Get Stuffed - Festive Fare
The last few years have seen an upsurge in “alternative Christmas dining”. As low-cost supermarkets bring in frozen lobsters for a tenner by the (farmed) ocean load, individual beef Wellingtons and various boned and rolled birds – the names of which I’d only remember if I had an ornithology book open in front of me – it is many the supercilious pal who has told me smugly in November that they “won’t be doing turkey this year”.
Well sod that cavalier attitude to festive food rituals. I firmly believe there remain a few traditions which shouldn’t be messed with. These include: letting the side down at family weddings; drinking too much on Paddy’s Day; inappropriate behaviour at office parties; and The Christmas Dinner.
It doesn’t matter if you like traditional festive food or not, it just wouldn’t be Christmas without it. There’s a reason most people don’t eat sauce made from stale bread, and glacé cherries, at other times of the year; and that’s because they don’t like them all that much.
Consider it for a moment – if mince pies were that delicious, we’d eat them in May. But that doesn’t matter, because eating traditionally is just one of the myriad Rules of Christmas, and I for one wouldn’t have it any other way. Every year, the number of beaming TV chefs peddling new ways with sprouts is directly proportionate to the number of those divisive little green vegetables left on the sides of The Good Plates.
Have you never wondered why people don’t drop orange peel, cinnamon sticks and other store cupboard spice detritus into perfectly good red wine outside of the annual school carol service? Once again, they are Christmas customs that shouldn’t be meddled with.
You can keep your grouse, pheasant, or boned duck breasts. On December 25th I want to see a bird that weighs more than a small child at the centre of the table, surrounded by all the obligatory trimmings. It should be so unfeasibly large that it obscures the person sitting opposite you. Unless your uncle is Danny DeVito, that won’t happen with a quail. I want to know I’ll be eating turkey stroganoff from the freezer until at least mid-January.
As luck would have it, I love most traditional festive food, but even those who don’t make an exception during the season of goodwill to all men. My father detests Brussels sprouts, but puts away a geansai load on Christmas Day simply because “it wouldn’t be Christmas without them”.
Another friend of mine – and I swear this is true – who is a strict vegetarian 360-something days a year, eats turkey, ham and goose-fat roast potatoes at her parents’ house on December 25th. When I asked her why (over a turkey sandwich on St Stephen’s Day), she simply shrugged and said “because it’s Christmas”. And no, she claims she doesn’t secretly miss meat the rest of the year, she just knows that it wouldn’t feel like Christmas if she was tucking into a lone, stuffed, giant mushroom. She’s a proper festive stalwart that one (and has to live on Gaviscon until new year).
We should also take a moment to appreciate that Christmas is possibly the last remaining time of the year when we still eat seasonally. We pour cream over shiny strawberries in April, grown in hothouses in Holland; eat perfect, squeaky beans flown from Kenya in January; and mash ripe avocados from Israel all year round. There’s no doubt we are demanding gastro-consumers, and what we want on our supermarket shelves, we always get– regardless of air miles or sustainability.
The only exception to this inalienable truth is Christmas food (and creme eggs – when they briefly appeared 12 months of the year there was outrage, and sales plummeted until they returned to seasonal availability). Come December, we become wistful and nostalgic for the enduring foodstuffs of the season and our youth, which is good news for local producers.
And besides, turkey was designed for Christmas – here’s the science bit – the high levels of tryptophan the meat contains make us sleepy (well, that and all the other food, copious amounts of booze, and Ferrero Rocher consumed during the day), and what would Christmas day be without everyone falling asleep on the couch after dinner, paper cracker crown slipping over their eyes?
I spent one Christmas in Australia, 15 years ago. We had barbecued food and beer beside a crystal clear swimming pool. We wore Santa hats and novelty earrings alongside our shorts and swimwear, and the sun warmed our skin until late in the evening. Fillet steaks, fresh prawns and all of my favourite things sizzled away on the hot coals. It was awful. In fact I still feel as if I missed out on Christmas that year. It was robbed by a timezone, a hot climate (and a lot of Fosters to be fair), and to this day I worry that however long I live, I will always need just one more Christmas of turkey, ham, sprouts and indigestion to make up for it.
Originally published in the Irish Times, December 2015