354 – The Christmas Feast

It’s Wednesday the 21st December 2011. I’m a couple posts behind on my One A Day commitment and the subject matter covered in this post comes a couple days early.

There’s a reason for that.

For the uninitiated, I’m an ex-pat Brit now living in the United States of America. My wife and I are currently staying with her family in the home in which she grew up. We hope to move soon but our income isn’t great and with the job market in its current state it would probably be best if we stay put.

We want a place to ourselves. As the cliché goes, we’re a young couple with our entire lives ahead of us. We don’t want to be stuck cleaning up other people’s messes, looking after kids who don’t belong to us and cohabiting with anyone other than our dog and our own future children. We want our home kept the way we want it and to do things the way we want to do them.

I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

As we come from opposite sides of the Atlantic we have very different customs and traditions. Now that we’re living together and Christmas is here we’re attempting to marry the things each of us want to do into an Anglo-American fusion of new traditions to pass on to our children. We watch TV specials and holiday films from our youth together and listen to the songs that once played while we opened advent calendars or trimmed the tree.

But this being America the predominant flavours of the season are candy cane peppermint and egg nog. No matter how accommodating Lindsay and her relatives are there’s little here that’s reminiscent of the Christmases of my childhood or the traditions I took part in until 2007 and my last Christmas in the UK.

Between then and now, whenever I returned from gallivanting abroad through December my parents would furnish me with a second Christmas.

There were no trees, presents or cards but there was the star of our Christmas celebrations, the same star that shone through my youth and adulthood alike: a home cooked Christmas dinner of turkey with all the trimmings.

Christmas dinner was taken very seriously in my household. It was one of the few times of the year (other than his stints on the barbecue during the summer months) that my dad would cook. In the wee small hours of the morning–or perhaps even the night before–he’d place our turkey into the oven and leave it there to roast.

Often–but not always–dry when carved and dealt onto our plates, the best way to keep the turkey moist as far as he was concerned was to strap a few rashers of bacon to the turkey’s breast. He’d remove this mid-morning allowing the turkey skin to crisp and burnish, and share the cooked bacon between him and I.

There was something about that bacon, the taste or maybe the texture of it that marked it out as special: the bacon that helped cook the Christmas turkey. It wasn’t crunchy or crisp but brittle: it snapped cleanly into shards and kept the round shape of the breast it had helped to support. This bacon, served on a plate, sometimes still stuck to the foil Dad had wrapped about the turkey to keep it juicy, was an important part of the day’s festivities. Christmas day might have arrived but the best was still to come.

Out came the neck, the gizzards, the giblets. Heart, liver and anything else went into a small pot to be boiled for gravy. My mum, the famous gravy maker, collected liquid from anything in the kitchen–turkey drippings, vegetable cooking water, sherry brought in from the liqueur cabinet in the dining room, where the same bottle had tided us through umpteen Christmas and Easter roasts–and boiled it in a thick, foamy concoction with a flavour so rich and complex it was entirely memorable from year to year. It had no set recipe and the ingredients changed depending on what was available but that splash of sherry gave it a warm and familiar depth: the taste of Christmas dinner.

Numerous pots bubbled on the cooker top, with many more spread across the work surface on trivets. The meal had so many constituent parts there was always something cooking, cooling or ready to be heated, and over the course of the day the whole house filled with gloriously scented steam.

Strangely, given that it took so long to cook, the turkey was often the first part of the meal to be completed. On Christmas Eve night Mum would start making stuffings to fill its cavities. She’d make the sage and onion by hand if she had the time and from a jar of Paxo if she didn’t. She packed one end with sausage meat and the other with her signature mushroom stuffing flavoured with lemon and thyme–another distinctive Christmas flavour. Any stuffings that didn’t fit into the turkey were put into the oven after it was removed along with potatoes sizzling in goose fat.

Goose fat was one of my contributions to Christmas dinner. After I took up cookery I started adding my own touches, fussing about the kitchen, getting under Mum’s feet. I tried out a few stuffings of my own and even made cranberry sauce, which was a touch bitter due to being overcooked.

