When I was a youngster, we had turkey twice a year: Thanksgiving and Christmas. Often it was a live bird we got at the Eastern Market. My father would perform the queasy, but necessary procedure to get it to the kitchen and then my mother would take it from there. Now it’s so easy to pick up a turkey breast at the store anytime of the year, that eating turkey seems less special than it once did.
In recent years, my family has favored crab cakes as the main course for our Christmas lunch. This year when we began to divvy up the other dishes, everyone was in favor of keeping the yummy crab cakes on the menu. Since Deb does a divine lamb dish, she agreed to do that as well. With the main items agreed upon, it was the side dishes that gave us some angst.
I suggested that my grandson, Austin, make one of his favorite recipes. He’s a fan of Chef Yotam Ottolenghi, so I knew he’d concoct something awesome and possibly Mediterranean. It was deemed I should bring the salad, since that would be easier with me just getting back from my trip. Green beans and some form of potatoes or rice also made the menu.
The soup is still in limbo, though I’ve since found an easy butternut squash recipe in the New York Times that can be made ahead. A dessert was wisely delegated to a family friend, a home baker of high regard, who will be with us for lunch. She makes a very festive Cranberry White Chocolate Christmas Cake that’s perfect for the holidays.
Whew! What a relief to have everything nailed down this far in advance. As always, I expect there will be some deletions and additions. But anytime we’re all together, that’s good.
Christmas Dinners of Yesteryear
Christmas menus have changed over the years. I became fascinated by early holiday gatherings, when I wrote my book: Christmas at the Mansion: It’s Memories and Menus. I discovered that those 19th century meals were bountiful, daylong feasts, and not even too appealing by today’s standards. Households of the time served such delicacies as terrapin stew, buffalo tongue, and Christmas pudding, that called for for a pound of kidney suet and a cooking time of more than four hours.
At the Missouri Governor’s Mansion, the Christmas dinners of yesteryear were not too unlike the 1903 holiday menu at the City Hotel in St. Louis: oysters on the half shell, game soup, boiled white fish, roast goose, boiled potatoes, mashed turnips, creamed parsnips, stewed onions, boiled rice, lobster salad, canvas back duck, plum pudding, salted almonds, and mince pie.
A century ago, most meals at the Mansion—holiday or everyday—included beaten biscuits, that required the dough to be run repeatedly through a machine before it was left to rise. Food was prepared in a dirt-floor kitchen located in the basement of the Mansion and delivered by a dumbwaiter (a hoisting device, not a person) to the upper floors. It’s unlikely the many dishes arrived at the table at their intended temperature.
At the end of the lunch, a cloth was flung over the table and the food left for another round of eating later that day. Sadly, there was no football game to watch on television while waiting for the next meal.