Big, Bold, Wild: We Re-Create Christmas Dinners Of Centuries Past

Dec 23, 2015
Originally published on December 24, 2015 10:09 am

If you are eating turkey this Christmas out of some sense of tradition, food historian Ivan Day says, put down that drumstick. After studying English cookbooks hundreds of years old, Day says the giant bird isn't even that traditional. Besides, he says, "It's a dry wasteland of flavorless meat."

Sure, the first turkey came to England in the 1600s. It was an exotic "treat" from the New World. But a time traveler from Shakespeare's time wouldn't understand why everyone in the modern world was having the same dull bird on Christmas night.

At his farmhouse in northern England, Day collects old cookbooks and food illustrations. He says in olden days, Christmas celebrations were all about novelty and variety. The tables of the rich might include a turkey and a goose, but also peacocks, swans, partridges and plovers. A rack of venison would sit beside a giant turtle. The eating would go on for days.

Christmas used to be a 12-day drunken festival. Imagine Mardi Gras with snow. Cooks were always trying to top one another in outrageousness, from the traditional presentation of the boar's head to the array of sickeningly sweet puddings. Day shows me a 19th-century illustration of a pie that took a crowd of servants to carry. It was filled with boned geese, woodcocks, hares and any other game they had around.

"This was the original turducken," he says.

Ivan Day doesn't just read the old cookbooks. He tries out all the dishes he finds and makes them the way history intended. Day has outfitted his farmhouse with appliances of centuries past, including a fireplace stoked with coal and a wind-up rotisserie such as 17th-century cooks might have used. Every wall holds copper pots and sugar molds and strange pastry devices.

One of his favorite discoveries in the old cookbooks was a traditional Christmas soup called plum pottage, a recipe from the 1700s. It starts with a strong beef or mutton broth. Then you add fruit juices, candied orange and lemon peels, raisins and wine. Day says it's like a liquefied Christmas pudding.

It sounds disgusting, he says. "But I have served it to Michelin-starred chefs and they have been absolutely amazed at how delicious it is."

But more than the taste, Day says you have to think of what this meant to have such a treat on an English table hundreds of years ago. England is a cold, northern country where you can't grow citrus fruits and sugar and cinnamon and nutmeg. To fill a pie or a soup bowl with meat and fruit and spices, as horrible as it might sound to many Americans, was a way of demonstrating how rich you were.

"It's the culinary equivalent of having a Maserati. It's showing off," Day says.

This sense of competition and variety disappeared from Christmas. The drunken festival was reduced to a single family holiday. Charles Dickens sealed the fate of the Christmas dinner when he had Ebenezer Scrooge call down to that young boy and had him buy the largest turkey in the window. Since then, in the U.K. and the U.S., old-timey Christmas cards feature a family gathered around a single bird, turkey or goose, surrounded by pretty bland-looking potatoes and stuffing. Not a turtle or swan in sight.

Ivan Day will be having beef roasted in front of an open fire for Christmas, and he says you really should stop and appreciate how Christmas must have felt to people, say, 400 years ago. They might have gone months eating the same thing every day, bacon and bread. The Christmas meal, with its exotic fruits and endless variety, must have felt like a miracle. "It was a moment of sunshine in a dreary year of grayness," he says.

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Transcript

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The tradition of Christmas dinner calls to mind those old-timey English holiday cards. You know, the family gathered around a turkey or a goose, lots of potatoes, candles, holly. NPR's Robert Smith visited a man in the north of England who says we're getting this whole tradition wrong.

ROBERT SMITH, BYLINE: His name is Ivan Day. He's a food historian. But he doesn't romanticize Christmas dinner.

IVAN DAY: I used to find the turkey particularly boring - you know, just rather dry wasteland of flavorless meat.

SMITH: I know a lot of us feel the same way, but there are traditions to uphold. Charles Dickens pretty much set it in stone when he made the bird the climactic moment in "A Christmas Carol."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A CHRISTMAS CAROL")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Scrooge) Do you know whether they've sold the prize turkey that was hanging out? Not the little prized turkey, the big one.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) The one as big as me?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Scrooge, laughter) What a delightful child.

SMITH: This story launched a million overdone drumsticks. But when Ivan started to look through some very old English cookbooks, he discovered something - Christmas didn't used to be this predictable. Back before the 1800s, families did not gather around just one special bird.

DAY: You may have a swan on the table; you will have partridges, plovers, various ducks.

SMITH: Because Christmas in the 1600s was a 12-day drunken festival - think Mardi Gras with snow. Flipping through old cookbooks, nothing was too crazy.

DAY: And then...

SMITH: Look at this, it's a turtle.

DAY: It's a turtle - two of them. Look, there's another one there.

SMITH: And if you had to pick one thing that was essential that was on every table, it's the meat that Ivan is cooking while we speak - beef.

DAY: Now, if you listen, you can hear my joint of beef. It's hissing a bit angrily.

SMITH: I should mention at this point that Ivan Day's kitchen is done up in Medieval chic- coal fires, copper pots. The beef is on this hand-cranked, wind-up rotisserie.

DAY: This is the sound of an ancient English kitchen.

SMITH: This is the noisy contraption that will cook Ivan's Christmas beef. He likes to try out the old recipes he finds. Some of them, he says, are lost gems. Others are just never going to come back. There was this one Christmas breakfast standard.

DAY: And it was a sweet haggis, called a hacken (ph) or a hack pudding - made of oatmeal, mutton, currants, raisins, spices, grated apples, boiled usually in a sheep's stomach.

SMITH: Yeah, it doesn't quite feel the same having kids rush downstairs to unwrap their haggis in the morning.

DAY: (Laughter) But they probably enjoyed it.

SMITH: These things were treats not because they were delicious but because they were rare, like the sweet mince pie that Ivan is starting to make.

Candied orange peel and lemons, raisins, nutmeg. Then in goes the sheep - the old recipes always included mutton.

When some of us see stuff like this - fruitcake, mince pies - we think for the love of God, why? But in ancient cold rainy Britain, you have to imagine this was like filling a crust with every exotic item from around the world - sugar, spices, citrus - this was like gold. And a mince pie like this...

DAY: It's the culinary equivalent of having a Maserati because they're so expensive. You're showing off.

SMITH: And when the pie comes out, it is an impressive sight.

DAY: Try a bit - let it cool down.

SMITH: OK, it's hot. I'm going to blow on it.

DAY: Yeah, be careful.

SMITH: Even with my American palate, it is not bad.

DAY: That's praise indeed.

SMITH: You have to taste it, Ivan Day says, the way the ancient Brits would have. After hundreds of days straight of eating bread and bacon, they would've bit into his meaty, sugary spiciness and thought...

DAY: It was a moment of sunshine in a dreary year of grayness.

SMITH: And who would ever say that about a turkey? Robert Smith, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.