Tis the season to be jolly… or so they say. Me? I identify as ‘seasonally sceptical’. Don’t get me wrong, who could object to the fundamental principle of Christmas*: time off work to eat and drink with family and friends? In that regard, it is a precious time. But for the opinionated foodie this is also a strange period when, in a hundred different ways, you find your nerves fraying.
Just think about the awful food you have to eat because of ‘tradition’, the terrible food-related gifts you receive, the painful office parties, or the pressure on you to entertain. There’s plenty to enjoy at Christmas but it’s often in spite of the season rather than because of it. So, here is my round-up of what brings out my inner Grinch in Christmas food culture. Have a ball. If you can…
Flip it the bird
I’ve eaten the best turkey that money can buy. I’ve tasted slow-growing, £15-a-kilo birds which, in between sessions of deep-muscle massage and soothing new age music, roam paddocks as lush as the pitch at Wembley. And you know what? They taste OK. Alright. Or, to be frank, about 13% as interesting as a decent rib of beef, goose or, even, a high-quality chicken. Why are we still eating turkey?
It starts early in October on obscure satellite channels. Nigella, Hugh and Heston suddenly appear in repeats of Christmas specials past, in what quickly turns into a pandemic until, by mid-December, you can’t turn on any TV, anywhere, without someone imploring you to create the ultimate/perfect/fabulous family feast. That’s why, at 1.30pm on Christmas Day, so many kitchens reverberate to the sound of raised voices, hot tears and slammed oven doors. Everyone take a breath. It’s just one day of the year.
The gifts they keep on giving
How many cheeseboards, oven gloves or novelty egg cups can one self-confessed foodie need? That’s the question we often find ourselves asking on Christmas morning, after unwrapping three copies of the new Jamie and several gadgets (hand-held banana slicer, ‘vegetable spaghetti’ maker, novelty ice-tongs wearing mittens – n.b. this really exists), that you’ve, somehow, hitherto survived without. The only gift that any foodie wants this Christmas is, of course, a new subscription to olive.
In December, we have to write off eating out. Christmas ruins this once civilised pleasure. First you’re press-ganged into a ‘works do’ at the pub (lots of turkey ‘n’ tinsel, too much cheap wine), then, if you’re lucky enough to find somewhere still serving ‘real food’ on a Friday night in December, you’ll also find that the adjacent tables are all occupied by work colleagues who have been on the booze since lunch and who are now roaring and falling about, creating a level of noise best described as demented.
Essentially, Christmas dinner stopped evolving in 1859 and, almost uniquely in British food, it makes no concession to our modern taste for brighter, lighter flavours. Christmas cake and boozy Christmas puddings are hard, unrewarding work, while those heavily spiced and perfumed foods that break cover at Christmas, on a spectrum from bread sauce to mulled wine, taste medieval.
Self-indulgence is what Christmas is all about, to the tune of 6,000 calories eaten per person on Christmas Day. It ill behoves any of us to get too sanctimonious about this, but let me try. Because a world in which you can spend £40 on six Christmas crackers (just one egregious example of the table decoration tat that you can buy), is one that has been driven mad by a manufactured need to impress one another. Do something genuinely Christmassy this year, spend £10 on crackers and give £30 to charity.
Part-time party animals
At Christmas, all bets are off. People who are practically teetotal for the rest of the year feel the need to tie one on. We all know how this ends – badly. Worst of all, these amateurs are unable to distinguish between good and bad alcohol. Drunk by 3pm, they will insist on pressing some ungodly seasonal libation on you (clumsily spiced Christmas ales, icky snowballs, nauseating eggnog), with that familiar battle cry of the only occasionally inebriated: ‘Come on, don’t be miserable. It’s Christmas!’
Putting the ‘no’ in novelty
Each family has those foods: dates, walnuts, dad’s annual pork pie; which appear at Christmas, and Christmas only. Often they perform a ceremonial rather than culinary function, even if they go uneaten, Christmas would not be Christmas without them. But, historically, these were minor, idiosyncratic items. Far more objectionable is the way that now, all foods, from tea bags to jelly sweets, sausages to cheesecakes, are rebranded with a snow scene, twinkling stars or, worse, wholly inappropriate ‘seasonal spices’, to try and turn them into Christmas essentials. Let’s remember the supermarkets rinse us for around £4bn every December.
I could never bin my Christmas leftovers. Not when, nationally, we dump the equivalent of 74m mince pies, each year. But boy is it tempting, as the attempts to get rid of that godforsaken turkey (pie! curry! sandwiches! more sandwiches! Vietnamese salad! miserable lasagne!), get ever more desperate. It’s a long hard slog to the point where you can, finally, strain the ham and turkey bones from the stocks that you have dutifully made, and declare this mammoth green exercise over. No more turkey? Now that really is something to celebrate.
*Warning: theologians may differ in their interpretation of Christmas.
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