Going for the Galette des rois

After five Januarys thinking about the galette des rois, I bit the fève and splurged on one. Do you ever once in a while do something to make yourself happy? That’s what it felt like. So satisfying.

When I moved back to the States from France several years ago, the first January I called different French bakeries in Manhattan to compare their galettes: size, price. Learning that they were usually around $30, I blanched after having gotten used to picking up galettes all over Paris, from bakeries and supermarkets, for a few euros. All month I would have one or two in my apartment and liberally eat them as a snack. In the States, they are considered specialty items, like most French goods.

Another year, through one of the e-lists I was on I found out about an event by a French group. If I remember correctly, admission was $10 to attend a reception with galettes from various bakeries in NYC. I invited a francophile friend, and we sat at one of the cafeteria-like tables in a room that resembled an after-school space; perhaps it was. There seemed to be mostly French expats, many with their kids. The atmosphere was casual. Not shy, I tasted the different galettes being circulated.

This year I realized it was time. How could I go five years without buying a galette des rois when there are actually French bakeries all over my region and I love its almond flavor so? I searched online and called and messaged bakeries to find out sizes and prices, as I did several years ago. But this time, I chose one to take home. It was about a half hour drive away, the best price, and located in my hometown of Jersey City. My dad parked on a corner (street parking can be a hassle there) while I ran down and fulfilled my dream. I had even called that morning to make sure one would be waiting for me. The box was warm on my lap. It smelled like pastry goodness.

Upon opening the box, I was amused to see the fève in a little plastic bag. Does the U.S. have a safety rule against placing objects in food? Probably. I thought it was funny that the bakery bothered to include the token, which was a plastic toucan. I wondered how they imagined people would use it because it would make the slice fall apart if you tried to insert it. Perhaps one person slices up the galette first and hides the fève under a slice while making sure no one looks? For us this was a moot point, as this particular galette was not for a party, but purely for consumption.

If you are not familiar with the galette des rois, it is associated with the Epiphany, the Catholic holiday on January 6 that celebrates the Three Kings visiting baby Jesus.

The sweet pastry is round and filled with frangipane, or almond paste, and can be in different sizes, from individual to large (although it seems that in the U.S. only larger ones are sold, at least 6″-10″). By tradition, the youngest person at a gathering– who might be a child, but not always– gets under the dining table while another person slices the galette. Without looking, the youngest person says who the first slice goes to, and so on until everyone has a slice. Then everyone can start eating. One slice has a small object inside– the fève, which is often a plastic figurine. That person is crowned king or queen with the gold crown that accompanies the galette, and he or she chooses his or her king or queen.

I have been to gatherings where we did this tradition, one of the first being during my study abroad program in Paris. But during the more recent time I lived there, most of the galettes I ate were individual sized ones with no fève or crown– just delicious almond paste that I alone ate and felt like the queen every time.

Yesterday I recounted my exciting galette purchase during a spontaneous video chat with my friend and his ten-year-old daughter who live in Marseilles. My friend informed me of a regional rendition I had never heard of– the gâteau des rois. I was flabbergasted. What is it like? I wanted to know. He said it was like the galette des rois, but it was a cake. I asked him which one they had this year. He said both (of course– that is the correct answer). I guess I now have my next pastry to pursue, or should I say cake. I suspect it will be harder to find in the States.

Year of the Pig

The Lunar New Year began earlier this month, on February 5. I sometimes mention it in conversation leading up to the day, which leads people to ask how I celebrate. In recent years, I don’t have a particular “big” tradition. Instead it’s the “little” practices that I observe—wear red, eat three meals, have long noodles, don’t cut your hair, don’t clean (that should be done the day before), and other dos and don’ts. This is all to attract good luck and avoid bad luck in the coming year.

My paternal relatives in China get together for a large, multigenerational gathering at their regular restaurant to celebrate the Spring Festival, as they call it. It’s quite a different experience here; my immediate family doesn’t have relatives nearby, and my parents separated some years ago. So every year is different.

A couple of years ago, a friend who is from the same region my family is from (the Fujian province in southeastern China) organized a weekend meal in Chinatown with some of her French friends and me. It was nice being with her because she knew what to order.

Last year, my colleague and I had dinner in Chinatown and then dessert at a new place with piled-high Instagram-able desserts. Bright streamers littered the streets.

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The weekend after, two friends and I attempted to see the parade in Chinatown, which was extremely crowded (I wouldn’t seek it out again unless I knew of a good spot where there was breathing room), then had lunch before they went off to watch “Black Panther” and I took the subway to the Flatiron District to meet two French friends who were visiting New York City.

This year, I had dinner with my dad the day of and lunch with my mom the Sunday after. In between, I suggested to a date that we visit the Museum of Chinese in America in Chinatown and have dim sum afterward.

