Served: Christmas with Restaurant People

I blog by day and wait tables in a New York City restaurant by night. I'm excited to bring you Served, dispatches from the front of the house. Enjoy!

20080616-servedbug.jpgD. was the effervescent wine director at an awesome restaurant nearby, and a regular at my place.

A year ago, D. sat at the table by the cheese case, waiting for his girlfriend. He had just finished work and was bursting with energy. I, on the other hand, was fading fast. I poured him a glass of aglianico and we chatted.

“Do you have Christmas Eve plans?” he inquired. I didn’t.

Five minutes later, that had changed.

Feast of the Seven Fishes

The Feast of the Seven Fishes, also known as La Vigilia, is a Southern Italian Christmas Eve tradition. It is exactly how it sounds: seven fishes, or seven seafood dishes, are to be consumed on the night before Christmas.

D.’s Feast of Seven Fishes must have been the most fabulous version ever executed. D. and his girlfriend S. are dinner party royalty. It’s not just their swanky East Village apartment, their great friends, or the fact that they own an impressive, funky collection of glassware, plates, and every conceivable piece of ideal dinner party accouterments. They are passionate, serious, creative cooks. They love eating, drinking, and having a good time. They are exceedingly good at having a good time.

All the stops were pulled out. M., D.’s obscenely talented bartender friend, was infusing sake with fennel, getting ready weeks before. He created cocktails to pair with a few of the courses; for the rest, D. and S. had wonderful wines picked out. We were welcomed with caviar and M.’s sake/prosecco cocktail. The fennel in the drink echoed the fennel in the happy bite of caviar. This was going to be an alright night.

Five hours later, we were full from mustardy salmon, S.’s silky lobster ravioli, and a gazillion other delicious courses that originated from the sea (we definitely exceeded seven). We buzzed from the enormous amount of wine and liquor we collectively consumed—I still remember the perfectly crisp, minerally sparkling rosé. We picked at the chocolates I had brought while M. raided D.’s liquor cabinet, shaking up after dinner cocktails for the lucky guests.

Another Party? Yes!

A., my friend and fellow server, hosted a potluck on Christmas day—the day after the seven fishes feast—at his apartment in Brooklyn. The guests were instructed to bring something from our own Christmas custom.

I spent the day in bed, recovering the excessive bubbly and pasta. When I managed to get up, I bought spare ribs from Ollie’s to bring to A.’s place. My bag of food and I were alone on the subway. In Brooklyn, there was perfect honey ham, baked apples, plenty of wine, and A.’s famous peppermint ice cream sandwiches.

Christmas Deprivation

I’m Jewish, and not in that “but I have a Christmas tree” sort of way. Growing up, my family’s Christmas tradition consisted of going out for movies and Chinese food (hence my much appreciated spare rib potluck contribution). I associated Christmas primarily with feeling vaguely left out.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to love Christmas. I get to enjoy the sappy music and pretty lights without the stress that the holiday often seems to entail. I get to collect the little, genuine pieces of joy and avoid the accompanying trauma.

Traditions

Last year, a regular brought Christmas cards for everyone who works at my restaurant. She is a writer, and composed such a beautiful note, I think I actually cried. J., a good friend who I work with, brought in tins of candy that her grandmother makes each year and mails to her from California: “All the good stuff,” J. says, “just sugar, butter, almonds and chocolate.” Good stuff indeed.

Last night, the candy was back. We ate it with gruet, because bubbles are supremely Christmasy.

As we get older, we learn to make our own traditions. This is J.’s first year celebrating Christmas without her family. Her mom sent her stockings in the mail. J.’s Hell’s Kitchen apartment has no fireplace, but A., an artist, drew J. a facsimile fireplace, complete with blazing orange flames, on poster board. It’s hanging proudly on her wall, adorned with the (real life) stockings.

I’m going back to A.’s this year, probably sans Chinese takeout. But there will be wine, friends, love, fun. How could I not be down?

Working in a restaurant means working when the rest of the world is playing, resting, or celebrating. But when not working, my restaurant friends have taught me how to play, celebrate, and feast like nobody’s business.

Thanks to everyone who has shared holiday love. I am immensely lucky.

Have a merry, happy Christmas however you do or do not celebrate the day. And if you’re in need of a plan, a good movie, a bottle of bubbly, and some greasy Chinese food always seem to do the trick.

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