With more and more people becoming interested in the origins of our food, Christmas is the perfect time to learn from the past, writes food historian Regina Sexton.
I had no idea what a melon baller was until 1989. For Christmas that year, Darina Allen brought to the world her Christmas dinner starter, grape and melon with mint. Her television programme, A Simply Delicious Irish Christmas (with the book of the same name) showed us how to make it.
In thousands of homes on thousands of TVs, Darina peeled no end of grapes and balled up on end of little melon globes. We were hooked and in more ways than one: hooked on the lovely strangeness of the orangey mint syrup for the dinky melons and grapes and hooked on the idea that this needed special tools — a melon baller and a paper clip pulled apart and re-shaped into a hook, for hooking out the grape seeds.
It was hard labour, but we suffered it, skinning the no end of grapes and hooking out the no end of seeds. And it was worth it because this was a special, new and exotic addition to the traditional package of Christmas foods. When it comes to Christmas, we fall under some kind of food spell. We want an element of exotic but also the solace of traditional things.
Try buying a jam swiss roll or a bottle of sweet sherry in the days leading up to Christmas and you’ll be hard-pressed to find any in the shops. It’s as if a collective craving for trifle has descended in a fairy wind and so we wipe the shelves clean of the essential ingredients in our craze to prepare this luscious pudding.
Our attachment to trifle is never as pronounced as it is at Christmas and I suppose that’s the power of tradition. It is all about patterns and routines, and to disrupt those makes us feel that we’re not doing Christmas properly. And Christmas food is all about patterns, routines, and repetitions — turkeys, geese, hams, puddings and pies.
We might be uncertain about what traditional food means for the rest of the year but at Christmas, there’s nothing surprising about it, we know what to expect and the rituals make us feel safe. We have good and romanticised feelings about Christmas food. It links us with Christmases past and it lets us indulge in the cosiness of nostalgia.
We aim to have everything about Christmas food just ‘perfect’, which leaves us vulnerable to the commercial Christmas-food industry. But then we take comfort in the fact that everyone else is doing broadly the same things with food and this brings us together in a community of shared experience. It makes us feel that we belong to a group but Christmas food also makes us feel that we belong to a smaller family group.
Christmas food is all about the emotion of intimacy, belonging and sharing. So much so that to eat outside a family setting or to be alone at Christmas brings strong feelings of being disconnected and isolated. Nothing says social pariah better than the taboo of Christmas dinner for one.
Our relationship with food at Christmas time, and the rituals that go with it, are powerful symbols of how we manage family, of how we design a feast, of how we’re faithful to tradition but also of how were tempted by the new. And of how for the twelve days of Christmas, we throw off constraint in favour of excess. It’s an all-out blur of food, indulgence, and merriment with a strong sense of carnival about it. It’s hedonistic and that’s why Puritans banned Christmas, and especially Christmas food, between the 1640s and 1660. Mince pies in the shape of the manger with little lids of pastry to mimic the baby Jesus were just too much for Puritan sensibilities. Plum pottages, the forerunners of puddings, full of sugar, expensive fruit and fat, were just too corrupting and the feasts of meat — roast beef, turkeys, and geese, not to mention the swans, peacocks and cranes, were gateways to sin because meat, in particular, red meat, raised the blood and prompted debauchery.
And nothing was more corrupting than a mince pie with all its elements of excess — minced meat, minced animal suet, luxury exotic spices, sugar from the New World plantations and expensive dried fruits. The mince pie gave the common man and woman a taste of the luxury food of the wealthy and no good could come of that social disorder.
Worse still was its association with Christian and pre-Christian superstition — the belief was that for good luck you ate a pie on each of the 12 days of Christmas. As a survivor from late medieval times, the mince pie sums up all that we still aim for in Christmas food, we want the sense of carnival — we want luxury, fat, and flavour, we want sugar and spice, different meats and we want alcohol both inside and outside the Christmas dishes. But we also want all of this food anchored in the calm domestic bliss of family harmony.
This is the traditional Christmas feast that we have inherited and essentially what we practice is a very English Christmas.
The popular mind likes to see Charles Dickens and A Christmas Carol from 1843 as the inspiration behind these customs, but Dickens wasn’t really responsible for the invention or re-invention of Christmas. What he did was to frame a particular Christmas menu — a roast goose, applesauce, mashed potatoes, gravy, plum pudding, apples, oranges and chestnuts, which was based on existing traditions and he set it firmly in the context a family-based celebration. This suited Victorian notions of family and respectability. And, as a set menu, it also suited 19th-century trends in the commercialisation of Christmas and the popularisation of Christmas paraphernalia.
But other writers, in particular, the American, Washington Irving, were more detailed in their descriptions of Christmas food. Irving’s 1819/20, Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent, from which Dickens no doubt took inspiration, has a more comprehensive description of the English Christmas dinner — boars’ heads, turkeys, geese, sirloins of beef, mince pies, tongues, hams, plum pudding, sugar, and spice. In fact, Irving draws on Christmas food traditions that were popular in the 16th and 17th centuries; the very ones that were denounced as Papist and they have much in common with the great cookery writers of Restoration England that encourage great Christmas meat and fowl feasts. Today, we practice a distillation of this English aristocratic extravagance by having a big bird, a variety of meats, pies, and puddings.
But hidden in there too are elements of other traditions that have lost relevance - the November farm-animal and fowl cull, which gave a supply of meat and cured meats; the mid-winter solstice feasting, and in a Christian tradition, the anticipation for the feast that followed the Advent fasting season.
As we become more removed from these rituals and rhythms, the more uncertain we are of how and where food is produced. In this insecurity, we tend to inflate the importance of the food traditions of the past.
Tradition brings a sense of identity and stability in the face of global food production. In some quarters, traditional food is now as fashionable as local and seasonal food. Indeed, one supermarket chain is even offering marrow bone pies and Tudor pies
But tradition doesn’t really work like that, it’s a bit more complex: it’s comforting and set but it’s also dynamic and ever-evolving. It’s accommodating to brussels sprouts and will accept better versions of itself, like plum pudding imitations in the form of caramel bombes and chocolate pudding fondants.
It likes to consider fashion trends and moves around these in funny ways, as from goose to bronze turkey, to white turkey and back to bronze again. And, sometimes it acts in ways we don’t like to think of as traditional, like making a one-time exotic like sugar an everyday reality on the back of plantation labour and large-scale trade.
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