My friend Annabel Whitby, an Englishwoman of uncommon good sense, once defined New Year's Eve as "an assault course that forces you to drive down icy lanes to join the same people you've seen a dozen times over Christmas, all behaving frightfully, and try to think of something new to say to them.'' The night used to provide an annual anticlimax for me, too—until Bill Baker took the problem in hand.
Bill could be John Bull's twin. Broad-backed, ample-bellied, Falstaffian in his love of good grub, good grog, and good times, he is now the majordomo of all our New Year's Eves. We didn't set out to create a tradition; it all began very casually about a half-dozen years ago when several of us (who see each other far too seldom) fell to talking about meeting at a restaurant for a year's-end feast. When that seemed impractical, especially in view of the heightened highway vigilance of the British police, it occurred to Bill that his house, a former flour mill built near Bath in the 1830s, had enough beds for everyone. So we gathered there, and we ate, drank, laughed, told tales, and resolved to do the same the following year.
All of the original miscreants were British, except for my wife, Betsey, and me—and you might describe us as aspirant Brits, since we lived in England for a good ten years and return often. Last New Year's, in addition to the four Bakers (Bill, his wife, Kate, and their two Campbell's Soup kids, Polly and George) and the two of us, the cast included Betsey's daughter, Catherine Brown, who lives in Jakarta, and her friend, Scotsman Grant Collins; the wine writer Jancis Robinson, her husband, Nick Lander, a restaurant reviewer for the Financial Times, and two of their three kids; Ian Doherty, a droll bachelor from Derry in Northern Ireland who knew Baker at Cambridge; and Simon Hopkinson, who until recently presided over the stoves at London's chic Bibendum and remains an owner of the place while working as a food writer. At 6 months, George Baker was the youngest reveler. At 61, alas, I was the eldest.
Britain has experienced a gastronomic revival in the past couple of decades, especially in its restaurant cooking. Culinary progress, however, has come at great cost to tradition. The way I calculate it, "Modern British Cooking", as guidebooks call it, is about 40 percent French bourgeois, 30 percent Italian, and—after factoring in bits of Thai, Japanese, and American Southwestern—only about 20 percent British. At Bill's, I am pleased to report, another ideal is pursued—that exemplified not by Elizabeth David, who played a large part in bringing Mediterranean breezes into English kitchens, but by another culinary writer, Jane Grigson. Hers is meticulously timed, unadorned, traditional cooking, based on seasonal local ingredients of the best possible quality. Once commonplace, it is now rare.
Food plays a larger part in New Year's traditions in Europe than it does in the United States. In France, the second half of December sees most of the year's consumption of foie gras and caviar; in Austria, piglets and mushrooms are esteemed as seasonal good-luck charms; and in Hungary, January 1 is met with a fortifying bowl of sauerkraut soup. For our New Year's Eve in England, we eat cold-weather comfort food, and, for six years running, our pièce de résistance has remained the same: beef. (Lamb, Baker tells us, is not at its best midwinter.)
I guess I had better stop and talk a little about bovine spongiform encephalopathy, better known as "mad cow disease". It was already a topic of discussion in Britain last New Year's, though it had not yet come to rival the weather and the serial infidelity of the royal family as the mainstay of conversation. I called Bill, a contrarian and a paragon of political incorrectness, at the height of the mania and asked what he was having for dinner that night. "Beautiful sirloin, old boy,'' he replied. "Got it for nothing.'' He views the British beef crisis the way modern investors view a 200-point drop in the Dow—as a buying opportunity.