Every year, at least one person in my family (nowadays half the time it is me) seeks out tikoy, a sticky dessert that is called many different names depending on what Chinese dialect you speak. And tikoy isn’t a Chinese word, actually, though it comes from one—it’s what people in the Philippines call it. We only know of one bakery in Chinatown New York that makes it the way we like it. To prepare it, we take it out of the round aluminum pan, slice it, dip each piece in egg, and fry them. When heated, they become gooey with a slightly crispy outside.

I guess I—no, we—celebrate Chinese New Year more than I thought.

We All Got Our Own Thing Going On (And We Find People to Share Them With)

A few weeks ago I saw in the morning on my way to work:

A bunch of people in the bus station looking up, mouths slightly agape. They were watching a huge TV screen that had been temporarily set up in the bus station to show the World Cup. A guy energetically said to people who passed by, “Koozie koozie koozie,” offering free foam cup holders from the TV channel that sponsored the viewing.

A large group of people in the park listening to someone praying over a microphone. People were dressed up, milling around, and some were carrying platters of food. They were Muslims celebrating Eid, the end of Ramadan.

A woman walking two dogs whose back halves were paralyzed and were walking with dog wheelchairs. An older man bent down to pet them. A woman with two dogs of her own stopped to talk to her, and they chatted about their dogs. The first woman described the disabled dogs’ different personalities.

Glimpses of different worlds and the important things happening in each of them. I loved coming in contact with them in the span of twenty minutes.

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Happy ______ Day

I am a big fan of ceremony and tradition—this is what happens when you have a Catholic and Chinese upbringing—they are so steeped in both that even if you don’t observe all practices or hold all beliefs, you end up absorbing some of their essence.

I don’t speak for everyone; some people reject or simply aren’t interested in the faith or the culture they were brought up with. I know people who would say that that aspect, though ingrained in them as children, no longer has a place within them. I perhaps have just come to my roots as a reason for why I gain fulfillment from celebrating every holiday, observing birthdays and anniversaries, and continuing traditions universal, familial, and individual. That is an age-old aspect of humanity as a whole, but I know a number of people who don’t value any of that.

I think I just love an excuse to celebrate. Sure, we should give thanks outside of Thanksgiving, express our love outside of Valentine’s Day, and renew outside of New Year’s. But there are a lot of things we should do every day. Humans are always trying to simultaneously balance difference priorities and aspects of life.

Holidays and anniversaries serve as reminders to focus on one of these things.

It also adds novelty to a day. I remember hearing about someone who liked to dress in the theme of the movie he was going to watch in the theater. I am that way with holidays. A few years ago I wore bunny ears to a picnic with friends during Easter weekend in Paris. Yes, I am a grown woman who acts seriously at work and pays her taxes on time.

Holidays and events have the value that we assign to them. I choose to value a number of them. Two birthdays, two New Years. Christmas, Halloween. And if a person in my life celebrates a holiday that I do not and invites me to their gathering, all the better to observe someone else’s traditions. Passover, Galentine’s Day, Armenian Easter. I say oui.

Note: I wrote the first half of this post a full two years ago. It sat patiently in my drafts until the day I’d be “unblocked” and find the rest. It must have flowed out today because it’s Valentine’s Day, a holiday beloved, reviled, and dismissed. You can guess where I stand on this.

Cock-a-doodle-doo

It’s been over a month since the start of the Lunar New Year. The year of the rooster began on January 28. For us Chinese (and several other Asian ethnicities), it’s the chance for a sense of rebirth on the heels of the Gregorian New Year, just shortly after the French stop saying “Bonne Année.” Not only that, but the celebration goes on for two weeks.

I follow the superstitions surrounding the Lunar New Year, just in case. Clean the house the day before but not the day of. Eat three good meals. Eat long noodles. Don’t get your hair cut. Wear red.

Did I mention eat well?

On New Year’s Day this year, a group of friends and I had lunch in New York Chinatown. Our ringleader was my friend who is Chinese-born. Then there was me, who is Chinese American, and seven non-Chinese Frenchies, several of whom had spent a few years in Beijing.

Perhaps you know how it goes in Chinese restaurants. Rather than ordering our own entrées, we ordered dishes to share (though this place lacked a lazy susan, which would have made second helpings easier). After a meal of fish (presented in complete form), lobster, meat, eggplant, noodles, rice, and more, we wandered out into the streets to watch the dragon dance, in which several dragons accompanied by loud drums went from door to door. Businesses put money in their mouths for good fortune. Sidewalk vendors sold long cylinders that when snapped in half, popped and shot confetti into the air. Kids threw fake firecrackers on the ground that made a loud noise upon impact.DSC00187DSC00188DSC00189DSC00190

About a week later, I came across these fierce dragons near Times Square. Though they’ve apparently been there since last fall, I hadn’t noticed them up close, and they seemed particularly appropriate to take a walk around and greet for the New Year.

