There’s a widespread need to reconnect to all the things that make life worth living, and what better moment than now? What better way than with a feast?
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Now, it is easy to become sententious and moralistic about the holiday season, even for an entirely nonreligious person like me. Does it have to be quite so much about consumption? Is there not something a little vulgar and indolent in all this unrestrained feasting? What about the true meanings of Christmas and Hanukkah? What about the life of the spirit?
I believe that this is probably reading history backward. The human practice of feasting has been traced back at least to the dawn of the agricultural age. Some 12,000 years ago in a cave in what is now northern Israel, partying humans left behind the remains of 71 tortoises and three wild cattle. And the celebration of the winter solstice as an act of defiance against the cold and dark certainly predates all organized religion. What better way to warm the innards than with lavish consumption? Dishes rich in fat and sugar, lubricated with glogg or mead, while huddled around a fire. Feasting, drinking, community and warmth are where this holiday season began.
Of course, for many around the world, feasting arm to arm isn’t going to be possible this year. The Omicron variant of the coronavirus and the rising tide of infections it has brought have thwarted hopes for a more normal holiday season, and people are hesitating to travel or to come together across a table.
But it’s worth remembering that a feast does not require a 16-pound roast turkey or a goat on a spit. Maybe all that we can commit to this year is to do something special for ourselves, a feast for the spirit. It can be a meal, yes, but it could also be a long phone call with an old friend, both prepared to be silly and laugh a lot. To get into a feasting mind-set, what matters is doing something that is not what you would usually do, something that feels special and lavish.
Let me suggest one small but exquisite feast: Buy half a pound or so of soft, flavorful cheese. (I like robiola or Taleggio or a ripeish Brie.) Cut it into morsels, roughly the size of the top phalanx of your index finger, and place those in a shallow bowl. Slice two fat cloves of peeled garlic thinly and add them to a cup of nice fruity olive oil, along with a teaspoon of gently crushed peppercorns and two tablespoons of chopped fresh tarragon or another fresh herb. Whisk in a teaspoon of salt and a tablespoon of sherry or white wine vinegar and pour the mixture over the cheese. Refrigerate for four hours or overnight; take the bowl out an hour before you are ready to feast. Warm a baguette or other crusty bread, pour yourself a glass of whatever you like to drink and settle down to watch a good film or listen to a beloved album as you scoop up chunks of macerated cheese and garlicky olive oil.
When the cheese is gone, you might wonder whether those slices of garlic are worth biting into. They are.