If I were a normal person, flying from Boston to Geneva on the day before Christmas, I would be writing about the wonder of Les Fêtes Noel in scenic, charming Switzerland. The grandeur of snow-topped peaks of the Swiss Alps at dusk, the sharp bright moonlight, and I’d be describing the archetypal Christmas dinner, with perhaps mulled wine, roasted goose, and a magical Buche de Noel with meringue mushrooms and flakes of chocolate bark. But this was our family Christmas, and it carries all the charm and challenge, the tight-lipped good humor of forced togetherness, of any family Christmas, celebrated anywhere in the world by jet-lagged, gift-exchanging Jews.
My oldest daughter and her husband live in Lausanne. They have very important jobs at the same company and they travel constantly. The weekend before Christmas, she’d had a meeting in Izmir. He flew from someplace in Tajikistan (or Azerbaijan) to meet her for the weekend in Istanbul. It was out of the question for them to travel back to the states again for the holidays. After all, we’d made our choice––Thanksgiving or Christmas in Boston? Turkey and cranberries beat out mistletoe, and here we were: me, my 92-year-old very game mom, (aka Meo, the grandmother of all grandmothers), my husband, his electric mobility scooter, two laptops, and five bursting ginormous bags. Daughter Number Two flew in from San Francisco, via Philadelphia and Frankfurt. Somewhere in Germany, perhaps courtesy of the snowstorm that shut down America, her own ginormous rolling duffel went on a five day vacation of its own, arriving in Lausanne at her sister’s apartment, a day or so after the holiday.
I’d lugged Christmas in a bag—a handful of tree ornaments, CD of Motown Christmas carols, a heap of our family Christmas stockings (Snowflakes for Katie? Trees for Evi? Or is it the other way around?). Plus an ingenious paper kit I found at the shop near our house in Cambridge that requires three adult American women to spend many hours weaving paper strips into a dozen red and white baubles for the Christmas tree. And, of course, many gifts. Large and small. For my kids and the new son-in-law, for my mom and my husband, and for my daughter’s in-laws who were flying in from San Francisco en route to a Club Med skiing vacation in the French Alps. Oops, almost forgot, for the brother and his new girlfriend, train-ing in from Vienna on Christmas Eve, as the concluding stop of a week’s European tour. Ten for Christmas dinner. A straight up menu, without a lot of folderol cooking, and no dilly-dallying. Come Christmas Eve in Lausanne, grocery stores close early.
This is best part of any holiday as far as I am concerned: logistics, cooking strategy and tactical shopping. Constraint One: ten jet-lagged adults arriving more or less in time for a festive evening meal; assessment of the capacity of the kitchen (one smallish super-modern combination microwave and convection oven), and an unintelligible induction cook top, which means that only three of my daughter’s fancy wedding present pots heat up at all. Screw all gleaming copper, the All-Clad and the Calphalon! On, Le Creuset and old chipped Dansk! Constraint two: Time. Twenty minutes to shop before closing. Constraint three: achievable simplicity for the staff on hand. So, the swat team of my two delectable girls and me bustle off to the local Co-Op, re-usable shopping bags in hand. We scout, we reconnoiter, we debate and we grab. Risotto with dried porcini mushrooms recently scavenged by husband on a trip to the Ukraine. Roasted vegetables—in Christmas-y colors: green asparagus, red peppers, finger slim carrots, red onions, white onions, and whatever else looked good hanging around in the fridge at home. We’d roast them with olive oil and garlic, and shred local Gruyere for a final gratinee. And what about baked sweet potatoes? What if we sliced them into thin rounds, and sprinkled them with salt from the honeymoon trip to Bali? And the obligatory simple green salad from butter soft lettuce and tomatoes trucked in from Spain.
At the center of the meal: the world’s most perfect beef tenderloin. Huge, expertly trimmed, and a red that makes most American beef look digitally colorized in comparison. This one extravagant Christmas purchase, (177 ChF), this one perfect log of meat, made me happier than all the shopping and scavenging done in anticipation of the whole season. The butcher, his fair Swiss face topped with a nose shaped like a perfect right triangle, presented the beef to us for inspection, as if it were the Hope Diamond. An artisanal miracle, right up there with perfectly runny cheese. Swiss people eat only meat from Swiss cows, and Swiss cows eat only green Swiss grass, (and possibly the occasional lump of chocolate, fed to them by a doting Swiss child with symmetric golden braids). The Locavore Gospel made real and sensuous, in a way that no bestselling screed will ever match. Madly we toss in some yogurt and cheese, tangerines, bread a panettone and a velvety chocolate Christmas mousse cake. (Joyeux Noel in marzipan letters). Plus three more pairs of underwear just in case the lost-in-space-luggage decides to spend Christmas in limbo. (It does. And for future reference, note that Lufthansa takes its phone off the hook for Christmas.)
We lug home our loot. Three strapping Americans with good sturdy re-useable shopping bags, stumbling through the city streets of Lausanne. The light is beginning to fade. Shopkeepers checking watches and turning their locks in unison. The light in the steeple of the Lausanne Cathedral glows holiday red. And then, the bells. A symphony of medieval bells ringing in the holiday as darkness falls. Christmas Eve in Lausanne and the women are cooking.