I’m in a kitchen somewhere, holding a crystal glass; it weighs as light as a feather. Inside it is a complex, aged French champagne (tastes like running through a sun-parched meadow at dawn, after climbing out of a bed of unblemished silk). I’m in a wrap of some kind, maybe a floral embroidered shawl I picked up from Japan, stitched in hues of light and dark magenta, hints of silver laden between the bands. My hair is up, lush and full of volume; it’s not pasted to my face from hours spent over the hot stove. My makeup is clean and simple, yet striking.
I mill around the stations, gazing at a few platters of hors d’oeuvres receiving garnishments: a little dill on the salmon, a little chive on the egg. I thank the chefs for helping make tonight so special.
The room outside is filled with people of whom I am so enamored, my feet catch on the rug as I enter the room and again take stock of who’s shown up. C’s in the corner, talking to someone’s husband about a mutual interest in watches, or boxing. C loves the dinners, but he isn’t really psyched about entertaining. He’d rather have another cozy night by the fire; he knows that these occasions are good for me to stay plugged in to the industry, however. Even whilst remaining at home I still get to do my favorite thing ever, which is serve people some great food and drinks. The eggs came from our chickens. The chèvre from our goats. We get to stay on our own turf, end the party when we want to, and sleep in our own warm bed at the end of the night.
The small gaggle of attendees take turns telling stories, sharing illuminating life lessons, and confessing the wildest dreams they have for their future. I feel inspired by the entire night; each moment that passes is a new discovery. Nights like this make me feel alive.
If you rolled your eyes during any point of that, congratulations: you would be among the people with whom I once shared my childhood fantasies, who then in turn laughed heartily in my face. Back then, the pictures were less refined (“I want a big house”; “I want to be famous”), and featured a more limited world. I knew nothing about different cultures, languages, or even other countries back then. I had no reason to care; America was as big as the world could possibly be.
Growing up, food gatherings for me were called “potlucks”; mostly occurring at churches and family members’ homes, with the occasional wedding or birth announcement, or the men returning home from their annual hunting trip out on the deer lease. That smell of venison stewed in a crock pot. Normal Texas stuff.
I remember our southern buffet-style meals for the holidays: each family would bring a few dishes to round out the spread, be it for Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, or Fourth of July. My mom would bring green bean casserole (cream of onion soup baked with green beans and garnished with fried onions, my favorite), or, when I was little, she would bake these apple dumplings made with 7up and crescent roll dough. They would be gone so fast, you’d have to stand next to the dessert table when she took off the foil to be sure you got a few.
There would be years of discovery, like when my Aunt Mel decided to roast the turkey at her place for the first time, and my cousin Megan and I discovered the soppy, fat-infused under-pieces of the bird swimming at the bottom of the pan we dubbed the “juicy-juicy”. There were also longstanding traditions that I miss now that they’re gone, namely my Mimi’s layered coconut cake displayed on an ornate glass pedestal in the middle of a sea of plates and casseroles. Each year it tasted better and better, as my palate matured. I feel like if I could eat it now, I’d appreciate it so much more.
Without wanting to unpack too many holiday memories into one post (it is still November as I’m writing this to you), I thought I’d give a brief, yet giddy window into the new world of holiday excitement that I find myself in, comparing it to a few bits of my childhood Christmases in Texas.
A week or so ago, seemingly overnight, pallet trucks appeared all over the city, parked on the cobblestone walkways of the major common areas, loaded with deconstructed wooden buildings and kiosks that were unloaded day by day, and finished in the blink of an eye. Completely out of my observation was the hoisting of the Christmas light wreaths on every block along the major roads, so unexpected to me that I jumped when they all blinked on last week as I walked home from the gym. We live in the city center, so my walk was a sparkling tunnel of Christmas joy up steep inclines, across the large bridge and past the supermarket absolutely covered in dazzlingly brilliant icicle lights swaying in the late fall breeze, looking into shop windows who had now put out their own Christmas displays. One in particular, a fabric shop, featured a chorus of singing, dancing animatronic gophers in holiday sweaters.
I did my due diligence and cooked a Thanksgiving meal for two, having to go to a special butcher in town to find a turkey breast for the occasion (turkey is not so much of a thing here—Pigeons? Escargots? No problem). I then made a casserole of the best stinking dressing I have ever tasted, made from pork sausage with fresh sage, celery, oven-toasted cubes of french bread, and a boat load of butter and chicken stock. We ate on it for three days, happily.
