Christmas is perhaps the holiday which most sums up the spirit of London. A time of thanks and celebration which unites people of different colors, classes, genders and orientations. A time in which all the cultures run through the city’s lifeblood converge into a beautiful, delicious feast.
The traditional Christmas dinner may be something fundamentally English. A roast turkey, stuffed with nuts and meat and spices, golden potatoes cooked in fat, plump little sprouts nestled beside mountains of carrot, swede and parsnips. The liberal lashings of gravy tying everything together and soft, melting little pigs in blankets. It may be a cultural staple, something which has been with the nation throughout the ages.
Except much of this vaunted tradition originated a lot more recently than imagine. Turkey, the iconic bird, seems to have been the norm since the days of the Victorians. The bird was originally an American staple introduced to this country in the 1500’s, and it was only the royal family beginning to dine on it at the end of the 19th century, and the subsequent rush of middle class copy-cats, which established it in the canon of Christmas treats in the early 20th century.
Beef, rabbit and goose were all seen as the centerpiece meats, and seems the latter persists even to this day. How often do geese come up in traditional songs about Christmas? It may be debatably better suited as well: offering incredibly rich, fat meat which is perhaps more befitting the overindulgence of this grand feast than the much leaner turkey.
Roast potatoes were another introduction from the 1500’s which only grew to popularity thanks to the Victorians. The gift of an orange or a tangerine in the stocking dates back to ancient times, when the fresh tang of fruit was often considered a luxury. It seemed to have come back into vogue again in the 1900’s, when many city children longed for that elusive, vivacious scent. For them, the lively citrusy oils of an orange may have been a true treat.
What about Christmas pudding? Surely it has roots deep in history? In the sense modern Christmas puddings are essentially derivatives of plum puddings. The original, however, contained meat and was initially a thick liquid more akin to a stiff stew than the crumbly, cake like thing which may be enjoyed today. The invention of the pudding cloth in the 16th century changed the texture however far from the ingredients. Both were eaten at the start of a meal, rather than at the end. Near the end of 17th century it first became firmly connected to Christmas, at which point it may have minimised many of the root vegetables which had gone into the original mixture, and suet had replaced the scraps of meat. In the mid 19th century, however, “plum pottage” truly began to resemble the pudding enjoyed today.
A large number of these foods seem to date from the 19th century, specifically the Victorian period. Why is this? Well, there are a whole multitude of factors when it comes to things like this, however there are two which bear special consideration. The first is the Victorians’ desire to create a definite cultural identity for the nation. As they may have attempted to set a curriculum of sorts in literature and art, so too did they aim to establish new traditions in food, taking staples and reinventing them for the modern day.
The second is the way the world opened up in the time. It was an expansive age, when technology was allowing foreign culture to flow freely into the capital. It was around this time which panettone, for example, first started to gain media coverage as an exotic, rich and wonderful treat from Italy. Stollen, its German cousin, seems to be a favorite here and may find it sold at every little wooden hut during the Christmas fairs.
There are many Christmas treats to enjoy this week which suspect January may involve a lot of lettuce…
How might Christmas dishes be kept traditional through learning about them?