In the midst of the onslaught of cooking that accompanies Christmas, I have been pondering why many of us seem so fixed on offering a static, unchanging menu – whether just the main event or a sequence of meals over a few days – despite the inducements of magazines, newspapers and TV shows. And why, whatever our circumstances, Christmas cooking seems to come with added stress.
It may seem paradoxical that maintaining the status quo increases the stress. Those of us who have the privilege, the time and the resources to be able to cook throughout the year to menus of our choosing and inspired by experiences elsewhere, feel the pressure to deliver something identical to Christmases past. Christmas lunch may essentially be a straightforward undertaking – even with eight vegetable sides (we fall short of the Dibley sixteen) – and not as complex or imaginative as dishes we cook week in-week out, but that doesn’t mean it’s without stress. For others, who have no choice but to cook all the time and take little pleasure from it, there is the anticipation that Christmas lunch should be elevated well above the norm. Either way, the pressure comes from expectations built up over many years. Stories abound of Christmas kitchen disasters and major fallings out over the food, and if they are more apocryphal than real that seems only to reinforce the point.
We certainly stick to tradition in our house on Christmas Day. Smoked salmon canapés, an appropriately seasonal soup to start (we seem to have have settled on chestnut and sage), the goose served straight after the Queen’s Speech. We had one variation this year, a Finnish carrot rice porridge (porkkanalaatikko), as a nod to Finland’s 100th anniversary a couple of weeks earlier, replacing parsnip and carrot puree (but fret not, there were still carrots with peas and roast parsnips ). We do at least mix it up with the dessert, not being Christmas pudding fans. Then cheese later in the evening. We keep a routine going over the next few days: cold goose on Boxing Day with most of the leftovers turned into bubble and squeak cooked in goose fat and bound together by remnants of the blue cheese, the remaining goose as a sort of ragu the following day, and then something Asian and utterly different the day after to cleanse our palates before the rich food starts again in the approach to New Year. The food has been the same, even with different people round the table, for twelve years.
I am not sure why this has been on my mind this year. It may be the result of changing that one dish – was that too much of a shock to the system? Or maybe – actually, I think this is probably it – it’s because I have been making my way through Nigel Slater’s Christmas Chronicles, which is an exploration of traditions forged in some cases over a lifetime, and recognising that I am similarly a creature of habit and tradition. It may also have been because I struggled with this year’s goose. It was fattier than usual and, even after letting it stand for forty minutes, it was difficult to handle as hot fat oozed and spat, a situation that for a few minutes caused me more kitchen foreboding than pretty much anything since, well, since I overcooked the roasties last year…
The stress of Christmas food, the lunch especially, derives from the pressure to deliver the feast according to the expectation around the table, or actually multiple expectations – red cabbage is one person’s favourite, while serving the sprouts without chestnuts would grievously offend another. For this reason, I have a detailed cooking timetable that I tweak every year according to the weight of the goose. I keep every year’s timetable, along with printed pages of recipes, tucked into an old Good Housekeeping Christmas cookbook. Another tradition, and a useful one – I can always find last year’s notes.
Some clues to why we set our Christmas eating in stone has come from various sources this year. There was a lovely Food Programme on Radio 4 (still on the iPlayer, of course) in which several culinary luminaries brought elements of their Christmas to a lunch together. Their contributions – from Giorgio Locatelli’s capon to Angela Hartnett’s mince pies – made the point that tradition is the key, no matter what you cook. Yotam Ottolenghi offered a pertinent observation: it’s the one time he cooks when he is not trying to change, improve or innovate; he’s simply delivering the meal that is expected.
Then I watched a rerun of a ten-year-old Timeshift programme about Christmas lunch on BBC4 . It already felt very dated, not least in some haughty observations that TV chefs were deterring us from cooking and heralding a decline in home cooking and any interest in British food. Only Diana Henry seemed to be both optimistic and prescient. But the food historians were interesting and one view resonated: that Christmas lunch is in the tradition of feasting, and feasting is ritualised, relying on context, conventions and rules. That seemed to get to the heart of the matter.
I also found it interesting to observe this year’s social media interest in the bizarre places that people bed down in the interests of spending Christmas with others – under stairs, in beds far too small, with the family pets etc. While missing the point that such is life for some people year-round, the inference was obvious – that people sacrifice their creature comforts for the sake of the annual ritual.
It’s perhaps noteworthy that these Christmas rituals are not only focused on family. While some of the traditions may have passed down through families, they are replicated in other contexts. Our Christmas Day this year was friends only. This reflects a societal change. But whether it’s family, friends or a sprinkling of both doesn’t matter – the ritual is the ritual.
But why have the traditions of what we eat on Christmas Day, and around Christmas, seemed in even sharper relief this year? I get the impression that it’s not just me for whom it has seemed even more of an issue.
Do so-called identity politics provide some context? There is some contention around this concept, but it is surely unarguable that we increasingly maintain a variety of different identities: personal, political, societal, professional etc. Christmas rituals, with food at their heart, provide a bridge across these multiple identities, both metaphorically and in reality when the food is in effect a reason to come together with people we might not otherwise see, and with whom we might not have much in common. In the Timeshift programme, Prue Leith (a disconcertingly dishevelled Prue Leith, in fact) ventured that she thought Christmas lunch was about the British seeking a sort of society that had broken down. I thought this unduly cynical, and curiously dated, but her point may be a variant on this identity question.
It’s probably obvious, but Christmas lunch, and Christmas food more generally, gives us a static point while the times, they are a changin’. Christmas traditions represent a point of reassurance, perhaps of safety. We put food at the very heart of our Christmas celebrations, whether the day has religious significance for us or not and regardless of whether we bemoan or glory in the commercialisation of Christmas, and that seems to require that it be a fixed feast. It’s no surprise that what we know of the efforts to mark Christmas even on the frontlines of World War I feels recognisable 100 years on.
And times are changing even faster. At a time when many of us are more worried than ever about the future of our planet, when every day the world seems more dangerous than yesterday, when we find world events ever more inexplicable and our leaders’ action and words and Tweets ever more bewildering, we seem to need our idealised Christmas more than ever. We need the most wonderful time of the year to give us that sense of reassurance and safety. We want tradition and we want the same food we have eaten for decades. Even if that puts more pressure on the cook. Who, of course, loves it really and will do it all again next year…