September 1, 2014

Beef Dinner

The main attraction
Food brotherhoods are ubiquitous in France. People join clubs to celebrate veal head, sardines, giant strawberry tarts, onions, mustard, and hundreds of other culinary delicacies. The invitation to the annual dinner hosted by the Brotherhood of Charolais Beef in Burgundy, France said: “Exactitude being the symbol of politeness of all gastronomes, we are counting on your presence at 8:00pm sharp.” This dinner featured the local beef, a race of docile, white cows that are tender and delicious. I signed up to go with some of my new friends from the area.

Upon arriving at 7:45, people made their way to their assigned tables and promptly sat down. No mingling. I surveyed the 150 or so guests and it didn’t take long for my first realization of the evening. At 39, I was the youngest person there by at least ten years, probably more like 20.

Around 8:30, the different brotherhoods that had come for the event paraded into the room, dressed in velvet gowns, custom-made maroon suits, and hats galore: some with feathers, some looking quite papal. They gathered near and on the stage and the induction ceremony began. Eight people were newly made part of the Charolais Brotherhood and each had to solemnly swear to uphold the tradition and honor of this beef after taking a bite and swigging some wine.

Some of the new inductees
The second realization of the night hit me around 9:30pm, when the inductions were wrapping up. In front of me on the table were three wine glasses and a water glass. All were empty. I had three forks, four knives, and one spoon, but no food anywhere in sight. If you invited 150 guests to dinner at 8:00pm in the U.S. and didn't serve them any food, alcohol or water for an hour and a half, well, the guests would riot, pure and simple.

Thirsty yet?
Eventually, however, an aperitif appeared, a bit of peach liqueur mixed with a local fortified called Ratafia and topped with “four fingers of crémant,” the local sparkling wine. Soon, we were feasting on a gelée of beef tail and cheek followed by a terrine of lobster, salmon, and perch. The wine expert at the table pronounced the white from Mâcon “short,” as in, it had no staying power. His disappointment was palpable.

His comments solidified my view that it is always fun to eat with French people because they always have an opinion. Food is not merely sustenance here, but a source of endless conversation and, more often than not, criticism. The sea bass poached in fortified wine on top of a bed of stewed leeks with a “hint of garlic” led to several comments that I would still be able to kiss my wife that evening, the garlic was so faint. The pinot noir that the menu counseled for the course received oceans of derision from Maurice, leading him to say, “While I am not here to criticize, I am here to tell the truth. And that wine is not good.” Nonetheless, general laughter accompanied each course, and spirits were high.

One of my tablemates commented that perhaps a little music would be welcome and, on cue, two gentlemen in their 60s took the stage to crank out some tunes on a rattly acoustic guitar and an electronic keyboard/drum machine combo. People danced immediately to YMCA, Bee-Bop-a-Loo-La, The Twist, and other American and French classics. Dancing is one of the few reasons allowable in the French politesse book to get up from the table.

Oh, it's a scene man
The other acceptable reason to get up is to smoke, and it was here that I had my third realization of the evening. The town dentist smokes. His wife smokes. At the table of 12, fully half smoked. It shouldn’t surprise anymore, but it is hard not to laugh when the doctor’s wife lights up.

At last, we arrived at the main attraction, a filet of Charolais, seared rare, accompanied by a parsley shallot butter, “melting potatoes,” and a tangle of watercress (no dressing!) Now that we had passed to a 2009 Beaune premier cru red wine, Maurice commented, as he wiped the inside of his butter dish with bread, polishing off easily four tablespoons of butter, “up until now, we have been standing on one leg. Now, finally we have both feet back on the ground.”

As the wait staff began to clear, people continued dancing. A newly inducted woman with a tight hairdo galloped over from the dance floor to shoo away the waitress attempting to remove her plate and began to hungrily devour her last bites of Charolais while standing up. Pas très français, but very funny.

A cheese plate of different local specimens followed, including a gooey Époisses, a hard sheep’s cheese, and a Brillat-Savarin. A dessert of an advertised trio of vacherins (salted caramel ice cream, mango sorbet) concluded the evening’s gustatory pleasures (even though the salad had no dressing, the “aromatic” cheeses in fact had little smell, and the trio of ice creams was, in fact, a duo.) As the clock struck 2:30am, coffee arrived, after which we were on our way home.

My head hit the pillow at 4:12. My kids woke up at 6:30.

It was worth it.

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