Australian by birth, Parisian by marriage, film critic and biographer Baxter (We’ll Always Have Paris, 2005, etc.) makes an amiable, jocular companion in this account of preparing a large Christmas dinner for a house full of French in-laws.
The final two-thirds of his frisky text deals with the peripatetic preparation of a specific meal, though in these same chapters, as earlier, the author digresses often and smoothly into reflections on Christmases past, in Australia and elsewhere. Baxter indulges in some occasional, informal cultural anthropology, for example, comparing the Gallic notion of sin with that of the American. “Providing it is conceived with imagination and carried off with flair,” he writes, the French regard sin as “evidence of endurance, of survival, of life.” He comments on the Gallic passion for the Christmas holiday (everything is closed; everyone is with family) and observes that, contrary to what readers of Julia Child may think, French cooking is essentially simple. Baxter rehearses his own evolution as a cook—in early manhood, he’d cooked for his girlfriends for reasons of economy but discovered its powerful aphrodisiac qualities—and confesses that he’d never much cared for Christmas as a lad (he preferred reading). He chronicles his courtship of his second wife and offers anecdotes about his writing career. But the meat in this pie is Baxter’s account of the Christmas when he cooked a piglet with its skin still in place, accompanied by oysters and fresh fruit. He prepared it Cajun-style, which made finding the right wine a challenge. His in-laws, not spice-lovers, had to be told about the French connection between Cajuns and Acadians before they licked their platters clean.
Scrooges may complain about the ebullient excess celebrated in these rollicking pages, but most readers will greedily consume the succulent narrative.