Don’t be alarmed. This post is not about cat food.
My first job after graduating from college was in Washington, DC at an NGO. I won’t rehash what I did there since I’ve mentioned it before here. For a place that I never would have thought to have any impact on how I think about food, I have some amazing food memories that are a direct result from working there and the people I met. The very first thought of what would become my most beloved annual food holiday sprouted when standing in the copy room/kitchen talking to Marty, who ran the finances for the NGO. Marty was Italian-American and grew up on the lower east side of Manhattan. I had never met anyone from the lower east side of Manhattan and even though I knew that the place really existed I felt that it only existed in movies and that Marty was a character from a Scorsese film. Marty was telling me about his plans for Christmas Eve, Italian-style. For the first time ever, he was the one responsible in his family for frying all the different seafood for the Feast of the Seven Fishes. I didn’t know what that was so he told me all about it. And then I was jealous. I told him I celebrate Christmas January 7 and we eat herring on Christmas Eve. His seafood extravaganza sounded so much better than my herring non-extravaganza.
It wasn’t until years later, living with my boyfriend in Toronto, with both of us off work that whole Christmas week that I thought that we should do something celebratory even though we both don’t celebrate Christmas then. I remembered Marty’s story about the Italian Christmas Eve and all that seafood. So, on Christmas Eve we would do a seafood fest, using the Italian Feast of the Seven Fishes as an inspiration rather than an exact blue print. I made a seafood paella with large prawns and mussels and clams and calamari. I didn’t want to call our little holiday Feast of the Seven Fishes because it wasn’t a bona fide Italian Christmas Eve. We decided to call it Fancy Feast instead.
That inaugural Fancy Feast back in 2005 was a humble affair in retrospect. Fancy Feast has now grown into a two-day (sometimes three-day) eating extravaganza. But no holiday just happens. There’s the planning and the list making and the shopping that is almost as much fun as the holiday itself. Oh the anticipation! All of my cookbooks are pulled off the shelves and all of my favourite recipe blogs are perused during the hunt for what will be our Fancy Feast Menu. I take this research very seriously, like it’s a job. Once the menu is drawn up, the shopping list is drafted, the who picks up what details are confirmed between me and my boyfriend, and then we set out to the stores to pick everything up. In between the food purchasing, we make sure to stock the shelves with wine and to get a big stack of DVDs from the Film Buff. Everything on our lists is bought by the afternoon of December 24th. All that planning and prepping pays off; we don’t have to leave the house for the next few days.
The 24th is always a big seafood dinner. Oysters have become the official kick off and king crab legs have become the traditional main attraction. We rotate through a number of other dishes with clams or scallops or prawns or lobster. December 25th feasting starts with breakfast, something more elaborate than eggs and toast. In previous years, it’s been freshly baked cinnamon rolls, coffee cakes or pound cakes, or potato pancakes with smoked salmon. This year it was sugary orange scented olive oil sticky buns. This recipe might become breakfast tradition, it was that good.
A French rustic terrine with baguette, cornichons and Dijon mustard is now tradition for lunch on the 25th. Dinner is a carnivorous extravaganza (a yang to seafood’s ying). One year I made a beef wellington, a tenderloin wrapped in puff pastry! So much fanciness in that recipe. The following year I topped that by making an osso buco with porcini mushroom risotto. That dish was sobbing good. Last year I roasted a whole veal shank and served it with wild mushrooms and duck fat roasted potatoes. I didn’t stop there. The next day I took that veal shank, shredded all the meat off and made a savoury veal ragu and served it with pappardelle. An awesome 1-2 punch. This year we got a large T-bone steak from Sanagan’s Meat Locker, seared it off in the hottest pan and then basted it with a garlic and thyme butter as it finished cooking. And the perfect side to this fancy steak? Onion rings.
We plan a menu of delicious dishes that, at any other time of year, we would never attempt because it costs way too much or takes too much time to make or is not really the healthiest to eat or just feels too special to have at any other time of year. And it’s not just about being extravagant with the food. If we want to eat our fabulous dinner sitting on the floor watching TV in our pajamas – we can. And watch movies. And drink. And crack open that bottle of wine that costs too much to drink with any other meal. But we have learned that getting drunk and still having things to cook that have multiple, elaborate steps and that have never been attempted before will result in failure. There has to be some restraint before sitting down to the table. After that, not so much. Fancy Feast isn’t fancy because it’s just about being fancy. It’s fancy because we let ourselves be extravagant with whatever we want to do. We created a holiday! How fancy is that?