Marking new year evolves from partying hard to food and friendship

December 31, 2003

I had in mind that this New Year's Eve column would be a frivolous meditation on celebrations and merriment. I originally envisioned the word "PARTY' in a giant H-T banner headline floating across the top of the page, possibly followed by some festive exclamation points and floating champagne bubbles.

As I have worked on this piece, though, I have realized just how much my idea of a good party has changed over the years, and how much my thinking about the place of food in the New Year's celebration has changed along with it.

I grew up thinking that everyone had a party on New Year's Eve. Not only did it mark the passing of the old year and the start of a new one, but it was my dad's birthday. Our house overflowed with good cheer and good spirits, especially spirits, every December 31. There was food — at least, I'm pretty sure there was — but mostly, as I remember, those parties were all about booze.

The family genes bred true, and I was myself the life and soul of the party for a good long time, until wisdom and grace got the better of me and I called it quits in January, 1987. Which left me with this problem: if you aren't going to drink yourself silly on New Year's Eve, what on Earth are you going to do while everyone else is drinking themselves silly? The answer was clear, in my case anyway: I was going to eat.

There have followed some memorable New Year's Eve meals. One of my favorites was the simplest — the New Year's my husband and I spent in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Our gala celebration consisted of buying a carryout barbeque feast and eating it while propped up in bed watching "Swinging with the Apes," a Discovery Channel marathon of nature shows about primates that kept us in stitches all evening long.

At the other end of the formality spectrum was the New Year's Eve meal we had with friends to celebrate the millennium. We planned and cooked for days, and the results were, well, daunting — a marathon of a different kind. We began that dinner with caviar and crabcakes, went on to smoked salmon with crème fraiche and capers, grilled foie gras with arugula and pears in a fig tangerine balsamic vinaigrette, and seared diver scallops with black truffles in brown butter with dressed greens.

After a much needed palate cleanser of tangerine and pomegranate sorbet, we had seared Kobe beef with truffled mashed potatoes, haricot verts, and roasted endive. A mesclun salad and a cheese plate (Brie, Stilton, American Alpine and Cambazola, with fruit and nuts) rounded off the evening. There was dessert (Crème Brulee, chocolate pralines, triple ginger cookies and chocolate covered apricots) but, as I recall, none of us could face it. That New Year's Eve proved to me you could have a hangover without ever drinking a drop, and that it is indeed possible to have too much of a good thing.

Aristotle says that virtue lies in moderation, and that's what we've been aiming for lately — something between carryout barbeque and the Roman food orgy of the millennium. What we look for in a New Year's Eve meal these days is something that is not too hard to pull off and that, coming after a week or more of holiday eating, is not so rich that it gives us nightmares or indigestion if we have dinner late in the evening. We want something that tastes wonderful and that sets us up for a great new year, with both body and soul well fed.

After all, in the long run, what is most important about food on New Year's is not whether it is plain or fancy, or whether it is finger food passed on silver trays, or a sit-down dinner at a beautifully set table (or even a carryout picnic on a hotel bed), it is that it be shared with pleasure and attention by people who care about each other. Auld Lang Syne, sung in much of the western world to commemorate New Year's Eve is, when all is said and done, not a call to wild revelry or excess, but a nostalgic and bittersweet ode to friendship across the years.

With that in mind, we are spending New Year's Eve tonight with some of our favorite people — our newest granddaughter and her parents. Laney Grace is too young to do anything but hit the bottle, but the rest of us will be more restrained, enjoying classic comfort food — a scrumptious pasta carbonara, traditional except for the addition of sautéed mushrooms. We'll start with some shaved fennel and radishes with sea salt, and serve the pasta with a salad of sturdy greens (like escarole and chicory) with dried cherries and pistachios in a red wine vinaigrette. For the finish, pomegranate sorbet scooped into a crunchy molasses cookie cup — in a way, another cup of kindness yet, for auld lang syne.

Happy New Year.

We send our own New Year's wishes to readers along with Christine's. You can tell her your favorite food experience via e-mail — her address is cbarbour@heraldt.com. Next week, Food Fare partner Jennifer Piurek will start off on the right foot in 2004 by talking to several people who've had significant success in the battle of the bulge.