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They made me smile. How could they look so ferocious and joyful at the same time? It must have been the heart and happy faces on their noses.

I am still finding confetti. Today I was sitting outside and saw a piece of shiny pink confetti on my pants. It must have fallen out of my purse. That’s how you know you celebrated New Year’s well.

Bonne Année

Towards the end of December I sent out Christmas and holiday greetings to friends, family, and acquaintances, which included many Frenchies. Their responses reminded me of the differences between French and English greetings and how much I love noticing them:

– All the responses wishing me “de très belles fêtes de fin d’année” (very happy end-of-the-year holidays). Not that one can’t say “Joyeuses fêtes” (Happy Holidays), but I think that the fact that the former is even used reveals the specificity of the French language. No wonder non-native English speakers don’t get why we use the word “get” for everything, from “get groceries” and “get ready” to “get up” and “get down.”

– A French friend who responded to my “Merry Christmas” on December 23rd with “Thanks! Although Christmas is in 2 days!” It reminded me of my first year in France, when a friend admonished me for wishing him “Bonne Année” (Happy New Year) before the end of the year, which I had done because we wouldn’t see each other until after the holidays.

– The “bizzz” at the end of some friends’ emails, not to indicate a bee buzzing, but rather a friendly way of signing off. Not to mention the bisous and je t’embrasse and so on depending on the sender’s personality and how they view our relationship.

I hope you enjoyed the holidays. Bonne Année!

A French colleague told me I can say that until January 20th.

Bizzz

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City Sidewalks, Busy Sidewalks

Shortly before heading home to the States for the holidays, I took a long walk in Paris, soaking in the Christmas décor.

My first Christmas in France, I went to almost all the Christmas markets in the city (there are about a dozen). I strolled around the decked out department stores. I saw the impressive Nativity scene at Notre Dame. I attended a couple of Christmas parties. My friends and I had a Christmas dessert fest and exchanged presents. In the middle of the week, a friend and I took a day trip to Strasbourg, where the Christmas market originated. We also went to Lille and saw the lights and decorations.

This year, I have been busy at work and either prise in the evenings or tired and ready to go straight home and have dinner. I still visited the main Christmas market on the Champs-Elysées one Saturday night at a friend’s prompting, where we shuffled alongside the crowds and enjoyed the outdoor Christmas music (in English!) and a glimpse of the Père Noël. I certainly gazed at the streetlights whenever I passed by them on bus or foot. I attended one lavish party and one wonderfully homey one. However, on the whole I certainly didn’t devour Paris at Christmastime as I did two years ago.

Hence, the Saturday before Christmas, I ventured out in search of festivity. I started in the Marais, the oldest part of the city, to check out French artist Mathilde Nivet’s lit display at Hôtel Jules & Jim. The hotel is so inconspicuous that I passed it and doubled back to find the entrance. Inside was a lone receptionist in a quiet and deliberately dim compact woodsy lobby. Nivet’s work was fun and international.100_7453I continued to the Hôtel de Ville (City Hall) where figures built of Christmas balls adorned the façade. This girl looked ready to party.100_7455The Hôtel de Ville is really quite something. It dates from the 14th century.100_7456I hopped on the metro and got off at Sèvres-Babylone to see the decorations at the department store Bon Marché and watch the crisscrossing escalators.100_7457Outside, the sun set over the illuminated city. 100_7460 100_7461The lights and sparkle and spirit were still there this year, I just needed to go find them.

Turkey Dinner, Turkey Dinner

Thanksgiving abroad is a moveable feast. Because it is not a day off in France, most expats opt to celebrate it the weekend before or after, when they will have time to prepare the meal and guests will be available to linger.

As I’m without family here and was not hosting Thanksgiving, I hoped that one of my American friends would invite me to theirs. I was fortunate enough to be invited to two Thanksgivings, one the Saturday before and one the Sunday after the actual holiday.

The first was hosted by a woman who really knows how to throw a party. I was looking forward to it, especially since I was away last year and unable to attend. I ascended the candlelit stairs leading up to her apartment and though late, was the first to arrive. Three French servers bustled around in preparation for the dozens of guests to come. Once people trickled in, one serveur poured wine and another circulated with hors d’oeurves, of which my favorite was an escargot in a puff pastry. It took pig in a blanket to a whole new level.

For the main meal, we served ourselves and sat around the small tables and couches in the salon. It was the type of party where you mingle and meet new people. At one point, I wandered into the kitchen and chatted with the housekeeper, a Peruvian woman whom I already knew and love. I was there for a while until the wait staff kicked me out to clear up the passage.

