008  
Blogger Unknown said...

As usual, I find your posts so beautifully written. Indeed, families grow and change - it makes sense that traditions would alter as well. When we had our daughter, we found we kept some long-time traditions during the holidays...yet others we didn't keep up...and we made new ones.

Egg nog with lime sherbert? For heaven's sake, that's downright blasphemous. I'll stick to my guns...could never give in to that suggestion.

7:04 PM, December 27, 2008  
Blogger Christine said...

Your beautifully written, thought-filled post is helping me through a rather hard time. This Christmas is the first that both my husband and I have not been surrounded by family. Sure, we spent Christmas eve dinner with friends, and Christmas day dinner with other friends, all in our neighborhood, but the parents, aunts and uncles who raised us are gone and this year all of our children, now grown and married, spent Christmas with their spouses' families, some a continent away. Indeed, new traditions must be forged, folding in loving memories of those which have passed. Thank you, Lucy. And Merry Christmas.

9:01 PM, December 27, 2008  
Blogger christine said...

We made the transition a few years ago too as the grandparents ended up in a nursing home. It was weird.

I like the way you introduced eggnog. I hadn't thought of that! I think I might try it next year (no mint of course).

11:39 AM, December 29, 2008  
Blogger Sara said...

Everything looks really amazing - I'm the only person in my family that likes eggnog!

5:22 AM, December 30, 2008  
Blogger breadchick said...

Lucy, I loved the post about your separate Christmas traditions growing up and how you have adapted to the new traditions.

May you and yours have a very happy and healthy New Year.

6:05 AM, January 01, 2009  
Blogger Katie Zeller said...

What a wonderful tribute to tradition! They can be hard to maintain as life and circumstances change. Introducing new ones is both scary and wonderful.
Happy New Year!

5:10 PM, January 01, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A lovely post Lucy!! I'm all for traditions AND change. We need them to cherish and one to make us grow...loved reading this!

4:25 PM, January 10, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

We've always done it with lime sherbert. I always thought it was just my Cuban family attempting to improve recipes for their tastebuds. I think it's great.

10:41 PM, January 13, 2010  
Blogger L Vanel said...

Alright then, we'll try it!

10:57 PM, January 13, 2010  

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