A new Scrooge, waking on Christmas morning, decided that it was high time to mend his ways. Leaning out of his frosty window, he called to an errand boy to buy the biggest turkey available — ”not the little prize turkey, the big one.” In Victorian times, as today, nothing said “holiday” as well as a BIG roast, and Scrooge’s surprise for the Cratchit family spelled the ultimate in celebration.
According to Claude Lévi-Strauss, the fundamental difference between the ordinary meals we serve to the immediate family and those we make for company or for special occasions is that ordinary meals are boiled, while those prepared for celebrations are roasted. Going back at least to the Middle Ages in Europe, large cuts of meat (suitable for roasting) were kept out of the kitchens of all but the most wealthy… at that time the nobility. Consequently, to offer roasted meat to guests was to confer noble status upon them. Lévi-Strauss’ notion also reflects a fact about kitchens that was essentially French. Most French households did not contain ovens. On special occasions (such as holidays or the arrival of honored guests), large stuffed birds or carefully larded haunches would be carried to the local boulangerie for roasting in the huge ovens used for baking bread. In light of this, it’s fair to surmise that it is not the cooking method itself, but the extra effort expended that indicates the higher status of special-occasion meals.
One of the primary functions of holidays is the promotion and affirmation of group cohesiveness. The shared memories and rituals that define our families — and our societies — are renewed and restored during the preparation and consumption of traditional foods. The essential ingredient in any Thanksgiving meal is its invariability. Other holidays, like Christmas, permit some experimentation, but the Thanksgiving meal is a ritual that must be performed with pretty absolute adherence to a family’s traditions.
It is curious that the menu for Christmas dinner, a mere month after Thanksgiving, often repeats certain details of that other traditional meal. Some items appear on both menus precisely because they are family favorites, but some have been around for longer than our families. Many details of our Christmas celebrations are based upon English models, such as the Yule log, many of the songs we hear — endlessly — and, of course, the annual retelling (or, more often these days, television reruns) of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
The English, of course, do not celebrate the American Thanksgiving feast, so a roasted turkey — even one that, as Scrooge exclaimed, “could never have stood on his legs… he would have snapped ‘em short in a minute, like sticks of sealing wax”) — at Christmas, wouldn’t seem as redundant as it does State-side.
The combination of turkey and cranberries, when considered in the light of most of our eating habits, is, at first, puzzling. The pairing of sweet and savory, hot and cold, on the same plate is relatively unusual — the English usually keep them separate — but not unknown. In the Middle Ages and Renaissance (which, after all, immediately preceded the age of exploration, and the colonization of America), such combinations were common. If the holiday meal is intended to serve as a ritual re-enactment of ancient ways, cranberries make perfect sense. Even the kinds, and number, of spices used during the holidays hearken back to Medieval recipes. In western tradition, only roasted meats are normally served with a sweet: leg of lamb with mint jelly, glazed ham with pineapple, or roast duck with orange or cherry sauce. While they are not always holiday meals, they are generally reserved for special occasions. Likewise, it should be noted that these celebratory meals often end with another ancient pairing of sweet and savory, fruit and meat: the mince pie.
In recent years, pairing of fruits and meats has become more common, largely because of the increased presence of non-European cuisines. The Chinese, for example, do not usually “save room for dessert” — each of their dishes balances all five of the basic flavors: sweet, sour, salty and bitter (plus the savory one, umami). Most Americans order sweet-and-savory dishes at so-called “ethnic” restaurants, and they are beginning to enjoy them at home as well.
Perhaps in keeping with this broadening of the American palate, and of a more general interest in our history and cultural genealogy, adventurous cooks are experimenting with much older cuisines. Historical re-enacters strive to create “authentic” foods at mock Revolutionary and Civil War battles, and members of the Society for Creative Anachronism reproduce as accurately as possible the cooking of the Middle Ages and Renaissance.
The image of ancient eating habits is changing. Most of us now know that historic meals did not consist solely of gruel (for the peasantry) and giant haunches of roasted game (for the royalty). The food of the Middle Ages and Renaissance was rich and varied, with exotic ingredients, elaborate preparation and presentations, and a level of conspicuous consumption that would be the envy of today’s fashionable foodies.
Just as our knowledge of our kitchen heritage is increasing, today’s cookbooks are beginning to look for ways to incorporate that knowledge into modern cooking. My friend Francine Segan’s book, Shakespeare’s Kitchen: Renaissance Recipes for the Contemporary Cook is a perfect example. Francine searched for period recipes (which she includes), but rather than slavishly re-create them, she made them anew for modern tastes. This is fusion cooking, not geographically or culturally, but chronologically. This is our own culinary heritage, revived and recharged, after 400 years.
