We drove down to my uncle’s cousin’s place near Auxerre in Bourgogne for Christmas Eve.
Uncle Carlitos was immediately warm and welcoming, giving us a grand tour of his house, a beautifully renovated ox stable and barn with richly-colored stucco walls, exposed beams, and many elements handcrafted by Carlitos and his friends like round-topped wooden doors and medieval-inspired cabinetry. The property is gorgeous in the middle of wide open green fields. We took a pre-dinner stroll.
Once the other relatives began trickling in, people realized that I was not French but am very curious about French culture, so they bustled about making sure I tried this and tasted that, learned this name and pronounced that word. I tried a homemade quince liquor (delicious but heady to the point that I kept adding ice cubes to look like I was drinking but avoid getting slobbery), a great many cheeses, prawns, terrine (a sort of savory jelly cut into slices) of fish and vegetables, escargot with Marie-Luise’s fantastic pesto sauce, sea snails, shrimp, salmon with parsley and butter, various sausages and pâtés, turkey, a veal and beef stuffing, 3 types of Bûche de Noël cake, and a Portuguese type of French toast made two ways–one dipped in milk like the regular pain perdu and one dipped in boiled red wine, both pan-fried and coated lovingly with cinnamon sugar.
Most notably for me were the raw oysters, which I had never tasted previously. Uncle Gilles took a liking to me pretty quick and made sure that I watched exactly how he shucked the oysters, taking a thin knife in his right hand, an oyster in the palm of his left, and deftly sliding the blade between the shells and up to pry them apart in a quick but forceful U-shaped motion. He was clearly an expert and explained how the most common hospital emergencies this time of year in France are the less capable or more inebriated oyster-shuckers who stab themselves in the hand. I indicated my understanding with appropriately widened eyes and he passed me a fresh and very cold oyster in the half shell, over which he spritzed some lemon. All the relatives standing around the kitchen gestured excitedly to indicate the proper way to consume it (down the hatch!) and I loosened the oyster’s “foot” from the shell, tipped my head back, and slid the bivalve into my mouth. The first taste was ocean, salty but with a subtle seaweed-and-seafoam delicacy, which was followed and complimented by the lemon. I swallowed just as I realized the unsettling slimy texture, which is why I still prefer my oysters cooked. It’s gauche to admit, I know, but if you took pleasure in picking your nose as a kid (come on, we all did it at some point) you might find raw oysters particularly familiar in appearance and texture. For now, they remain a taste-to-be-acquired.
More and more new faces came through the door, each earning a hearty welcome whether they were familiar or not. The company was French-speaking, excellent for me as a shock back into French from attempting Arabic for so long, but a little uncomfortable for my cousins, who have lost much of their French. I communicated, not necessarily articulately, but as with the food, I asked about vocabulary or expressions I didn’t quite understand and at least got to absorb a great deal of new words and turns of phrase. As with the food, people were warm and happy to educate me on the local traditions, contraptions for use at dinner (escargot tongs, escargot forks, shellfish crackers), opinions, and manners of speech. We breezed through politics, history, entertainment, stereotypes, media, cultural differences, gossip…
The meal started late relative to the holiday meals I’m used to and came out course after course. I was informed at around 11:20 PM that we were still on appetizers (l’entrée). Sometime before the kids were supposed to be tucked in, it was discovered that Père Noël had paid us a visit! Evan, Carlitos’s grandson immediately began ecstatically transferring the big pile of presents from just outside the door to their various recipients. Every time a present was marked for him, Evan would jump and squeal happily, so it was impossible not to be swept up in the joy of the moment. The recipients went around giving bisous (kisses) and thank-yous to the givers and everyone laughed and marveled over each others’ presents.
I ended up staying at the table, talking and being offered dish after dish by my exuberant table-mates, until 2:30 AM. By that time, we had made our way through snacks, a charcuterie course, escargot, salmon, a seafood course of prawns, shrimp, crab, and oysters; meats including turkey, pork, and beef; Portuguese salted cod; a cheese plate; dessert of 3 different log-cakes–caramel ice cream cake, passion fruit and coconut ice cream cake, and traditional chocolate cake with the usual decorations on top and some sweet liquor baked in; and coffee plus innumerable other floating dishes that didn’t seem to belong to any particular course in the sequence. Everything was flavorful and cooked with care. I was grateful to be an honorary member of the family, and though I connect only distantly, Carlitos and his family welcomed me graciously and with a great deal of humor and patience. It was a very merry Christmas thanks to them. As with much of my experience in Egypt, I felt great warmth among these new acquaintances who treated me as a new friend and not some distant foreigner. I can only hope that this theme will continue.