Dinner at Nitehawk Cinema: ‘Christmas Vacation’ and a Beer in a Pear Tree
Because the American film industry is based in the sun bleached sands of Southern California, movies rarely feature snow.
Unless they are Christmas movies.
So it was appropriate that what started as mid-morning flurries turned into full-fledged snow falling on the streets of Brooklyn, as the Film Feasts at the Nitehawk Cinema continued that holiday tradition, serving Christmas Dinner set to the comedy classic National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.
The #2 movie at the box office the weekend it premiered in 1989, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation earned $11 million dollars competing against a host of film’s that would go on to achieve near mythic status including: Back to the Future II (which earned the top position), All Dogs Go to Heaven, Batman, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Harlem Nights, The Little Mermaid, Look Who’s Talking, Steel Magnolias, and Parenthood. without having to adjust for inflation, Christmas Vacation’s grosses would have earned it the same position had it been released in 2014.
Like the movie, the menu mixed the traditional and modern. A rosemary and pine nut shortbread Christmas cookie, and olive oil foam topping, started the night as Clark Griswold cut down the (much too big) family Christmas tree.
Each food item at the Nitehawk comes with a drink and for Christmas Vacation, the booze came courtesy of Ballast Point, an up-and-coming brewer and distiller from Southern California. The first drink of the evening, The Warm Embrace of Kith & Kin: a cocktail of Ballast Point Old Grove Gin (made from seeds of the rarest species of pine tree in the U.S., the endangered Torrey Pine), cherry liqueur, maple syrup, fresh lemon, and Ballast Point Sculpin IPA (also bearing the fruit flavors of apricot, peach, mango, and lemon).
Taking over the role of Audrey Griswold from Dana Barron and Dana Hill is a young Juliette Lewis in one of her first film roles. As she and her mother, played by Beverly D’Angelo, chop vegetables, the Nitehawk’s wait staff delivered a plate of roasted vegetables covered in a walnut and chive vinaigrette matched to a Ballast Point Pale Ale. The beer is the original Ballast Point brew which company founders Jack White and Yuseff Cherney used to launch the company three years after Christmas Vacation premiered. Like the holiday of Christmas, it is a mix of German and American ingredients emulating the Kolsch beers of Köln.
Sage and sausage patty came next, served between cumin scented Buttermilk biscuits and smothered in a black pepper country gravy. Called the Sausage Flying Saucer, the dish came just as Clark Griswold flew down a hill on a “non-caloric, silicon-based kitchen lubricant coated saucer sled.” A limited edition export stout known as the Indra Kunindra came to wash it down. A unique mix of British Indian spices, including Madras Curry, cumin, cayenne pepper, coconut, and kaffir lime leaf, a “disgruntled lawyer” and current Head Brewer at the Fieldwork Brewing Company, Alex Tweet entered the beer in a Ballast Point homebrew contest and won.
After the show, Executive Chef Michael Franey explained the process by which the theater selects its menu. “We all watch the movie independently, then we watch it together. We’ve already selected the menu for the next one.” (It’s a wine and cheese dinner for a screening of Baz Luhrman’s Romeo and Juliet.) Freney, who started his career working in hotels around Baltimore, said the extra time allows the chefs to gather the sometimes obscure ingredients and test new ways to prepare the dishes, especially the Christmas Vacation Film Feast’s highlight, the Christmas Dinner.
As the Griswold Family sits down to enjoy their turkey (joined by the original voice of Betty Boop and Olive Oyl, Mae Questel), the Nitehawk served two types of turkey atop a pile of whipped potatoes, haricot vert, and pan jus. Alongside roasted turkey breast sat shredded confit turkey leg, cooked in duck fat at 250 degrees, giving the meat a tenderness often lacking in its roast variety. “When you roast a turkey,” Freney says, “the breast is finished before the leg, and if you cook the leg longer, the breast gets dried out.”
The hidden stars of the show are the Nitehawk’s expert servers who dart between seats like professional tennis court attendants and without whom none of the festivities would be possible.
In the movie’s final moments, as the Griswold patriarch loses his fight with sanity and launches into an insult and profanity tired that culminates in a request for Tylenol and a cry of “Hallelujah, Holy Shit!,” a glass of Ballast Point’s Three Sheets Aged Rum and eggnog closed out the night.
Christmas Vacation was the last production from the original company that started with Animal House. After its release, J2 Production bought the National Lampoon film brand. It would be four years before National Lampoon’s Loaded Weapon, starring Emilio Estevez and Samuel L. Jackson, hit theaters. National Lampoon, Inc. purchased the brand in 2002 and currently trades for 0 cents per share on the NYSE after two successive CEOs were convicted for stock manipulation and running a Ponzi scheme. In 2012, Tim Durham, the last CEO, received a 50 year prison sentence for what has been called the largest white collar crime in Indiana history.
The only crime at the Nitehawk’s Film Feast was that at a slim 97 minutes, the dinner ended too early. However, free drinks and cookies for film-goers, plus a trivia contest in the downstairs bars, kept the party going even after the curtain fell on the Griswold family.