Has Christmas dinner had its day?
Zoe Williams and Henry Dimbleby argue over whether Christmas dinner is a grand old tradition—or a bland meal that should be relegated to the past
People who dislike Christmas dinner tend to critique it by breaking it down into its constituent parts in order to make themselves understood. This is understandable, as it makes such a strong case: turkey is an inferior meat, tasteless and dry, bred for bulk, which is the worst possible reason for breeding anything, often masked with sugar to make it bearable and the wrong colour, calling to mind a whole Pantone scale of things that you should never eat, from the surgical truss to the corporate stair carpet.
Potatoes could just about rescue the textures, but never by roasting them. The condiments of Christmas are like jams at a breakfast buffet, the vegetables have clustered together as the last nutrients standing in a season where nothing grows, and the pigs in blankets… well, they are ok.
But if we’re going to let a meal stand or fall by a sausage wrapped in a piece of bacon, give me a mixed grill with an egg on it and stop standing on your dignity.
Framing-wise, this is the wrong approach, since there’s always some sentimentalist with an imagination waiting to show you how you can improve a Brussels sprout by showering it with things that taste nothing like it, cooking them all in radically innovative ways, closing your eyes and imagining you’re eating a chestnut in Marsala that reminds you of cabbage.
In fact, the problem starts before the stove has gone on, in the combination of both performer and audience. It’s always cooking at scale—small families eat what they like—and is almost always cooked by someone with not much experience of symphonic large-scale catering.
Like Brexit, the people with the enthusiasm for it don’t have the skillset and the people with the skillset don’t have the enthusiasm. It’s not a bad working definition of the worst idea ever.
Lord have mercy, it’s impossible even to discuss Christmas dinner these days without bringing up Brexit. If we must talk politics, I’d argue that today’s world is already quite uncertain enough. Must we really mess about with one of the few remaining rituals we can take for granted?
It’s over 2,000 years since Jesus decreed that his disciples should eat roast turkey and cranberry sauce to celebrate his birthday, and it has served us fine since.
You argue that Christmas dinner is fundamentally a bad meal, and that cooking on such a grand scale is beyond the skill of most domestic cooks. You are only half right. The essential components of a Christmas meal are terrific.
Any chef will tell you that turkey, cooked well, has fine, moist flesh, and produces an unbeatable gravy. Bread sauce —with brown bread, lots of cream, scented with nutmeg and cloves and cooked slowly till the onions melt away—is ambrosial. The fact that you don’t even like roast potatoes —God’s own food—is frankly too baffling to engage with. Perhaps it’s best to draw a discreet veil over this eccentricity.
I would agree, however, that most people make it too much of a production. Devils on horseback, as suggested by the name, were not laid down in the Messiah’s original specification. And you can do away with chipolatas, pigs in blankets, and roast parsnips too. Keep it simple—turkey, gravy, spuds, sprouts, and bread sauce—and it’s a wonderful lunch, simple enough for anyone to prepare.
And if not that, then what? I’ve got better things to do on Christmas Day than explain to the sad eyes around the table why I am serving them “fashionable” roast beef, thank you very much. I’m off to do my shopping.
You make a sound point: that making any alterations to Christmas dinner would probably be more than the nation’s pacemaker could take. However, “this change is going to really upset all the people who hate change” is perhaps the worst argument for anything. No, wait! “We’ve been doing it this way an awfully long time so it must be fine”—that’s the worst argument.
I won’t engage in a fight to the death about turkey flesh: we have to allow everyone the dignity of their own tastes, and if you actually like it, I’ll respect that. Bee Wilson once called turkey the meal’s “essential building block,” and bread sauce “the mortar that joins the edifice together.” She was dead right, of course—it looks like mortar, shares its consistency and, the way most people make it, it tastes like it too.
I’m sorry if I was unclear: I love roast potatoes. I merely do not think them capable of rescuing the situation. You’d need a ninja with a fire hose to tackle all that desiccating stodge.
You could pare the meal right down so that a child could make it, but then you’d be taking people’s expectations of fandango and excess, and rigorously disappointing them. Arguably, the whole point of the day, from the stocking full of tat to the final mini-cracker is to teach children about anti-climax as part of the human condition. But do we really need to eat that grim lesson?
I wouldn’t necessarily replace the turkey with a big set piece from some other creature; rather, I’d repurpose the time: figure out all the truly delicious things you could make if you started planning a month before, shopping a fortnight before and cooking a week before; Diana Henry’s salt beef and pickles, Paula Wolfert’s chicken kdra. There are dishes out there worth all this faff and then some; turkey and all the trimmings is not one of them.
One last thing—I would ban Christmas dinner just to rid the world of the phrase “all the trimmings.”
Oh, to glimpse your guests’ fixed smiles of dismay as you triumphantly deliver your chicken kdra to the Christmas table, all blowsy with saffron and smen. Sad times.
