There were twenty of us, sitting down to a dinner on the last day of the year, with candles gleaming along the length of the board, the tablecloth bright with patterned ribbons and greenery, and the light reflecting off a forest of wine glasses and gleaming china and silverware.
We were old friends who had come together many times before in this gracious home – for Bastille Day and for Epiphany, for the weddings of two of the sons of the house, for movies that we watched together almost monthly. On other occasions we had celebrated the Fourth of July and Labor Day and other holidays with picnics and cookouts.
And now we had gathered once again with our host and hostess and their children and grandchildren, to stand around the punch bowl, to admire the two grandchildren underfoot, to seek out and pet the two resident cats (Madeline and Bijou), and to salute the old year’s passing and welcome in the new.
The punch was sangria, in a silver punchbowl, afloat with quartered oranges and lemons. The hors d’oeuvres were plates of black and green olives and a creamy bleu-cheese dip for thin slices of jicama, zucchini, and carrot. Some of us hung out in the kitchen, munching on salted nuts and watching the chef and her helpers bustle about. Others raided the supply of bottles of cold beer in the garage – Heineken and Newcastle Brown Ale. Our chief brewmeister dispensed servings of his own brand. Still other guests congregated in the den, where the big screen was showing the silent film of D. W. Griffith’s alleged masterpiece, “Intolerance.”
But when we were finally called to order and seated, according to the handwritten place cards on our plates, at about 9 o’clock, we began to pour out rounds of Muscadet Sévre et Maine 2009 and toast our hostess, who for so many years had put together these memorable meals. Then we turned to our host, at the far end of the table, who, with his oldest son at the opposite end, presided over the gathering with comments of appropriate wit and a spirited blend of Gallic and American humor.
The first course was salmon en croûte, in the shape of an enormous fish that, when carved up and topped with a white wine sauce called velouté, served all twenty of us. While we ate and talked, I glanced around the table and thought about the different nationalities represented, and also about the duration of the friendships, some of which went back thirty-five years or more.
We were mostly Americans by now, many of us Midwesterners by birth, but the origins of some of those present were quite varied. Several had only recently become citizens and some still held dual citizenship with their home countries. Different lands represented included France, Germany, Vietnam, Poland, Mexico, and Algeria. Our usual British-passport holder was unfortunately ill with the flu and could not be with us.
The two dominant languages of the evening were English and French, both of which seemed to flow about the table in interchangeable streams, along with additional toasts, praise for the food being served, talk about the Colts’ chances of getting into the playoffs by beating Tennessee on Sunday, and the inevitable jokes and laughter.
Inspired by the occasion, at one point I rose with glass in hand, to considerable acclaim from my listeners, and repeated the old chestnut about continental traditions. “In heaven,” I began, “the French are the cooks, the Germans are the engineers, and the English are the policeman.” Cries of hear, hear! from those assembled. “In hell,” I continued, “the English are the cooks, the French are the engineers, and the Germans are the policemen.” More cries: sit down, sit down!
We paused to cleanse our palates with little glasses of granita made with grapefruit and vodka. So cold and sharp! By this time more wine was being served – a 2008 Medoc – and a hearty main course, coq au vin, was being handed along the table on silver platters. An enormous salver of haricots verts was not far behind, and baskets of pieces of baguette were handed back and forth.
I was engaged in conversation with the two Algerians on my left, a couple who, I knew, were actually of Berber origin. We were speaking of many things North African – of the quality of couscous on the Left Bank back in the old days, for example – but especially of Zinadine Zidane, also a Berber, whom everyone still remembers for head butting the Italian footballer during the 2006 World Cup final (justifiably, most of us believe) and after whom my wife had only recently named a shrimp dish she had created.
Diane, on my right, was seated next to a young Vietnamese-French gentleman. She determined that he possessed a Ph.D. in physics and was looking for work in this country. I leaned over to speak with him for a second, and asked what he had done his work in. “Semi-conductors,” he replied. I mentioned that I had recently read a marvelous biography of Paul Dirac, and he said that he knew and used Dirac’s textbook The Principles of Quantum Mechanics.
By this time a green salad was being passed along in large metal bowls – the leaves anointed with oil and vinegar and just a touch of garlic – and plates were being taken away and others substituted. On the big screen in the den, I could see that both Belshazzar and Babylon were crumbling away, the Huguenots were having a tough time in 1572, the crucifixion was underway in Jerusalem, The Boy had been framed and was on his way to his own execution, Lillian Gish was still rocking the cradle, and the four-part narrative was mounting to a climax.
The wine was having its effect. The twenty adults and two children were making quite a din. The cats were scampering down the hallway. I was fascinated by the film, especially the dance scenes in which, I learned later from Wikipedia, Ruth St. Denis may have been the solo dancer in the Babylonian Story, although she apparently denied this in an interview. “However, it is generally believed St. Denis and her Denishawn dancers appear on the steps of the Babylon set in the great courtyard scene, and that her longtime collaborator Ted Shawn also had an uncredited role.”
Dance on, then! It was about forty-five minutes until midnight, and we were well into the cheese course, which consisted of a dreamy Brie, a tawny Camembert, a mysterious Suprême made with heavy cream, and a sensational Morbier, “ivory colored, soft and slightly elastic, and immediately recognizable by the black layer of tasteless ash separating it horizontally in the middle.”
It was at about this time, as I looked down the length of the table, and at the many familiar faces through the shining points of the half-spent candles, that I began to understand once again the importance of good friends, and what good food is for, and how fortunate we all were to be together on such a traditional occasion. One cannot expect to dine in such elegant fashion every day, of course, but when it is made possible, through the generosity and kindness of friends, one must treasure the moments.
Coffee was being served – both decaf and regular, fresh-brewed – and the desserts were being rolled out, to the cheers of all those assembled. First, a house specialty, Reine de Saba, or Queen of Sheba, which is a chocolate cake usually made with almonds and very little flour, and topped with whipped cream. Except in this case the chef had substituted chestnut puree for the almonds. Absolutely delectable!
This was followed, incredibly, by les oeufs à la neige – literally, eggs in the snow, but also known as Floating Island. A great heaping, bobbing bowl of it, served, of course, with the most delicate and paper-thin of cookies – studded with flaked almonds – called tuiles aux amandes. And even more to come: a plate of truffles, to accompany the last of the coffee.
The clock’s hand was approaching the hour. In came the traditional bottles of chilled champagne, except this year there was an additional surprise. Instead of the French specialty, we were honoring two of our guests with German connections – one a professor of German at a local campus, the other a visiting exchange student originally from China who had moved with her parents to Germany a few years ago. To salute these two, we had selected bottles of Schloss Biebrich sekt, a sparkling wine originating in Wiesbaden.
Our host switched the channel on the big screen to Times Square, where the avatars of Dick Clark and New Years Past were holding forth. More toasts, more tributes to our gracious and talented hostess. Then, with glasses of Schloss Biebrich held high, we counted down the final seconds in unison and called out our welcome to the new year. May 2011 be a time that brings us together again under such circumstances, and in such memorable fashion!