NPR had a neat story yesterday about a visit with an English culinary historian, who talked about what the English would have eaten for Christmas dinner centuries ago. NPR’s Robert Smith reports from beside historian Ivan Day’s 19th-century oven:
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.
Day puts food like this in historical context:
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.
Read, or listen, to the whole thing. I strongly advise clicking on the link, if only to see the beautiful antique sugar molds from Day’s kitchen. Plus, Day has a robust, growly voice that goes very well with the hissing joint of beef roasting in that ancient oven.
We’re keeping it fairly simple here for Christmas. My mom and the Leming girls are coming over (Mike Leming has to work at the fire station on Christmas Day). We’ll be having smoked turkey and ham; Martha Stewart’s mac and cheese (for young and unadventurous palates, of which there are more than one in this bunch); savory twice-baked sweet potatoes; savory roasted apples, onions, and shallots; Julie’s spicy pear fig chutney, which she made from this summer’s pears and figs; balsamic roasted carrots; baked potatoes with bay leaves; garlicky crumb-coated broccoli; and yeast rolls. The Leming girls are bringing Ruthie’s most beloved dessert, rum cake. Hannah works for Francis Ford Coppola’s Inglenook winery out in Napa, and she brought home some bottles of his 2011 cast Cabernet, which we’ll have with the meal. It’s too broad-shouldered for turkey, but so much of this meal is heavy, wintry food that we should be fine.
I never do Views From Your Table anymore, but as a Christmas treat, I’d love to post some on the day after Christmas. Send me what you have. Remember, don’t just take a photo of your table and the food on it, but include the context, e.g., what’s going on around the table. Just please don’t include anybody’s face; to protect people’s privacy, I won’t publish photos with identifiable faces in them. E-mail your pics to me at rod — at — amconmag — dot — com