A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Literary Christmas Feasts
One of the most potent sources of nostalgia and memory about Christmas is food, and the distinctive dishes and recipes that instantly conjure up the season. Christmas food is set about with tradition, ritual and glamour. Many people love the traditional Christmas menu and regard it as an annual treat (I am one). Others loathe it. Finally, somebody has to deal with the remains of the feast … . The best writers manage to convey the emotional tapestry woven by Christmas food – its richness and its ritual, its satiety, luxury, excess and aftermath. Here, Bookfoxes Jackie, Moira, Kate and Hilary go to their favourite literary Christmas meals for inspiration.
In Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda , chapter 3 introduces us to Oscar, the narrator’s great-grandfather. He is in his early teens and living in a Devon cottage with his father, Theopolis, an Evangelical pastor and amateur naturalist. His father’s rigid religiosity did not allow Christmas, feeling that some of the church “festivals…are not Christian at all”. The day is just another day.
However, the two household servants are disturbed at the lack of celebration and secretly make Oscar a Christmas pudding which he’s never had before. After lunch, under the guise of having him help clear up, they call him into the kitchen and serve it to him. As he’s taking his second bite, his father bursts into the kitchen and slaps the back of his head to make him spit it out, before throwing the rest of it into the fire. “His Father said the pudding was the fruit of Satan. But Oscar had tasted the pudding. It did not taste like the fruit of Satan.”
It was the first time Oscar had not believed his father and sowed seeds of doubt which would set him on a very different Life’s path.
The holiday appears again later in the book,in chapter 83, when Oscar is an adult and an Anglican minister in Australia. He has been chastely living with Lucinda, after being fired for gambling in the parsonage. Their presumed relationship has scandalized the neighborhood and when they attend church on Christmas morning, the sermon, devoted to adultery, is directed at them. As they leave the church, Lucinda is hurt and insulted. Soon after they arrive home, Oscar proposes marriage to Lucinda “to save her reputation”, not admitting that he loves her dearly. Her emotions are still roiling from church, so she doesn’t respond, but flees to her bedroom before bursting into tears. As the day wears on and Lucinda does not come out, Oscar finally makes a pancake for lunch. She smells it cooking and wishes he would come in to comfort her, both irritated and respecting his being too proper to do so. The day represents all of the complexity of their relationship.
Both Christmas days are great disappointments to Oscar. As they both contain wish fulfillments that are snatched away by circumstances and prejudices. They are relatively simple desires that are everyday occurrences, yet they elude Oscar. That is only part of the tragedy of this poignant story of misfits.
Think of Christmas, and it’s odds-on you’ll think of Dickens. Think of Dickens and Christmas and it’s a racing certainty you’ll think of Scrooge, the Cratchits and Tiny Tim. But A Christmas Carol wasn’t Charles Dickens’ first Christmas story. That honour is held – appropriately enough, given the subject matter of this piece – by A Christmas Dinner.
Dickens wrote it when he was just 22 years old, and you’ll find it in Sketches by Boz. It pretty much encapsulates everybody’s idea of the perfect ‘old-fashioned’ Christmas.
Starting with the words:
‘Christmas time! That man must be a misanthrope indeed, in whose breast something like a jovial feeling is not roused – in whose mind some pleasant associations are not awakened – by the recurrence of Christmas …’
it proceeds to cover every ‘Dickensian’ trope in the seasonal oeuvre from the twinkling grandmama and grandpapa via hordes of jolly relatives to the tearful reconciliation with the daughter who married for love rather than money.
It’s all very cosy, and cheerful and heartwarming, but with typical Dickensian shrewdness, also bears a seasonal message – of being grateful for what you have and not dwelling on the past.
If all that makes it sound either mawkish or predictable, well – it’s probably both – but in the hands of Dickens (albeit a Dickens not yet at the height of his powers) it still makes for a wonderfully comforting seasonal read.
When I think about Christmas food, and can get past the instant recall of some well-used, stained pages in my cookbooks, I think about favourite scenes about Christmas food in novels that aren’t necessarily my favourite novels, but which stay with me because of those Christmassy feasting moments.
