Saturday, December 26, 2009

Immoveable Feast: A Paris Christmas

“‘When a man is tired of London,’ remarked Samuel Johnson, ‘He is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.’ It can be said equally of Paris that not to have seen it through the eyes of love is not to know it at all.”
—John Baxter

There’s something about Paris that I just love. Now, I’ve never actually been to Paris, but the city seems to take hold of my imagination. Its allure stretches across the Atlantic Ocean and keeps me entranced though it is still largely unknown to me. Someday I will get to Paris, but until then I’ll keep myself satisfied with books, films, and any taste of French cuisine I can find. Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast is one of my favorite books of an American’s experience in Paris, and when I opened my stocking a few days ago to find a book entitled Immoveable Feast: A Paris Christmas I knew I had received a perfect holiday read.

Immoveable Feast was written by John Baxter, an Australian-born man who ended up marring a Parisian woman late in life. His story is one of being welcomed into his French family, and it is at his first Christmas in France that he really enters into the culture and magic of the country and the traditions of his new family. Baxter soon inherits the duty of cooking Christmas dinner, and this book shows glimpses into the past and French culture as he tells the story of one particular year of cooking the Christmas feast for eighteen guests. The tradition of coming together as a family was strong in Baxter’s experiences in France. The family used food and wine to keep history and memory alive, and Baxter comments that “Proust was right. Any house or garden or town existed only as the sum of the feelings experienced there. It was remembering history and maintaining tradition that kept the material world alive.”

Baxter explains that at Christmas in Paris the streets are deserted, shops and restaurants are closed, and the only wanderers are usually tourists. The city shuts down as families come together to enjoy good times and good food. The book is filled with insights into the French people and their perspective on the world. For example, Baxter states that “The French are no strangers to vice. Indeed, they invented many of the more interesting ones and have worked hard for centuries to perfect the rest. To the French, sin—provided it is conceived with imagination and carried off with flair—is like the dust on an old bottle of burgundy, the streaks of gray in the hair of a loved one, the gleam of long, loving use on the mahogany of an ancient cabinet. It’s evidence of endurance, of survival, of life.” The joie de vivre of French life and the traditions maintained during Christmas fill the pages of the book and one feels they can really taste the experience of French culture.

Baxter’s Christmas feast contains several courses, but it is the first course of oysters that most intrigues me. Oysters are a key part to the Paris Christmas—an item I wish was more common in my own household during the holidays. Baxter elaborates on the appeal of these delicious creatures, stating that there is “something in the seasonality of seafood, its essentiality of freshness, that demands our instant attention. The translucency of an oyster’s flesh, the gleam of a fish’s eye, and the sheen of its skin are imperatives that transcend the banality of existence.” I couldn’t agree more. Good seafood does seem to have an almost magical quality that brings one in touch with a bit of the boundless ocean through one simple bite. The custom of bringing that experience to the table to begin the Christmas dinner makes perfect sense to me. Other courses include sides of vegetables and potatoes, bread, cheese, fruit, dessert, and, of course, the entrée. Baxter describes the planning of the menu and the cooking of the courses with such delicious detail that it will surely appeal to any foodie.

One of the interesting cultural tidbits I picked up from the book is differences in what is acceptable to bring to a host’s home. In America it’s very common for a guest to show up with a bottle of wine for a host or hostess. Baxter explains that in France nobody would dare bring wine, bread, or cheese to someone else’s home because these items are staples that everybody already has on hand. It would be like bringing a plate and fork to someone’s home in America. Rather, the French show up with gifts like flowers or chocolates—but wine? Never. The books brims with lots of these little cultural insights that will surely interest any reader who wishes to explore other cultures through food.
John Baxter’s Immoveable Feast is a great read for the holiday. I highly recommended it to anyone interested in Paris, French food, and the traditions they keep alive in France. Or to anyone who dreams of Paris and the day when she will wander the streets, soak in the magic of the city of love, and taste every last bite that Paris has to offer.

1 comment:

  1. " I drank their cold liquid from each (oyster) shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling (of having finished [his] story) and began to be happy and to make plans."EH