Big, Bold, Wild: We Re-Create Christmas Dinners Of Centuries Past
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The tradition of Christmas dinner calls to mind those old-timey English holiday cards. You know, the family gathered around a turkey or a goose, lots of potatoes, candles, holly. NPR's Robert Smith visited a man in the north of England who says we're getting this whole tradition wrong.
ROBERT SMITH, BYLINE: His name is Ivan Day. He's a food historian. But he doesn't romanticize Christmas dinner.
IVAN DAY: I used to find the turkey particularly boring - you know, just rather dry wasteland of flavorless meat.
SMITH: I know a lot of us feel the same way, but there are traditions to uphold. Charles Dickens pretty much set it in stone when he made the bird the climactic moment in "A Christmas Carol."
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A CHRISTMAS CAROL")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Scrooge) Do you know whether they've sold the prize turkey that was hanging out? Not the little prized turkey, the big one.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) The one as big as me?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Scrooge, laughter) What a delightful child.
SMITH: This story launched a million overdone drumsticks. But when Ivan started to look through some very old English cookbooks, he discovered something - Christmas didn't used to be this predictable. Back before the 1800s, families did not gather around just one special bird.
DAY: You may have a swan on the table; you will have partridges, plovers, various ducks.
SMITH: Because Christmas in the 1600s was a 12-day drunken festival - think Mardi Gras with snow. Flipping through old cookbooks, nothing was too crazy.
DAY: And then...
SMITH: Look at this, it's a turtle.
DAY: It's a turtle - two of them. Look, there's another one there.
SMITH: And if you had to pick one thing that was essential that was on every table, it's the meat that Ivan is cooking while we speak - beef.
DAY: Now, if you listen, you can hear my joint of beef. It's hissing a bit angrily.
SMITH: I should mention at this point that Ivan Day's kitchen is done up in Medieval chic- coal fires, copper pots. The beef is on this hand-cranked, wind-up rotisserie.
DAY: This is the sound of an ancient English kitchen.
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.
SMITH: And when the pie comes out, it is an impressive sight.
DAY: Try a bit - let it cool down.
SMITH: OK, it's hot. I'm going to blow on it.
DAY: Yeah, be careful.
SMITH: Even with my American palate, it is not bad.
DAY: That's praise indeed.
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.
SMITH: And who would ever say that about a turkey? Robert Smith, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.