Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Feast for Christmas Past

Today we are considering the Christmas Dinner in the mid 19th century. 

We moderns have romantic visions of sweet treats and comfort foods revealing our ethnic origins, but we re-enactors/living historians are far smarter than to let those notions stand as fact.

To explore what the Christmas Dinner consisted of in the 19th century, I consulted a favorite cook book that lists suggestions for meals along with recipes to create those suggestions.
Then, to glean how special folks of the mid 19th century would have viewed their meal, I compared the listing for Christmas or New Year’s Dinner with a listing for a “regular” dinner.

In the 19th century, folks of differing economic situations had very different experiences with food. I will give an idea of the types of families or situations included in each of the categories. Please understand these are my own interpretation of period descriptors based on reading how economic categories are described in these and other period sources. They are not concrete “rules.” Miss Leslie’s book, just like women’s magazines today, gives suggestions for ideal meals which may not reflect the situation of every family. It was written before The War, and as such, does not take in to account the need for substitutions.

We’ll start with the “plain dinner for small families.” This is comparable to dinners for “upper working class” or “lower middle class trying to conserve funds.” A look at suggestions for meals subsequent to Christmas Dinner include suggestions for left-overs, like ham pie or turkey salad.
Miss Leslie lists an every day dinner as consisting of: roast turkey with cranberry sauce, winter squash, turnips, salsify, potatoes, and custard pie.
Her Christmas Dinner includes: roast turkey with cranberry sauce, boiled ham, winter squash, turnips, salsify, potatoes, and mince pies.
So, they add an extra meat and a more elaborate pie.

Next is a listing for a “Nice Dinner for Families.” This is comparable to “middle class family” or an “upper class family who’s not entertaining.”
Her every day suggestions include: roast turkey with cranberry sauce, boiled ham, winter squash, turnips, salsify, potatoes, mince pudding, lemon custard
Her Christmas Dinner includes: roast turkey with cranberry sauce, boiled ham, goose pie, boiled fowls with celery sauce, winter squash, turnips, salsify, beets, potatoes, cold slaw, boiled mince pudding, baked lemon pudding, pumpkin pudding
Here, they’ve included two extra two meat dishes (or strictly speaking a made dish and a fowl), an extra vegetable, a relish/salad, and an extra pastry.

Finally, is a listing for “Company Dinner.” This is comparable to a wealthy family who is entertaining friends.
For every day, her list includes: Mulligatawny soup; fresh cod-fish fried; boiled ham; roast turkey with cranberry sauce; fowls stewed whole; oyster pie; potato snow; turnips; parsnips; winter-squash--Cocoa-nut pudding; lemon pudding; mince-pie; calves' feet jelly.
Her Christmas Dinner includes: Mock turtle soup; stewed rock-fish; roasted ham; roasted venison with currant-jelly; boiled turkey with oyster sauce; roast geese with apple sauce; French oyster pie; fricasseed chickens; potatoe snow; parsnips; beets; winter-squash; cold-slaw--Plum pudding; mince-pies; orange tarts; cream cocoa-nut pudding; Spanish blanc-mange; apple-jelly; vanilla ice-cream.
Here we have more elaborate versions of some dishes, such as boiled turkey with oyster sauce rather than a simple boiled turkey. We have more expensive ingredients, such as venison rather than turkey, or oranges rather than lemons. And we have extras, such as the roast geese with apple sauce, beets, plum pudding, Spanish blanc mange, and vanilla ice cream.

So, just as we moderns include a few special dishes, so did they. Look what those special dishes are: goose with apple sauce, goose pie, plum pudding, pumpkin pudding, mince pie... those romantic favorites from “A Christmas Carol” and paintings by Currier and Ives.

Happy eating on your happy holiday! J

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