A modern classic appears in one of the very few chicklit novels I’ve read, Allison Pearson’s I Don’t Know How She Does It, in which the heroine is too late, again, to have remembered to have bought something to take to the PTA Christmas party at her children’s primary school. Because she is resourceful, and because the point of the novel is that she crashes around breaking rules to reach solutions, she opens a couple of boxes of Marks & Spencer’s mince pies (for readers outside the UK, these are the BEST you can buy), (also, readers outside the UK who don’t know what mince pies are, these are small, individual pies of sweet crumbly pastry filled with a divine mixture of slightly sticky, dark, chopped dried fruit, sugar, optional brandy and orange peel: they utterly smell of Christmas), and puts them on a plate. Next, she puts another plate ON TOP of the pies, and leans on it, slightly, distressing the pastry just enough so that the factory-edges are bashed and the perfection is pleasingly marred. Next, these distressed, so-home-made looking mince pies are put into an old ice-cream tub, and off she goes to the party with her contribution, and is blushingly deprecating about how fabulous they are. I never quite believed that anyone could mistake factory pastry, even Marks & Spencer’s pastry, for home-made, but it’s the nerve of the woman I applaud, and her trouncing of the not-gainfully-employed-outside-the-home smugs who expect home-made as a default offering, especially on a working day!
If I think of a Christmas meal, my absolutely favourite fictional description comes at the end of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter, in which the family have survived what seems like a winter of eight months, in which they and their small town were frozen in, and some nearly starved when the railroad could no longer run supplies of food and fuel through the Dakota prairies. Laura Ingalls’ family have eaten their last biscuits, made from the last handful of seed corn bought from the Wilder boys, when the freight train comes through. Pa and his friend Mr Boast roll a barrel through the door, filled with Christmas presents from back east, and at the bottom is a solid-frozen Christmas turkey, and a packet of cranberries. The grocery store in town at last has food to sell, and two days later, the Boasts come for a Christmas dinner that has lived ever since in my imagination as the arrival of hope in springtime. Stewed cranberries with sugar, light bread, sugar-frosted cakes, crisp-crusted fruit pies, bread stuffing and roast turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, and Mrs Boast’s home-made butter. The tablecloth shines white under the china, and the spring air comes through the open windows. ‘Doors were open and both rooms could be used once more. Going in and out of the large front room whenever she wanted gave Laura a spacious and rested feeling, as if she could never be cross again.’ The novel is about the disappearance of space, light, and freedom, and the arrival of hunger, and fear, as the weather stays hard. It’s a very simplistic story, and we know now that Rose Wilder Lane fictionalised very freely indeed her mother’s romanticised memories, so The Long Winter truly is a novel and not a recollection, but it’s pretty powerful as an evocation of survival, and the glory of simple food when you actually have some.
Angela Thirkell’s first wartime novel, Cheerfulness Breaks In, describes with loving revulsion a Christmas tea arranged for the children of London schools evacuated to Barsetshire. It’s funded and arranged by local ladies, and is conducted with military gusto by an Admiral’s wife, so all goes swimmingly well, but the scene during the tea has lived with me forever as a sign of a children’s Christmas party that really needs to end quite soon.
‘In a few moments the air was thick with the bolting of paste sandwiches, chocolate biscuits and slabs of cake, while cup after cup of lemonade was upset, straw and all, as the young scholars grabbed for more food. With the rapidity of a flock of locusts they stripped every plate of its contents, looking at each other with suspicious eyes as they crammed their flushed and shining faces with food. … Mrs Morland thought that she had never seen a more revolting sight than so many hot children, the girls with their party frocks already crumpled and stained, the boys smeared with food from ear to ear, their unprepossessing faces full of the almost bestial look of satiety that cake and lemonade can produce even in the most gently nurtured young; so she went back to the washing up.’
Sometimes that really is the only thing do after a Christmas feast.
