13 Ways to Celebrate Christmas

 Madame Renoir pulled out a tray full of Calisson d’Aix cookies. “I have much still from the réveillon,” she said, indicating the pale oval cookies. “You are familiar, yes?”

Maggie nodded. “The réveillon. That’s the thirteen desserts, right? The ones everyone eats on Christmas Eve?”

Exactement. Before the Mass. They symbolize Christ and his apostles. It is a Provençal tradition.”

“I see you’ve got a lot left over.”

Madame Renoir placed the tray of iced cookies on the counter. “The people of St-Buvard care little for traditions,” she said, frowning. “They will eat the cookies for the…little snacks, yes? Not for the purpose I am baking them. You understand?”

—-Excerpt from “Murder à la Carte

If you’re from Louisiana, you’ve likely heard of a French tradition that happens at Christmastime called the réveillon, which is a long dinner, or sometimes a party, held on Christmas Eve after midnight mass. The word réveil means “waking” which is appropriate since the dinner involves staying awake until midnight…and beyond. The reason you might have heard of this tradition in the States is because it’s still observed in New Orleans at various restaurants that offer special réveillon menus on Christmas Eve.

36849922In Provence, the réveillon is seven separate courses plus thirteen different desserts, which is totally my kind of tradition. Some sources say  les enfants are not allowed to have a single bite of dessert until they can name each one correctly. The number thirteen has to do with the number of apostles plus Jesus at the Last Supper. (The réveillon is also connected to Easter with some folks saying the Christmas Eve feast is a lead up to Mardi Gras before nose-diving into Lent and, traditionally, fasting and sacrifice.)

I loved using the réveillon in the Maggie Newberry mystery, above, first because one of the main characters in that book was a baker and the timing was Christmas. It would have been weird, especially in a small rural village, not to mention the réveillon. Besides, the tradition is so layered and visual, it was a delight to describe it and so, experience it.

Okay, what are these essential thirteen desserts that kick off Christmas and take us all the way to Easter?

Voilà mes amis, I give you, the réveillon!

  1. The pompe à l’huile is a flat bread flavored with orange blossom and brown sugar. (Some people believe cutting the bread (as opposed to breaking it as Jesus did at the Last Supper) brings the risk of bankruptcy in the new year. So watch yourself.
  2. Two kinds of nougats, white and black, representing good and evil.
  3. Hazelnuts which represent St. Augustin
  4. Almonds, representing the Carmelite Order
  5. Raisins for the Dominican order
  6. Dry figs representing the Franciscan Order
  7. Candied citron representing I honestly do not know what.
  8. Quince paste I assume one may get creative with this since all by itself it doesn’t feel like much of a dessert to me.)
  9. Pears
  10. Apples
  11. Oranges
  12. Dates
  13. Calisson d’Aix (this is a Provençal favorite any time of the year but I always send away for it at Christmas. It’s made of ground almond paste that’s been extruded into petal shaped cookies and frosted with royal icing.)

As you can imagine nowadays, people add many more desserts to this list to celebrate the réveillon. (I mean, come on, apples as a dessert? Where’s the buche de Noel?) But, however you celebrate your holidays, I hope there’s lots of good food and even more loved ones crowded around your table.

Joyeux Noel everyone!

 

When did our food all start to taste the same?

60502563A young French friend of mine did an advertising internship at my ad agency a few years back. During that time she used to say the food she ate in the States tasted “like it had been dipped in caramel.” She didn’t mean that in a good way in case you love caramel. She meant it all tasted the same, like one big cherry-cola-flavored piece of food.

Once I started looking for the differences in how American foods taste—this is especially true with fast food—I could see what she meant. Because I didn’t run into this situation when I traveled, I soon came to the conclusion that it’s a cultural thing: we Americans need salt to punch out the flavor to us and we need sugar because we’re like big babies who really want to eat doughnuts all the time. Because let’s face it, doughnuts taste so good.

But how did we get to this point?

untitled-324I got an inkling the last time I spent a few weeks in France. The food market was a major focal point to the whole town. I recently regaled American friends with the story of how every morning the town squares would be transformed in the wee hours to a bustling congress of produce booths, fishmongers, bread stalls, flowers, soaps, oils, olives and oh-my-God-the cheeses. It looked like the market had been there for years. And yet, every day at noon, it was all taken down, the cobblestones hosed clean, and café tables put up instead in order that people might relax, sip an espresso, eat a meal in leisure. My friends were agog with the titantic effort to recreate these two different settings every single day.  The fact is, we Americans wouldn’t go to the trouble.

And we are seriously suffering as a result of it.

When was the last time you ate a strawberry that really tasted like one? Or a tomato that made you close your eyes and taste the feeling of summer through your taste buds? You remember that scene in the movie Ratatouille where the evil, brittle restaurant critic came into the restaurant and chef made him a bowl of ratatouille where one spoonful instantly catapulted him back to his boyhood with a visceral reliving of some of the best moments of his life? Yeah, that.

Are you fueling or feeding your body?

Are you fueling or feeding your body?

Why did we decide in this country that food was really just fuel and it didn’t need to be much more than that? When did we decide that baby food and caramel coated meat was fine for a lifetime of nourishment? You know what I think? I think the insidious philosophy of our fast food nation has wheedled its way into our national psyche to the point that we want the very same eating experience in Boston that we have in San Antonia that we have in Miami. The first time I ate a McDonald’s burger in New Zealand, I could taste the grass in the burger. (McDonald’s burgers in the states are made from grain-fed cows not grass-fed.) I couldn’t believe I wasn’t going to get the same burger that I got in Atlanta.

So what’s the answer? With no food markets to dilly dally in? No school system or family to educate us as to how to put food in proper perspective and enjoy what we eat without getting fat? Well, frankly, doing it the French way is as foreign as if you’d landed in a Bedouin tent and had to break up camel dung to start the fire for your morning coffee. 34853560So much work! And you’re all alone! None of the other moms are bothering with it and their kids look okay (a little chubby maybe but who isn’t?) And honestly, take-out and pre-packaged food has improved so much in the last ten years, right? Almost no transfats in them! And, really, food that tastes like caramel is delicious!

Right?