There were TWO turkeys, though we never got to see them in their full form as they were carved before leaving the kitchen.

My second Thanksgiving was an intimate affair of five people hosted by a Texan friend. The day before, I texted him asking what I could bring, and he responded saying actually, could I come a few hours early to help him cook? The day of, I had just left my apartment when he texted me, “Emergency! I need butter!” I picked up some butter and arrived at his place to a warm kitchen of sweet potatoes and Christmas carols. Truth be told, he did the majority of the work, but I kept him company and sang along to Bing Crosby and Ella Fitzgerald. I also drew a pair of hand turkeys to decorate his coffee table. If you’re American, you know what I’m talking about.

Unable to procure a turkey at his butcher, he cooked gigot d’agneau (a leg of lamb) with garlic. To accompany the meat, he made stuffing, a sweet potato casserole with pecans and marshmallows, and asparagus. I am not a fan of marshmallows, but I have to say the sweet potato casserole was incredibly delicious, and I definitely had second helpings. To top it off, he served a pumpkin pie and a pecan pie he had made. In total between dinner and dessert he used 750 GRAMS OF BUTTER. Oh, Southerners. No wonder it was all so good.

I headed home around 9pm to meet my friend who was coming from New York and staying with me. As she had not eaten dinner yet, we went to a restaurant we like, where I actually considered having an appetizer or dessert before deciding that that was a crazy idea. I tried ordering tea but was told there was none. Juice? Nope, aside from wine they only served coffee. Okay then, a decaf. Non, only regular coffee. This place also doesn’t accept credit cards and has a Turkish toilet, but I was still surprised. At least they didn’t have a problem with me just watching my friend consume her meal.

Since moving to France, I’ve become accustomed to telling the Thanksgiving story to Frenchies. “In 1621…” I remember that my first Thanksgiving here, I felt a bit sad the day of while walking around outside as if it were a normal morning and realizing that no one around me knew that it was one of the biggest holidays in my country. This year, I talked about it to colleagues and people around me, and the act of acknowledging it made me happy.

The day after Thanksgiving, which is always on a Thursday, is Black Friday, when most people in the United States don’t work and stores have huge sales that many people wake up early for. Ridiculously enough, this year I heard that big stores in the U.S. opened one day early, aka on Thanksgiving. Moreover, in England and France apparently some stores observed Black Friday. These are countries that do not celebrate Thanksgiving, and yet non-American brands participated in the price-slashing frenzy. I am all for creating new traditions, but this is not one I can get behind.

Thanksgiving well-celebrated gives me a warm feeling in my heart and belly. Whether or not you had a Thanksgiving meal this year, I hope that you have a reason to be grateful too.99.thanksgiving.2014

Blue, White, and Red

The other night I was biking home and saw the Assemblée Nationale lit up in the colors of the French flag for the upcoming Fête Nationale, or Bastille Day, as we call it in the States. This classic-looking building contains the lower house of the Parliament.77.assembleenat.2014Every year on July 14th crowds of people gather on the Champ de Mars to watch fireworks in honor of the holiday. Last year a friend and her visiting friend and I picnicked on a small side lawn for about five hours before the fireworks started around 11pm. As the fireworks began, the Eiffel Tower sparkled, but with the regular golden lights off so that you only saw a silhouette of sparkles.77.fetenationale.2014

Look Twice

75.eiffels.2014Yesterday evening some friends and I had a picnic to celebrate the Fourth of July. We were a mix of American, French, and Canadian. It was also the night of the French versus Germany World Cup match. I am sure that anyone who noticed I was wearing red and blue assumed I was coming from watching the game rather than on my way to an Independence Day get-together.

When I arrived at the Champ de Mars, there was an international horse show going on at the end of the green in front of the Ecole Militaire. I stayed for a few minutes to marvel with the crowd every time a horse leaped over a jump.

Moving on, I made my way around picnickers to find my friend, who had said that she was sitting in front of the red Eiffel Tower, to which I thought, “Red… Eiffel Tower?”

True enough, there was a replica of the Iron Lady surrounded by velvet ropes. Another friend later explained to us that it is built of chairs to celebrate the 125th anniversary of this type of bistro chair (which he has never seen in a bistro, he added). A French furniture company commissioned this sculpture of 324 chairs, a nod to the 324-meter high Eiffel Tower.

I had to agree with our friend that cafés here typically have traditional cane chairs rather than these metal foldable ones. Yet they looked familiar to me. I read a bit more about the sculpture on the Paris city site, which said that this chair had been adopted internationally, and suddenly it was clear to me. They are all over Times Square in New York City.

On this Friday evening, just another fourth of July in France, there were no fireworks or barbecue or patriotic songs, but Mexican dip and cheese and friends and two Eiffel Towers.