I’ve loved Coq au Vin for as long as I can remember. I love the rich flavors and the thick sauce of it. I love the smell that fills the kitchen. When I was in the fourth grade, my teacher asked us to write our autobiographies. I entitled mine “Leaves,” because paper and books, like leaves, come from trees. And because I had a good picture of myself sitting in a pile of leaves that I could put on the cover. I thought I was terribly clever. I wrote about my cat, Pumpkin, and our house in Massachusetts. Our teacher suggested we could also write about things like our favorite movie, a favorite trip, a favorite meal, etc. I wrote about, in order, “The Guns of Navarone,” a ski trip we’d taken to Switzerland, and Coq au Vin.
It wasn’t the kind of dish you’d guess my mother, Audree, would make. She had been born and raised in South Dakota. Her father’s family was descended of Norwegian stock, and her mother’s family was an English, Scottish, Irish mix. Mom had some adventurous tastes, but her cooking tended to be a standard American style; we ate pork chops, spaghetti, fried chicken. It’s true we were the first people I knew who had a wok – this was 1973, after all. On the other hand, sometimes she tried to feed me liver. (The only liver I like is called pâté.) By the time she was in her sixties, my mother admitted that she didn’t enjoy cooking, and my father took over.
But in 1961, soon after my mom moved to New York and a year before she and my father got married, Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle was published to rave reviews. My mother got a copy of the cookbook. Then, Child had her Emmy-award winning cooking show, and I can remember watching it on our black and white TV and hearing that voice of hers take people through the steps of making boeuf bourguignon, cassoulet, and, famously, Coq au Vin.
In our home, Coq au Vin was a meal reserved for Christmas. But the history of the dish has rustic origins that may trace back to Roman times. Traditionally it calls for the less-prized dark meat, and a coq, after all, is a rooster, a tough bird that really benefits from a lot of marinating and braising before eating it. It’s comfort food from farm country which became haute cuisine when it crossed the Atlantic. (A French accént can do wonders for your PR in America.)
In any event, there was certainly no other recipe my mother followed that called for so much wine. Or brandy! And then called for lighting it on fire!! My father and I would gather in the kitchen when it was time for my mother to light the fumes from the brandy, and even the flame seemed exotic – a barely there, blue specter, dancing over the top of the chicken. That was part of what took a stew and made it mythic. That and the changes to our dining room: The lights would be turned off, and the tall candles would be lighted. The white linen tablecloth would be draped over the dining table, and the good dishes and the wine glasses we only used on Christmas would come out. I knew the proper placement for utensils and got to set the silver. Then we would sit down, with Christmas music on the record player, and savor that rustic stew.
I feel like Christmas meals lost some of their magic for a few years following the dissolution of my first marriage. Those were years of divided celebrations, with a pre-Christmas dinner with a girlfriend’s family and Christmas day with mine, or vice versa. My family being small and less bound to tradition, we started opting for less fuss for the meal. But a few years ago, after my father’s death and the birth of our daughter, my wife, Alix, and I started hosting Christmas. We felt a desire to make the event a little more elegant. I wanted Coq au Vin.
So, I rolled up my sleeves and found Mom’s copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking and Julia Child’s recipe. I began with some trepidation as I seemed to remember my mother laboring for hours in the kitchen. But I was determined. And before long, familiar scents from my childhood were rising from my stove and filling my kitchen. Samplings of the sauce tasted right, and I even managed to coax a couple of blue-flamed dancers to life in my Le Creuset pot. When I brought it to the table and set it on the tablecloth, between the candles, and next to the china and crystal glasses, it felt like Christmas. And everyone complimented me on the cooking, even my mother, who also said, “You shouldn’t have done so much work on it.” Merci, maman.
My mother died in early January of 2020, just before the pandemic took hold. I have few tangible connections to the Christmases of my youth: The spine of my mother’s old Mastering the Art of French Cooking wore down decades ago, and the front cover is no longer attached; I found my autobiography, “Leaves,” in Mom’s apartment and leafed through it, and then stored it away again; my cat Pumpkin lived to ripe old age of 19 but has been gone for 32 years; “The Guns of Navarone” is definitely not my favorite movie anymore; the ski trip to Switzerland was great but has been surpassed many times; I’ve been several different people since I was nine.
But despite all the ways I’ve changed since then, Coq au Vin is still my favorite meal. And I’m planning to make it for Christmas Eve this year for a lovely Réveillon. Joyeux Noël à tous!