Updated: Dec 29, 2022
New Year’s Eve used to be the biggest bash of the year– an all-night free-for-all featuring Champagne, dancing, and all manner of revelry.
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Before we get to the food & drink, a little history is in order.
Let me take you back four decades to the Massachusetts city of Northampton, 1982– I was finishing college piecemeal while moonlighting as a newly-hired busboy at BEARDSLEY’S, the fanciest restaurant in town. On New Year’s Eve that year, my wide-open, innocent eyes beheld the scene as the evening unfolded– as-yet-unrestricted cigarette smoke freely mingled with tape-cassette classical music and the general air of high-end revelry as midnight drew nigh. We were offering a special menu that evening-- half again as pricey as the regular fare, and yet the tables were solidly booked all night. Meanwhile, from 5:00PM to the legally-mandated 1:00AM closing time, the bar was three-deep with the regular clientele– successful artists and musicians, notorious, rivet-eyed gangsters from nearby Springfield, their expensively-dressed lawyers, and the cowboy-capitalist developers who were getting obscenely rich off downtown Northampton’s sudden renaissance. Despite their superficial differences, I noted that they all got on perfectly well, as if they were all part of the same invisible social order.
Your favorite restaurant might be cool, but in 1982, BEARDSLEY’S
was “we sell $50 posters of ourselves” cool.
People ate differently back in 1982. The typical Beardsley’s customer that night ordered three courses (appetizer, salad, and entree) plus dessert. Pheasant Pâté and Fettuccine Alfredo were particularly rich appetizer options, and the main courses included Duck à l’Orange and Rack of Lamb. They washed it all down with Champagne or other fabulously expensive wine, mostly French in those days, enjoyed a Cognac or cordial with dessert… and then drove home.
Needless to say, a lot has changed in the intervening four decades. People are more health conscious– they work out, and they eat differently. Nobody smokes in public. And alcohol consumption away from home is an issue.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving– a.k.a. MADD– was founded in 1980 by Candace Lightner, a grieving mother who lost a child to a repeat-offender drunk driver. Within a few years, Ms. Lightner’s activism prompted a wave of stricter drunk driving laws that strongly discouraged the sort of public consumption I had witnessed that New Year’s Eve in 1982. The Great American Wine Boom was also gaining momentum in the 1980’s, which meant, among other things, that more and more Americans were inclined to keep wine at home… and enjoy it with their increasingly fancy home cooking instead of subjecting themselves to the downsides of restaurant capitalism and then risk actual jail time by driving home after consuming overpriced wine with dinner.
Dinner itself is quite different now as well. In 1982, Beardsley’s and many other American French Restaurants were still taking their cues from Julia Child and her user-friendly take on traditional Gallic cookery with its generous use of butter, cream, and flour. The American food scene changed abruptly right after that, first in Manhattan and then elsewhere. French cuisine went out of style, replaced by all things Mediterranean– olive oil, sun-dried tomatoes, arugula, and all that. Then the Atkins diet became a full-blown fad and ruined our enjoyment of bread and pasta and most other carbs.
And then came the 09/11/2001 attacks. I was running a gourmet takeout store in the Berkshires at that time, and we quite naturally saw a huge increase in business from NYC-based second home owners who spent as much time away from Manhattan as possible that autumn. A local furniture tycoon confided to us (with an involuntary grin) that his wealthy customers were “cocooning” in reaction to the attacks, filling their properties with plush new furnishings. Our regional radio stations, sensing the public’s craving for any suggestions of comfort and security, began playing non-stop Christmas music in November. And New Year’s Eve became what we found ourselves calling “the second Thanksgiving.” We saw the traditional revelry, which had been waning anyway, widely replaced by quiet evenings at home shared with family and close friends humbly united in gratitude for their well-being. We happily accommodated their shifting preferences with a special selection of elegant delicacies to enjoy at home.
And now COVID-19 has turned our world upside-down, inside out, and backwards. It has changed the way we work, dine, and socialize. And, of course, it has impacted the way we celebrate New Year’s Eve, furthering the evolution I’ve personally observed since that night at Beardsley’s four decades ago.
Let’s face it– as we bid farewell to 2022, we’re all tired… tired of big things in our world going haywire and making our lives more complicated… tired of the world changing so fast that we can barely keep up with it… tired of so many little things, like too many cars driven by too many people who are too young to have taken Driver Education in high school; tired of working more hours to make the same money as the price of everything rises… too tired, finally, to ring in the New Year like we think we're supposed to.
If you feel this way, you are far from alone. And so, for a MADD-friendly, Not-So-French, No-Carb, Second Thanksgiving, Socially-Distant, low-effort New Year’s Eve dinner for two at home, I suggest the following stupid-simple yet elegant menu... go ahead and call it "Surf & Turf" if you'd like--
Beef Tenderloin w/ Tarragon Butter
Chocolate Truffles (store-bought)
Crab Louis was a widely enjoyed appetizer many decades ago, and I think it should be more popular today than it is. I like to combine other seafoods– say, shrimp, scallops, and/or lobster meat– with the crab. Louis Sauce recipes vary widely... Here is a particularly zingy version from wine maven Larry Stone, made from fairly common pantry spices and condiments. My personal preference is the simpler and more elegant New York Times recipe. There are many others out there. (Pro Tip: crab meat varies widely in quality, from glorified cat food to fabulous. I recommend looking for products from Handy Seafood, a company that offers a line of crab meat graded according to quality and intended use. Another Pro-Tip: I like the idea of serving this salad in an oversized martini glass lined with frizzy lettuce leaves. I’d post a useful photo if I were home instead of out on the road for 12 straight days including Christmas and New Year’s. Yeah, I’m tired, too.)
Beef Tenderloin is generally available this holiday season– in Angus or Wagyu, Prime or Choice– either at your local quality grocery store or online from numerous purveyors. Even for small (6 oz.) individual servings, I like to treat it like a roast– take it from the fridge and let it warm up, pan-sear each side, and then finish in a 350ºF oven until the internal temperature reaches 125º for nice and medium-rare. Tarragon Butter is a simple preparation with many different recipes. Use this guide to help you formulate your own. Sauteed greens such as broccoli, baby spinach, or asparagus complete the wonderfully delicious, no-carb picture.
After such a challenging year and busy holiday season, making dessert for two from scratch might understandably seem like an unnecessary chore. Here is where I cop out and pick up a small bag of Lindt Lindor truffles and call it a day. Try to eat just one.
And… I welcome any excuse to drink Champagne and the fabulous versions of American-made sparkling wine. If you’re going to enjoy bubbly but once a year, this would be the perfect occasion… even if you are only celebrating your all-too-brief respite from the demanding holiday season and the world at large. Click here for my recommendations.
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We at Danny’s Table wish you a safe and happy New Year’s Eve and a healthy, prosperous, soul-enriching, and RESTFUL 2023.