My most familiar Christmas recipes say a lot about my family’s feasting practices, and my growing interest in cooking for special occasions the things I used to buy in jars. Christmas cooking starts each year with making the Christmas cake, two months ahead of time, from either Great-Grandma Fare’s wedding cake recipe, or our friend Benomy’s birthday fruitcake recipe. Then I make the mincemeat, from a National Trust recipe in one of their books of jams and preserves that is very sticky indeed on the marmalade page. If I’m well organised (and I usually am, to be honest), I make mince pies ahead of time in batches of three trays of 12, to cook straight from the freezer, using my sister-in-law Sara’s pastry recipe, which has ground almonds and no qualms about marge. I make a couple of nut roasts for the freezer from our ancient and much loved Cranks and Sarah Brown cookbooks. A very longstanding Macdonald Christmas treat is Gug, a gloriously sticky mess of chocolate mousse, broken meringue and rum, frozen and only partially defrosted before eating, which was handed down from my aunt Pam Matthews, and is impossible for any two people to make the same way. My mother, sister and I tried it one year, and produced three totally different versions from the same kitchen. This year, I’m going to try a new Christmas recipe, a proper Yule Log, from The Great British Bake-Off cookbook. Wish me luck …
I love Christmas food, because I love the dark spicy stickiness of fruit cake, mincemeat and above all Christmas pudding (that is exactly what some people loathe, I know). But it seems sacrilegious to eat this food at any other season. These three treats mean Christmas to me. But just how traditional are they, and how far back does that tradition go?
I decided to go and look for classic recipes for cake, pudding and mincemeat, and was faintly surprised to find how little there is of specifically Christmas food in the writing of the likes of Florence White and Dorothy Hartley. This set off a train of thought – yes, of course: my recipes for these foods are on sticky sheets of lined writing paper, because they come from my mother, and undoubtedly before that, from my grandmother. Who needed a cookery book to codify these, when every cooking household had its own versions?
Two of my favourite vintage cookery writers, Florence White (Good Things in England, 1932) and Dorothy Hartley (Food in England, 1954) – who I think may have been channelling one another – record only two recipes specific to Christmas – one is for a Christmas pudding with Royal Associations (said by Florence White to have been cooked for George I, which just goes to show how informative old cookery books can be when trying to date a tradition); the other is for Mincemeat. Dorothy astutely states that ‘every English family has its own recipe’ for mincemeat so she will give only one (that she shares with Florence), which is for Lemon Mincemeat, an extraordinary confection in which lemon skins are boiled until soft, pounded and mixed with sugar, spice and dried fruit. Sometimes I think of trying it, and then my nerve fails.
When I look at the ingredients of shop-bought Christmas food, I only ever think that the point is being missed – all sort of rich goodies are added to mincemeat or pudding to make it ‘luxury’. These recipes are immensely rich in their simplest form, and don’t need the addition of exotic liqueurs and candied fruits to make them special.
But Christmas guilt is in danger of setting in, and I feel I must redress the balance by going back to a scene of Christmas self-sacrifice that has haunted my conscience for years and years: from Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, the one where the March girls give away their Christmas day breakfast. I’ve read it again this time, and I realise that I don’t actually know what was on their table, what it would have tasted like and how they would have eaten it. Every time until now, I have just let the impression of rich food and sacrificial giving wash over me and make me wish I could be a better person. Just to recap, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy wake up on Christmas morning and open their gifts. They go down to breakfast to find their mother has already gone out. Back she comes to say that a poor mother with a new baby and a brood of children has literally no food in the house to give them. ‘My girls, will you give them your Christmas breakfast as a present?’ Even in front of the all-powerful Marmee, the girls take a minute to think about that one – but there can be only one end to this, and off they go with cream and muffins (Amy) and buckwheats (Meg). Back they come to bread-and-milk, having spread their love and comfort to the Hummel family. “‘That’s loving our neighbour better than ourselves, and I like it’, said Meg.” This scene could be glutinously awful, pious and sentimental, but it isn’t. It is full of love and energy and joie de vivre. The four March girls have such fun doing good things together – it is utterly infectious. This is the genius of Alcott. Now, who can tell me about that breakfast, please, with its muffins and cream and buckwheats?
The Bookfoxes wish you all a very Merry Christmas, with all the Christmas food treats of your choice.
The Union Pacific Tea Company Christmas card comes from the Flickr photostream of Leiris2.
The photo of delicious-looking mince pies comes from the Flickr photostream of nicksarebi.
The photo of the spectacularly flaming Christmas pudding comes from the Flickr photostream of Steve A Johnson.
All are reproduced here under a Creative Commons Licence, and clicking on the image in each case will take you to the source.