Thursday, December 3, 2009

Duck the Halls

This afternoon, inspired by the tree-trimming photos on French for Awhile, another ex-pat family blog, I drove to the grocery store to pick up some Christmas lights and a tree.  We already had a package of Picard shrimp in the freezer,plus enough ketchup and horseradish to make the required shrimp cocktail.  With a box of decorations and a  bottle of champagne, we were all set for the traditional family Christmas tree trimming party.  Happily, the local grocery store carries it all.  It’s no Fairway, but is still a pretty incredible place, selling everything from greeting cards to motor oil to socks and underwear to high end alcohols of all kinds.  

When I arrived back home, Bill and Grace were busy stacking firewood in the garage.  Incredibly wet firewood.  The day before, we had stopped off at a little roadside shack where it was being sold, and had arranged for a fairly enormous and relatively expensive delivery.  It arrived in the rain, utterly soaked, and had been dumped in a big pile in the driveway.  Grace and Bill had pulled out the two wheelbarrows and were carrying on their French lesson while stacking the wood. 

It’s incredible to see the way Grace pitches in these days.  Now that she is no longer exhausted by the social world of school, she hops up from her seat after lunch to clear the table.  She embraces her newest homeschool subject – housework – earning a respectable A minus on her first "midterm."  To earn this solid grade took her about twice as long as we thought it might, but she cleaned up the entire kitchen post-breakfast, without help.  Today, she was thumping around in the puddles, her face smeared with mud, picking up wood and stacking it high.  Happy as a little clam. 

I really, really like wood piles.  Stacking them, looking at them.  Seeing a nice square woodpile has the same effect on me as hearing the beginning chords of the themesong to A Prairie Home Companion:  I think of how much I love my Dad, and get the tiniest bit teary and sentimental.  I am also fond of Christmas trees, which are made of wood, and smell incredible.  In fact, I like wood almost as much as Bill likes the fires that consume it.  It really made me happy to see Grace enjoying this nice little burst of manual labor alongside us, then holding the door so I could wrestle the tree inside.

I know that this fondness for wood is odd.  But my parents’ families good fortunes were built out of wood.  My mother’s father was a cabinetmaker and carpenter, building his own house and most of the houses on his street.  My father’s father sold lumber, as did my Dad.  To me, the smell of sawdust is the smell of home. 

Both of my grandfathers also planted rows and rows of trees to sell at Christmas time: Scotch Pines, Douglas Firs, Balsams, and Blue Spruce. Years after they had stopped selling the trees, my Dad would go far out in the field and chop down a hugely overgrown one (typically one he had planted himself forty years or more before) then lop off the very top to bring home and stick in the living room.  Much to my mother’s chagrin, it was always crooked and weird in some obvious way, but it served its purpose of making us kids ecstatically happy and making our house smell like joy itself.

Our tree today was weird as well.  (What other kind of tree could our family possibly have?)  It came all wrapped up in its own little tree hair net, looking like une arbre du lunchlady, making it impossible for me to see in the store just how crookedly it was planted in its little pot.  We balanced it precariously on a little piece of sodden firewood alongside the tall stone stairway, waiting to be decorated later. 

When Abigail came home from school, Bill started a somewhat anemic and reluctant fire in the fireplace, using massive amounts of kindling, plus the boxes from several recent meals of frozen food.  (We've been hitting the Picard fairly hard since the inlaws left.  I loved having them here, but I need to re-tox on some easy processed stuff after doing all that healthy home cooking.) Bill popped open the Demi-Sec, and we tucked into the shrimp cocktail, polishing it off in mere minutes, certainly a family record.  We played the new Christmas CD Laura had brought from California, (Thanks, Rich!) and decked the halls we had, such as they were. 

The Christmas lights I had bought turned out to be solar, and thus all but useless indoors.  Ah, so that’s what “Solaire” meant on the box.  I draped them over a bush in the garden instead, but since it was still raining, there was no twinkly glitter to be seen.  I have high hopes for tomorrow – it never stays miserable for more than a day at a time, and I’m sure we’ll get a little holiday cheer out of the LED bulbs in 24 hours or so.

