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A Christmas to Remember

A French Christmas dinner served on the half shell

My favorite Christmas was the time I went hungry at a banquet. I was living with a family in the north of France, not looking forward to the first holiday away from my own family. I would miss the warmth of it all. I would miss the laughter.

But I had an invitation to Christmas dinner en famille. The invitation had come on embossed cream-colored paper. The family was invited, and the American could come along.

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The evening began badly. As we walked into the parlor, I noticed no evidence of cooking. Dinner was minutes away, and yet no smells. My mother had a rule: If guests are knocking and dinner is nowhere in sight, quickly throw an onion into a frying pan. Don't even bother chopping it. As long as the guests smell something, it won't matter how long it takes to bring food to the table.

Dinner this Christmas was not, in fact, minutes away. It was hours away - hours to be spent opening two crates of oysters, fresh off the truck from Brittany.

By the time the crates were emptied and the oysters lined up on great silver trays, smell was no longer a problem. The kitchen, the guests, their children, pets, and clothes all exuded coast of Brittany, at low tide.

Candles were lit, the guests seated, and children hushed. The kitchen door opened, and the oysters appeared. In candlelight, shimmering on polished silver and surrounded by eager faces, an oyster almost looks like food.

The guest of honor from America may eat the first oyster. Eat it? You mean, pick it up and swallow it? Swallowing an uncooked oyster whole is right up there with realizing you've just eaten a marble. I tried to help it along with a shot of water.

``Ah, that was a big mistake,'' the grandfather said in careful French so the guest would be sure to understand. ``When you drink water, the oyster comes alive again.''

We laughed.

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The oysters were followed by a platter of smoked salmon, which is closer to food than oysters, but not quite there yet.

And finally, a bowl of tiny oranges (clementines) from Corsica, still on their branches. I took some of the branches home to eat later.

But it was Christmas, because there was laughter.

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