My forte was in making the Christmas pudding and Christmas cake. I’d never been fond of either, the former containing too many nuts for my liking, the latter containing too much fruit. But having a a Christmas cake slowly reaching the consistency of sawdust as it dried out was part of Christmas tradition. If you liked Christmas cake I’m sure it was tasted wonderful; as neither I nor my sister did it languished around until Easter, well-preserved by the alcohol inside it but otherwise dry as old Nick. For years Mum tried to entice us into eating it with elaborate royal icing designs on the top, but it wasn’t until I switched things up with a chocolate fruit cake that was moist as the ocean that the cake started vanishing before the Christmas season was over.

The puddings were another matter altogether. It was only the nuts that put me off Christmas puddings and it was always a gamble as to whether or not we’d have a particularly nutty one that year. Learning early on that expensive luxury puddings always trumped the more mundane efforts, when our Christmas pudding was good, it was godly. Rich beyond belief, dense as the heart of a collapsing star, each bite went leaden to the stomach. Doused in cream and occasionally set alight, the pudding came an hour or more after dinner was done, giving us time for our bloated stomachs to subside. One spoon of Christmas and all that hard digestive work was undone; it wasn’t uncommon that we’d leave part of even the smallest sliver of pudding, to be microwaved later that week and devours when we didn’t feel like demolition balls.

Elsewhere were chocolates, crisps and sundry other goodies stacked high. Thrifty through the rest of the year, Christmas was the time for an all-out blow-out. Stockpiled beforehand, once Christmas hit there were no limits on the amounts of sweets, biscuits, candies and snacks we would get through. Eating ourselves into obesity these treats only supplemented the ludicrous meals we at over the Christmas period. As legend would have it, we feasted on turkey for days–if not weeks–to come, eating a mishmash of leftovers, then using up turkey in pies, curries and anything else we could come up with.

But on Christmas day, ah, on Christmas day . . .

But for the turkey and the distinctive gravy it was, I suppose, much like any other roast we’d have throughout the year . . . except for the trimmings.

At least three stuffings, bacon rolls and chipolatas on the side, bread sauce–bread sauce! One of my favourite parts of the Christmas feast, bread sauce was breadcrumbs milled and soaked with milk infused with onion, cloves, mace and bay leaf. With butter and cream stirred in at the end what looked like porridge should have tasted like a burst artery; instead it tasted gloriously comforting and I heaped it upon my meal thickly, like snow.

When eaten together Christmas dinner was a heady melange of flavours and textures. From the crisp potatoes to the softly yielding sausages, the sour-sweet cranberries to the delicate game of the turkey, everything was in balance, with not one flavour ruining any other.

Unless you had Brussell sprouts as I never did, in which case God help you.

We have none of that here. Christmas here is a family affair, and my wife’s family is huge. Along with nieces, nephews, sisters, cousins, parents, uncles, aunts and spouses, we’ll be heading down to Virginia for the annual Christmas feast, which starts with pasta and seafood on the 24th and ends with beef and risotto on the 25th. It’s good food and good company and although it tends to be rather crowded I honestly have no problem with it.

Except it’s not Christmas.

But we have time, my wife and I. This mightn’t be the perfect start to our married life together but we have time on our side. When it comes to which traditions we follow and which we discard, Christmas will be whatever we make it.

Whatever we decide you can be damned sure we’ll make it merry.

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2 Responses to 354 – The Christmas Feast

  1. Mummy Plum says:

    I’ve just stumbled across your blog…all the way from Blighty. What a superb description of Christmas dinner. I feel very much the same about Christmas dinner; nothing makes Christmas as much as dinner at my mum’s house and to consider not having her wonderful bread sauce would be unthinkable. We also wrap prunes in bacon – we call them Devils on horseback. Delicious.
    What a talented writer you are, I’ve very much enjoyed reading. Thank you.
    Merry Christmas from England!

  2. Thank you! I’ve only been over here for a couple months. I’m sure the longer I’m absent from the UK the more I’ll miss it, but at least my wife and I will be able to forge our own traditions as the years pass.

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