If you celebrate Christmas, it’s possible your stomach will hurt by the end of the day.
Over-indulgence isn’t the reason for the season, but it is a crucial part of it. The enshrining of a hunk of protein is central to the feast: a ham, a roast of beef, the goose that is all the poor Cratchits of A Christmas Carol can afford before Scrooge’s change of heart, or the “prize turkey” that he sends them when he wakes up and discovers it is still Christmas Day.
If you go further back than Dickens, you find, in 1786, a “Yorkshire Pie” being served as part of the Christmas meal. Described in The Experienced English Housekeeper (digitized by the Open Library), it is a kind of turducken encased in pastry: a hare inside a turkey inside a goose, wedged into a massive crust—requiring 24 pounds of flour!—with the aid of two ducks and six woodcocks. Further back than that, and the iconic Christmas entrée is wild pig, escorted into the feast by mummers singing the Boar’s Head Carol. (Which may, or may not, commemorate an Oxford student who escaped from a wild forest boar by cramming a philosophy book down its throat.)
All of these dishes exist because of the holiday: They are expensive and indulgent and so we use them to mark out a day that is already special. (Though maybe the reason we consider this a holiday is because a luxurious amount of protein was briefly available—because the winter holidays fall just after harvest, after weaning, or after birds hatched in the summer had fattened enough to make a meal—and that provided the opportunity to make a feast.)
As an American raised in England, I grew up with all the Dickensian signifiers, and my parents carried them with us when we returned to the United States: roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, roast potatoes, horseradish sauce, Brussels sprouts, and a steamed pudding flamed with brandy and accompanied by hard sauce. Looked at closely, about half of that meal depends on meat or its byproducts: not just the roast, but the potatoes (added to the roasting pan) and the Yorkshire pud (essentially a giant popover, baked in the hot fat after the meat is removed)—and also the steamed pudding, canonically made with grated suet (hard abdominal fat collected from near a cow’s kidneys), and its sauce, basically butter mashed with sugar and brandy.
I still adore roast beef as a taste of my childhood, but a few years ago I started eating only grass-fed, and I haven’t yet grappled with how to recreate a holiday roast with that leaner, more muscular meat. My canonical Christmas meal is roast duck, now, which is better suited to a smaller household and also to supporting the pasture-based producers I’ve come to know. By roasting a bird, though, I’m still perpetuating the protein-centered meal that Dan Barber criticizes in his great book The Third Plate (one of my “best of 2014,” if you missed them)—so I was curious what others thought of as their best holiday meal.
Well, I have news for you (as a 9th-century Irish monk wrote one Christmastime): the centrality of protein to the holiday plate may be passing away. I asked my kitchen cabinet—my network of food-focused friends, and fellow writers who think about food policy issues—what their canonical Christmas meals were. Certainly plenty said: ham, turkey, leg of lamb; a few even harked back to roast beef. (One instructed, regarding a standing rib roast: “You start it really hot in the oven, then cut the heat off and leave it alone all day, so you get the enjoyment of the delicious smell with the added benefit of being able to leave it alone so you can free toys from packaging, add batteries, break up fights, and console after something gets broken.”)
But for many others, Christmas was the opportunity to eat whatever they pleased. For instance:
—“Lasagna, meatballs and sausage.”
—“Venison chili. With tequila.”
—“Oyster stew. Total list of ingredients: cream, butter, bacon, oysters and saffron.”
—“Doughnuts, shrimp with cocktail sauce and Kentucky fried chicken.”
—“A tuna melt with onions, with a side of left-over cranberry relish from Thanksgiving.”
—“Caribbean curry goat.”
—“Curried red lentil stew.”
—“Nut roast. With all the trimmings.”
—“Cantonese roast duck.”
(Also, for many friends, Chinese food. Followed by a movie.)
So what do we take from this? A traditionalist might mourn the loss of historic dishes, and a moralist might frown on how casual our holiday observances have become. (One friend emphasized, regarding his family’s Christmas meal: “… in my pajamas the whole day long.”)
What I see in those varied dishes, though, is proof of the affluence of our everyday diet. We no longer feel the need to mark a holiday by piling a plate with protein, because we have access to so much protein, and every other food we might want, every day.
That seems worth celebrating. Happy holidays, everyone.