Like many of you, I’m preparing to celebrate a fairly scaled-back Christmas. I’m lucky to be safe, to have avoided the covid (thus far!), and to have enough wine in stock to last a few months.
The Christmas meal, the one I grew up with, is a bit of a strange combination. I remember Keith Floyd saying it was a menu only a drunk could have created. Far too many things that need to be ready at once, too many sauces and sides. Three things that are basically the same ingredients (Christmas cake, Christmas pudding, and mince pies).
I’ve written on twitter about the odd history of mince pies, but truly the whole meal is bizarre.
In England today, turkey is the standard roast bird on the Christmas table: though historically this would not have been the case. They started to gain ground as an eating bird (and to be farmed) from the nineteenth century, but really took off as a commercial option in the twentieth.
Historically, a roast duck, chicken, or goose would have been standard (for those who afford one). I’ve had goose occasionally, but they’re huge (so not much good for a small group) and also expensive as all get-out.
As an agricultural commodity, turkeys are a better deal than geese. Turkeys can have a much longer breeding season (up to six months in captivity), and some lay up to 100 eggs per year. Geese can’t match that level of productivity (they breed for only 2 months and lay far fewer eggs). So we now have turkeys bred like chicken, to be hefty and tasty, affordable, and sitting in the frozen section of the supermarket 12 months of the year. Geese tend to only be available during their season, like other game birds.
Christmas turkeys are where I learned about giblets (that plastic packet inside the Butterball, where pulling it out was a weird combination of gutting the animal yourself, and finding a toy in the bottom of the cornflakes box). I was thinking the other day how oddly anachronistic they are. I don’t recall ever seeing giblets in a supermarket chicken (though apparently they once came with them too?). But all our Christmas recipes are resolutely old fashioned. (A friend went to the supermarket and asked where she would find suet. The reply? “1974”).
Centuries of need and preference have built up a strange conglomeration that has fierce devotees. One of the stranger elements (not including Brussels sprouts which are hideous), is bread sauce. Sort of a lumpy bechamel, its purpose was never clear. We had bread in the stuffing. We had sauce in the gravy. We had mushy white stuff in potatoes. At no other time of the year would my mother have been studding an onion with cloves and cooking it in milk (while trying to cook all the other things), in order to make this stuff. But it would be made, another layer of starch to pile on the plate.
For our ancestors living by the agricultural year, this was a feast - and we can see in it still the time when dried fruit was fancy, when a roast bird was something special, and this meal was a highlight in a cold winter. They prepared for weeks ahead, steaming the pudding, possibly fattening the goose, and observing the religious days of Advent.
My parents always insisted on having basically the same meal as Christmas in their English childhoods. I’m a little more selective (I skip the ham, the bread sauce AND the sprouts). My Christmas preferences are all for the sweets, the marzipan, the mince pies, stollen, and lebkuchen.
I won’t be going to church this year. But I will have mulled wine to drink by the fireplace. Best Christmas wishes to you all.