The morning following my first Swiss Thanksgiving, it was like an invisible holiday switch had flipped on in Europe. Although Thanksgiving is an American holiday and not celebrated here, the concept of Black Friday has taken hold in a big way. Businesses everywhere, large and small, all pasted BLACK FRIDAY SALE (in English) across their storefronts; the streets were flush with shoppers. I went to the gym in the middle of the day, normally a time when it can be difficult to find a spot for your mat. But there I found an eerie silence and trainers standing around, twiddling their thumbs. The holiday season had officially begun. Diets everywhere had caved under the weight of this magical season.
Christmas lights were never a scarce commodity back in my hometown. There was always a house or two in each neighborhood that spent most of November emptying their attic out onto the front lawn, plugging everything in the day after Thanksgiving and drawing so much power from the whole block, the houses looked like they would be visible from space. Later on when my sister and I had to return for Christmas, her from her different schools and I from Nashville, we would all take a carriage ride together through the affluent neighborhood of Highland Park in Dallas to view the mesmerizing light displays and the awe-inspiring architecture of the million-dollar homes. A big part of Christmas in America, for me, was viewing them out of the window of a car. Whether we were in my dad’s Armada or my grandmother’s Suburban, the displays were an attraction you had to travel to. Everything, especially in Texas, is just too far apart.
Now, living in this small city, everything is close enough to walk to, or you can hop on the bus for a few Francs, and step off when you’re there, easy-peasy. There’s a bus stop on virtually every corner. Here, I feel I’ve been dropped into the middle of a snow globe, or inside a porcelain Christmas village display that’s come to life. The city center is now alive with holiday spirit: you pass through the Christmas market to get to Globus, or see a new window display each day while running errands in the old village. In a part of town I call the Vegan District (health food shops, the jazz college, and various hipster watering holes), the largest market has now been erected, including a giant white igloo with a roaring fire inside, which serves steaming bowls of hot, bubbly fondue. There are Belgian waffle stands, Italian ragu with polenta vendors, and a hollowed-out black train engine converted into a makeshift smoker, selling chestnuts roasted freshly inside.
C and I milled through the market on the first full Saturday it was open, nothing to do but be curious and see what was available for the tasting. We walked through the market at St. François and proceeded down the hill toward the Vegan District, stopping short when we came to a pergola with 6 or 7 different French food vendors underneath. The first things I saw were the oysters. Clean, blue-gray shells of various shapes and sizes sleeping in whicker baskets. A young couple behind the counter, shuckers in hand, eying us expectantly as we made our way over to them. C always gets this look in his eye when he’s feeling adventurous about food. It’s a tiny sparkle that he throws my way, that lets me know I’m in for a treat. He scans the 6 different baskets and looks at the seller:
“On va en prendre deux de chaque, s'il vous plait.”
We will have two of each, please.
He turns to me and asks what kind of wine I want, and I ask for a clean, mineral-tasting white. I notice that they have the same white wine that we bought for our fondue the week before.
We take our platter over to a high table and stand there, sampling different oysters from England, Belgium, and France and sipping cool wine in the fresh afternoon air. I breath out, lifted. C disappears for a moment as I sing along quietly to “September” playing over the loudspeaker, trying my hardest not to start dancing. I turn around, and C’s at another kiosk speaking to an older gentleman, who is pouring two smaller glasses of golden-colored liquid and passing them off to my fiancé, with a new plate of goodies. He makes it back to the table, bearing gifts of Sauternes (a luscious, aged sweet wine from France), which is the perfect pairing for the toasted squares of bread topped with slices of fois gras he has placed between us. I gaze at C with eyes full of excitement. Like a kid at Christmas.
I remember most often being the last one in the house to go to sleep. I was such a night owl; it was possible that I still had too many unexplored thoughts in my head needing to be rifled through. The holidays brought many late nights even after being let out on vacation from school. When my family were asleep, I would sneak downstairs in the stillness, sit cross-legged on the carpet, and look up at the grand tree in our living room adorned with thick red ribbon and bows; gold ornaments and frosted berries on branches; and a beautiful little animatronic angel at the very top. I would sit and listen to the tiny creak of its wings as it breathed and flew, wondering about everything and nothing, feeling the glow of the lights on my skin and the joy that something so special, so celebrated and cherished, could happen every year. It filled me with dreams. It made me feel alive.
C looked at me as I held the glass of Sauternes to my chest, gazing upwards at nothing in particular.
“Are you happy?” He asked me, already knowing the answer. I replied,
“It’s like how I’ve always imagined it, ever since I was little.”