At Christmas We Feast: Festive Food through the Ages

Annie Gray

Profile, £12.99

Review by Rosemary Goring

Agatha Christie once recalled her childhood Christmases with gastronomic nostalgia: “I was a skinny child, appearing delicate, but actually of robust health and perpetually hungry! The boys and I used to vie with each other as to who could eat the most on Christmas Day. Oyster Soup and Turbot went down with undue zest, but then came Roast Turkey, Boiled Turkey and an enormous Sirloin of Beef. The boys and I had two helpings of all three! We then had Plum Pudding, Mince-Pies, Trifle and every kind of dessert. During the afternoon we ate chocolates solidly. We neither felt, nor were, sick!”

Christie’s cast-iron digestion would have won approval from the Tudors, to whom lavish Christmas feasting is generally attributed. By comparison, though, Christie’s experience was modest to the point of humble.

In this lively resume of Christmas fare down the centuries, food writer and historian Annie Gray shows that Christmas has been a time of excessive consumption since it began. In the Middle Ages, December was preceded by 24 days of fasting. Thereafter, there was licence for 12 days of unbridled gorging and imbibing.

Even now, the average Christmas meal contains 5000 calories. The courses offered might be vastly different from those on medieval trencher boards and yet we like to think we are part of an unbroken chain of tradition. As Gray writes: “We cling to Christmas dinner as a point of stability even as our culinary tastes expand, but it’s built on shifting sands.”

Those shifting sands are the subject of At Christmas We Feast. Beginning around the fourth century, when the date for celebrations was fixed on the calendar in late December, Gray takes readers on a cook’s tour that explains what we eat today, and why. By comparison with stuffed boars’ heads or game pie of yore, today’s much-vaunted pigs in blankets are “a positive usurper”.

The focus of Gray’s attention is the English experience, not least because Scotland was loath to adopt what it regarded as a pre-Reformation abomination. Here, December 25 was only finally honoured as a public holiday in 1958. My London mother, arriving in Edinburgh eight years earlier, was appalled to discover that people went to work on Christmas Day, and spent their energy and money on Hogmanay instead.

Distinguished by the insight and knowledge of a culinary expert, Gray’s history showcases the dishes that came to symbolise not just Christmas but Britishness. Top of a very extensive list were beef and plum pudding, which will still sound mouth-watering to many. As if she were tracing a family tree, she explains how early puddings (plum pottages) and mincemeat made from offal or meat morphed into Christmas pudding and mince pies.

The importance of meat to the occasion can be traced back to the festivities’ origins. The scale on which fowl, game and pigs were slaughtered was almost genocidal, and distressed some early onlookers. One 17th-century observer commented that: “Capons and hennes, besides turkies, geese and duckes, besides beefe and mutton, all die for the great feast.” By the 18th century, the rich expected game pies with at least five creatures encased within pastry walls so thick they were more like ramparts. One spectacular pie was nine feet in diameter, and weighed around 12 stone. It contained “4 geese, 2 turkeys, 2 rabbits, 4 wild ducks, 2 woodcocks, 6 snipes, 4 partridges, 2 calves’ tongues, 2 curlews, 7 blackbirds, 6 pigeons”.

Turkeys began arriving in the 16th century, after their discovery in the South Americas. One Yorkshireman, who was instrumental in their introduction, had a turkey added to his family coat of arms in 1550. By the 18th century, Norfolk was the heart of turkey farming, providing London with its birds. Such was the size of flocks herded towards the capital in December that traffic came to a halt. This trade was so profitable that some coach drivers filled their seats with turkeys instead of passengers.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was around this time that people began complaining of the growing commercialisation of the festive season. By George Bernard Shaw’s era, when it was embraced with the same gusto as today, he bitterly bemoaned its excess: “We must be gluttonous because it is Christmas. We must be drunken because it is Christmas. We must be insincerely generous; we must buy things nobody wants, and give them to people we don’t like …”

But Scrooges are easily ignored, as they deserve. Indeed, writes Gray, Charles Dickens, who is often credited with creating the modern Christmas, was merely tapping into the general mood when he published A Christmas Carol in 1843. By the mid-19th century, the need to look out for others as well as ourselves at the year’s nadir was gaining popularity. Punch, not widely known for its social conscience, asked its readers what they had done for others: “Nothing? Do you dare, with those sirloin cheeks and that port-wine nose, to answer – nothing?”

Bringing the story into the modern age, Gray shows the inventiveness – and dreariness – of Christmas on a ration book, when a tin of turkey used up a month’s worth of points. She quotes from Delia Smith’s Christmas (1990) where, with the precision of a railway timetable, she creates a punishing two-day schedule for those preparing the feast all by themselves. In my family there were more than a few who treated this book like a bible.

HeraldScotland:

Interspersed with recipes from as far back as the 17th century, At Christmas We Feast is filled with fascinating facts and foods. While few of us are likely to attempt the instructions for making mincemeat using calves’ feet or tripe, some concoctions, such as Wassail with roasted apples, are decidedly tempting.

It would be far too easy – and hypocritical – to regard the gluttony of the past with disdain. Gray neither sneers at suet, nor derides fruit cake richer than foie gras. The spreads she details are described with more envy than dismay. For all its historical interest, it is this enthusiasm which gives the book its mouth-watering appeal, and infuses it with Christmas spirit.