Jack White, the ghoul-pale singer and guitarist of The White Stripes, once posed a thought experiment. Take two songwriters. Give one a studio with a state-of-the-art mixing desk, a professional production team and all the time in the world. Put the other in a room for the weekend with a 4-track tape recorder and a guitar with a broken string. Who will write the better songs? The answer, of course: the guy with the broken string.
The whole joy of any ritual occasion is that it has rules. There are strict limits within which you must operate. You can make your fancy experimental dishes at any time, but not at Christmas. For this one creation, you must confine yourself to the metaphorical guitar, and the fewer strings it has, the better.
You are right to dread the phrase “all the trimmings.” The over-ambitious frenzy it encourages is largely to blame when Christmas dinners turn bad. Strip away all those notes, focus on attacking the main chords of the dinner, and the result will be perfect harmony. Of a culinary sort, at least. A feast that is not too hard to make, that obeys the rules but still dazzles its audience.
Like a homemade loaf of bread—the most basic foodstuff of all, yet still the most impressive—a well-made Christmas dinner the very opposite of an anti-climax. An uber-climax, if you like.
Leaving aside the question of tradition, do you really want to be trying new-fangled kitchen experiments on this day of all days? Surely there are better things to be doing, like crying in front of Noel Edmonds on the television as he makes families’ dreams come true. And your guests won’t even thank you for it. In fact, they will silently reproach you.
If you do see the light and decide to give the pared-back traditional thing a go, I’ll send you my mum’s recipe for bread sauce. It’s completely delicious and not claggy at all. I kdra not.
Your guests, meanwhile, started practising their surprised faces in November, and have a catechism of appreciation ready to go, in case they lose concentration and forget which century they’re in, and whose house. “How you spoil us, with this undifferentiated pinky-beige mush/ I mean stuffing/ I mean, I dunno, sauce.”
Concentrating too hard on the performer—and by the way, I’m sure Meg White would take smen over giblet gravy any day—you forget the audience. One might well ascend to a state of purist’s nirvana, playing the same chord year after year, but what about your crowd, man? It needn’t all be brand new material, but how it deadens the soul to hear the Greatest Hits of Christmas, like being trapped in a shopping centre, or an anxiety dream.
The problem, as I see it, is that that the ceremony of the meal, its immutable components and idiosyncratic, often inexplicable combinations, are all an elaborate attempt to make the family feel normal. We’re all sitting down at the same time, eating the same food with the same napery, the same drinks, the same drunks, and therefore we’re all the same and there are no particular pressures or fissures that make this at all difficult, not a one, move along, nothing to see.
It’s the edible equivalent of the Elizabethan masque, subsuming personal interactions—which are messy and tricksy and scrappy—to the formalised and the universal. I can see the point of it, don’t get me wrong: I’ve nothing against making things easier. But paradoxically, if predictably, the meal has become so freighted that it doesn’t make anything easier; rather, it makes all the key players roughly 50 per cent more fractious than they were already.
Easier would be to choose more carefully the people you’re with, then have chicken in a basket followed by a Magnum.
I’ve made this case without even mentioning the hot, unholy mess that is Christmas pudding. As an act of sheer, seasonal kindness to you.
Okay, you’re right about Christmas pudding. From an epicurean point of view, it is indefensible. All the other components of Christmas dinner—roast spuds, turkey, bread sauce, cranberry sauce—get eaten all year round, because they are delicious in their own right. Not Christmas pudding. No one loves it: or at least, no one loves it as much as they would a chocolate yuletide log.
On the other hand, I am partial (as you might have noticed) to a spot of tradition. And this is where you and I fundamentally differ. You say that all the ritual, the one-two-three-heave attempt at fashioning a cheerful family scene, creates too much strain. Perhaps.
But if you want to have an enjoyable, relaxed dinner party with guests of your choosing, you can do it at any time of year. The point about Christmas is that it’s different. Exactly the same every year, but different to all the other days of the year.
And if Christmas Day reveals our families to be fractured or bad-tempered or peopled with weirdos, then so what? Can’t we endure, even enjoy, the peculiarities of our kinsmen for a mere 24 hours?
Indeed, eccentric relations and furious arguments are the very stuff of which Christmas memories are made. My pyromaniac uncle, for example, once stuffed fire-crackers into our Christmas pudding. When my mother poured over the flaming brandy, the whole thing exploded and spattered the kitchen with sticky brown bits.
The following year I was given the solemn duty of carrying the pudding to the table, while Ben poured over the burning brandy. He sloshed on so much that it set fire to my arm. I dropped the pudding, which smashed to shards on the tiled floor. While the grown-ups shouted at each other, we children surveyed the destruction with festive cheer, and helped ourselves to Mum’s mince pies.
Turkey, roast potatoes, mad relatives and an inedible pudding. Those are the ingredients for a proper Christmas.
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