What better way to celebrate the holidays and reconnect with our collective past with than by making some classic English Christmas recipes? The extra effort spent on these dishes tells family and friends that they are special to us. It says, as did the Bard of Avon, “Sit down and feed, and welcome to our table” (As You Like It). However, in keeping with modern tastes, let’s set aside the huge steaming roast — with apologies to the reformed Scrooge — and revisit some ancient treats, at once savory and sweet.
Individual Meat Pies with Cointreau Marmalade
Elizabethan street vendors sold little minced pies like these, as well as oyster pies, apples and nuts, to theatergoers. The audience ate during the entire play and tossed cores, shells and scraps onto the theater floor.
These tiny meat pies delicately flavored with orange liqueur are just perfect now as then, for picnics or pre-theater nibbling.
8 ounces ground lamb, beef, or veal
1/2 tsp. salt - 1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1/4 tsp. freshly ground nutmeg — 1/2 tsp. ground mace
3 pitted dried plums, finely chopped
1/2 cup currants
1/4 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
1/2 recipe Renaissance Dough (see below)
1/4 cup cointreau
1/2 cup thick-cut orange marmalade.
• Combine the meat, salt, pepper, nutmeg, mace, dried plums, currants and orange juice in a bowl and refrigerate for at least 6 hours or overnight. Remove the meat mixture from the refrigerator 1 hour before baking.
• Preheat the oven to 450°F. Roll out Renaissance Dough 1/16 inch thick on a floured work surface. Cut twenty-four 3-inch circles from the dough. Press the dough circles into mini-muffin cups. Loosely fill each muffin cup with the meat mixture (about 1 tablespoon per pie) and bake for 15 minutes.
• Bring the Cointreau to a boil in a small saucepan, stir in the marmalade, and cook until the marmalade is warm.
• Spoon some of the marmalade mixture on top of each mince pie and serve.
(Segan, p. 7)
Makes 1 double crust
This dough, or “paste” as it was called, is perfect for a two-crust sweet or savory pie. In Shakespeare’s day, after baking, the top crust on dessert pies was often replaced with a separately baked, highly ornate top crust of multicolored preserves or sugars with intricate designs.
Of course, you may use store-bought ready-to-use or frozen crusts for any of the recipes in this book calling for Renaissance Dough. Nowadays, with so many good ready-made options available, you don’t need to lie” “guiltily awake” (King Richard III, 53) if you don’t want to bother with the fuss of making your own dough.
2 Cups (8 ounces) Sifted loosely packed pastry flour
1/2 tsp. Salt 1 Large egg, beaten, cold 1/2 Cup Cold butter, cut in small cubes.
• Mix the flour, 1/2 cup ice-cold water, the salt, and egg together on a cold surface until crumbly. Flatten the dough with a rolling pin and place one quarter of the butter cubes on the dough. (Keep the remaining butter refrigerated until ready to use.)
• Roll the butter into the dough, fold the dough over, and roll it again. Repeat the process 3 more times until all the butter is incorporated. Cover the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour. (Segan, p. 239)
Scallops in Berry Glaze
The Elizabethans enjoyed sweet and tart sauces and made use of various flavored vinegars in their cooking. The natural sweetness of scallops is perfectly offset here by the light tartness of fruit vinegar. This recipe is exceptionally delicious and very simple to prepare.
1 tbsp. butter
2 medium shallots, minced
1/2 cup fruit vinegar (raspberry, blackberry, or elderberry)
2 whole cloves
1/8 tsp. ground mace
8 ounces sea scallops
Salt and freshly milled black pepper
1/4 cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
1/4 cup finely chopped mint
2 scallop shells, cleaned.
• Melt the butter in a sauté pan, add the shallots and cook over low heat for 3 to 4 minutes, or until the shallots are translucent. Add the vinegar, raise the heat to medium-high, and boil for 3 minutes, or until the mixture is thickened to a glaze. Reduce the heat to medium-low, add the cloves, mace and scallops, and cook for 1 to 2 minutes, or until the scallops are opaque and cooked through. Remove the whole cloves and season with salt and pepper.
• Combine the parsley and mint and sprinkle around the edges of the scallop shells. Spoon the scallops into the shells and top with the berry glaze. (Segan, p. 191)
Segan, Francine. Shakespeare’s Kitchen: Renaissance Recipes for the Contemporary Cook. New York: Random House, 2003. 272 pp. $35.00 US/ $53.00 CAN
Note: This article first appeared, in slightly altered form, in LeitesCulinaria.
Gary Allen’s most recent book is Can It!: The Pleasures and Perils of Preserving Foods, his third book from Reaktion. You can find more of his speculations about things he has been known to (but really shouldn’t) put in his mouth — his own foot being a prime example of the latter — on his website: onthetable.us