A Feast Fit for Dickens
Modern day festive celebrations are generally more commercial affairs when compared with Dickensian days. Today there is an increased emphasis placed on consumerism; with essential Christmas items spanning from expensive gifts to luxury laden merriments. Indeed it seems that Christmas trappings appear in the shops earlier each year, and I have been known to give the odd groan about commercialism and excess, but, whilst our spending and gift laden Christmas’ seem to grow with each decade that passes, when it comes to food ,the festive feasts of yesteryear put our modern Christmas fayre to shame.
In Dickens’, ‘A Christmas Carol’ the Ghost of Christmas Present appears sitting on a throne of Christmas plenty, the description is fittingly mouth-watering and a challenge for the most extravagant of modern day festive offerings:
Turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat, sucking pigs, long wreaths of sausages, mince pies, plum puddings, barrels of oyster, red hot chestnuts, cherry cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth-cakes and seething bowls of punch.
Even Scrooge’s downtrodden clerk on his minimal income managed to enjoy a feast worthy of praise; with a spread that included a goose with apple sauce and mashed potatoes, followed by a Christmas pudding ‘like a speckled cannon-ball …blazing in half a quartern of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck in the top’. The festive scene is completed with the description of them roasting chestnuts in the fire and drinking ‘hot stuff from the jug’.
Reading these descriptions brings to mind thoughts of what I think of as a traditional Christmas with connotations of families, goodwill and open fires, although pre-Victorian Christmas celebrations were more about feasting, jollity and abundance, than children and gifts. Whilst Charles Dickens did not invent the Victorian Christmas, his book ‘A Christmas Carol’ is credited with popularising and spreading the traditions of family, charity, goodwill, peace and happiness that are evident in the nostalgic Victorian festivities. Indeed by the time Queen Victoria’s reign ended in 1901, Christmas evoked images of candle-lit trees and gifts none of which were popular before her reign.
The Christmas feast has its roots from before the middle Ages, but it’s during the Victorian period that the dinner we now associate with Christmas began to evolve. Today the ‘traditional’ Christmas dinner is one of roast turkey, but this was a Victorian trend, originally served boiled rather than roasted with forcemeat and either an oyster or chestnut sauce. By 1880 many middle-class families were tucking into a festive turkey dinner, but previously other forms of roasted meat such as beef, mutton, rabbit, veal and goose were the centrepiece of the Christmas dinner. The turkey became the firm favourite of those who could afford it, because it was a perfect size for a family gathering making it the dominant feature dish by the beginning of the 20th century.
Love them or hate them, Brussels sprouts are now seen as a festive must, but they are relative newcomer. They appeared in Eliza Acton’s ‘Modern Cookery for Private Families’ in 1845 and eventually these little green gems won the a permanent role in Christmas dinner proceedings as home gardeners began to grow them later in the century.
The flaming Christmas pudding once celebrated the fruits of the empire of Great Britain: sugar, spices, citrus fruits, nuts and brandy. Hidden charms added to the pudding mix provided an element of chance and excitement as well as evoking the Twelfth cake that was popular in the 1840’s and 50’s. Whilst the mixture of alcohol, fire and gambling harked back to the vestiges of ancient mid-winter feasts. The Victorians started their pudding preparations well in advance with it being customary for all the family to get involved in the stirring of the ingredients with everyone taking turns in mixing with a wooden spoon whilst making a wish as they stirred from east to west, replicating the journey of the three kings.
The dark and rich bomb shaped creation that we think of as Christmas pud is a Victorian creation, but our love of plum pudding spreads back centuries and our ‘traditional’ Christmas pudding originates from the 14th century frumenty that was made of beef ,mutton , dried fruits, wine and spices. This would often be more like a thin porridge or soup and was eaten as a fasting meal in preparation for the Christmas festivities. By 1595, frumenty was slowly changing into a plum pudding, having been thickened with eggs, breadcrumbs and given more flavour with the addition of more alcohol and fruits and eventually gained popularity as a customary Christmas dessert around 1650.
Over the years, many superstitions have evolved around the Christmas Pudding. One superstition says that the pudding should be made with thirteen ingredients to represent Jesus and His Disciples. Whilst the decorative sprig of holly on the top of the pudding is said to be a reminder of Jesus’ Crown of Thorns, however, others say that it is a remnant of the medieval origins of the pudding as in the Middle Ages; holly was thought to bring good luck and protection.
Even the Brandy that is poured over the pudding and lit is said by some to be symbolic: representing Jesus’ love and power, but whatever it represents a flaming Christmas pudding makes for a spectacular end to a meal.
Putting a silver coin in the pudding is another age-old custom that is said to bring luck to the person that finds it. The coin traditionally used was a silver six pence representing fortune, but other charms added included an old maid’s thimble: if a single woman found it, they would remain a spinster for the following year, whereas finding a ring forecast love and marriage.
Whilst mince pies, pork pies and big birds have retained their appeal as festive essentials some Christmas specialities have waned in popularity or at least lost their Christmas roles. In 1835 Charles Dickens ordered a Christmas meal in an inn it consisted of roast beef, roast duck, plum pudding, mince pies and cod with oyster sauce. All of the meal sounds quite festively familiar with the exception of the cod with oyster sauce. Cod was considered a winter fish and in Mrs Beeton’s Christmas Menu of 1899 she details ‘cod cutlets, stewed eels and two sauces’, indeed cod only disappeared from the festive menu when in the nineteenth century courses of several dishes gave way to a single bird or joint taking the starring role in the Christmas dinner proceedings.
Saddles of mutton like those that Mr. Weston served in Austen’s ‘Emma’ and other meats such as veal, rabbit and offal delicacies became unfashionable in the festive proceedings. Amongst the best examples of abandoned Christmas foods is the boars head. Once a well-loved and well recognised symbol of the Christmas feast, the boars head as in the ‘Oxford’s Boar’s Head Carol’, ‘bedeck’d with bays and rosemary’ or else made into succulent brawn has now become a rarity.
One thing that hasn’t changed during Christmas is our search for gluttonous treats and festal celebrations bringing a brief period of excess. Christmas dinner was the most important meal of the year as hearty treats that had been saved throughout the year were shared with family and friends and today special foods and treats are still a big focus of merriment. Festive cheer has always run fluidly and whether enjoying rissolettes of hare, a nut roast or a prized turkey the sharing and gifting of food is most definitely at the heart of good cheer.