So the score for this little traditional Christmas party was about even; in the plus column we had shrimp, champagne, and a box of cheap but very adorable Christmas decorations.  In the minus column, we had a cockeyed tree, pointless lights, and sopping firewood.  Half empty, half full: the usual handicap for entertaining chez nous.

But this being France and all, I added a new twist to our holiday traditions.  Instead of the typical and inevitable Christmas-colored pasta for dinner (bolognese and pesto sauces on opposing sides of the plate) we would have everybody’s favorite bird: duck.  During a recent visit to the grocery store, my curiosity had gotten the better of me.  Next to the holiday decorations was a giant display of various brands of potted duck; I reasoned, with no real evidence, that perhaps this was the season for this sort of delicacy.  

And I purchased an enormous family-sized can (yes, I said can) of canard confit.

While I couldn’t believe that a big can full of meat could possibly be good, (visions of Spam-plums danced in my head) I was tempted by the idea that it might just be great.  French people rarely eat anything mediocre, preferring to stick to the edges of culinary experience – transcendently delicious or astonishingly, upsettingly bizarre. 

Once opened, the can of duck confit appeared, at first glance, to be in the second category.   The can contained five duck backs plunged in greasy, sticky globs of fat, dotted here and there with a sort of ducky jelly.  I smeared the fat off as best I could, using paper towels and my fingers, and stuck the meatier parts in a big blue Le Cruset.  The canned, smeary duck fat smelled awful, and proved quite difficult to remove from my hands.  I washed and washed them, but felt like an icky, gamey Lady MacBeth.  I stuck the sorry looking concoction in the oven and turned it way up, hoping that somehow high heat might improve the situation.

While the kids finished up decorating our tiny tree and the confit tried to redeem itself in the oven, I whisked up a batch of crepes, having conquered the Joy of Cooking version in the last few weeks.  Julie Powell can keep her MAoFC; Joy and I are going strong and steady.  We had some crepes with Emmentaller, some with Nutella, and a few just greased with even more butter than the butter already swirling in the pan.  Charlie Brown skating music filled the kitchen, and the fire gradually overcame all the water in the logs.  Fa la la la la.  La la, la la.  

Then I pulled the duck out of the oven.  The weird smell was gone, and the meat was brown and beautiful.  The scary fat and jelly had gone liquid around the meat, which in turn just about melted off of its bones. Bill and Abigail, the duck fiends of the house, tried it first, and Bill started making the lipsmacky groaning and grunting noises he emits when the food is really, really, really good. 

And, it was.  Those crazy French had done right by us once again.  Apparently you can take a good piece of bird, cook it for just about forever in its own grease and marrow, make it into something transcendently delicious, then put it in a tin to keep indefinitely.  It tasted like something my French grandmother would have made for me from a secret and closely held family recipe, if either one of my grandmothers had been French. 

I don’t know why French people can do things with even processed food that are so far beyond the rest of us.  But boy am I glad that, at least this once, I followed my curiosity even to a potentially very weird place, like the inside of a meat-and-fat-filled can.   So here’s to another Christmas tree trimming party with all the usual elements, and our own improvised probably-not-traditionally-Noel, but undeniably French twists. 

Christmas is still weeks away, and I’m already plotting how to get some canned duck confit for next December.  I'm thinking the Red Hook Fairway, so if you're back in Brooklyn, see if you can find a can or two of confit that looks authentically French and imported.  Pick one up to make while you sing your Christmas carols and set the glass balls in place on the tree.  It might be good with latkes, too, because you could fry them in the extra melty duck fat.  And then once you try it, for whatever December holiday you celebrate (Festivus, anyone?) you'll want to thank me.  So pick up another can and hide it away for when I return.  Don't worry; we won't be gone forever.  It will keep

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