Advent calendar 15: the feast

‘A Christmas dinner, for the middle classes of this empire, would scarcely be a Christmas dinner without its turkey…’
– from Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management – ref 1005 (1859-61)

Today’s image: the feast

Way behind on seasonal preparations, I still need to decide on menus and complete the ‘big shop’ order. Not that there will be many surprises; the odd dessert request aside, we eat pretty much the same things every year, finding comfort in the familiar.

Not that it stops some from seeking novelty. In a recent article, food writer and restaurant critic Jay Rayner pleaded for an end to some of the more gimmicky seasonal edibles. These include brussels sprouts flavour crisps (potato chips); pigs-in-blankets mayonnaise, and turkey and cranberry dog biscuits. Several years ago I seem to recall the supermarkets covering everything in gold leaf to make it ‘luxury’. The new trick appears to but putting sparkling wine into products to make them ‘fun and festive’ – hence a Bucks Fizz Candles dessert;  Prosecco cocktail sausages; and a salmon with Prosecco and redcurrants, to give just a few examples. I agree: stop.

Honestly, it’s not about being against festive foodstuffs, it’s just – why? A few individual taste preferences, aside, there’s nothing wrong with the standards. How can you improve on Champagne, or indeed Prosecco, than simply serving it in a glass?

As a vegetarian, my heart sinks whenever served up something ‘experimental’ at Christmas. This has included Moroccan couscous; spinach and mushroom lasagne; and ratatouille. Any of these would be great at another time of year. But for the main feast, I want the roast potatoes and all the side dishes too. I don’t eat ‘fake meat’ but, if I am in charge of the kitchen, it’s an old-school nut roast for me.     

What makes a feast? It can simply be a ‘a large meal’, but is generally one we associate with celebration, with eating extravagantly, with indulgence. All races and religions celebrate and hold feasts, with special dishes on the table, whether these have religious significance or are simply tradition.

Anyway, here are a few notable feasts in literature.

‘Babette’s Feast’ from Anecdotes of Destiny by Isak Dinesen (1953)

In this short story, the sense are celebrated. Babette Hersant, a fugitive from France, arrives at the home of two sisters in remote Jutland. To make herself indispensable as a servant, Babette sources and serves up food the likes of which the austere sisters have never tasted, culminating in a final “real French dinner” of earthly pleasures, into which Babette pours everything that she has, financially and artistically. If you’ve seen the movie, it’s impossible not to picture the menu created on film.

The Little Princess by Frances Hodgson-Burnett (1905)

The concept of a feast is an exciting one as a child, and none more so than the midnight feast. It’s a secret from the grown-ups, food gathered, pilfered, shared, then illicitly enjoyed, and tasting all the better for it. Sarah Crewe, fortune lost and made to work as a servant, imagines for her fellow servant Becky. The girls fall asleep and wake up to find the dream come true upon “a small folding-table, unfolded, covered with a white cloth, and upon it spread small covered dishes, a cup, a saucer, a teapot… they removed the covers of the dishes, and found rich, hot, savoury soup, which was a meal in itself, and sandwiches and toast and muffins enough for both of them.”

The food and the occasion may vary, but all feasts feature a sense of sharing and of plenty

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (1939)

Not a conventional ‘feast’ as such, but a reminder that there is nothing that is as satisfying as good food when you’ve been hungry. I read this years ago but remember this scene, which is simple but highly sensory. In chapter 22, Tom Joad encounters a family at breakfast when he “smelled frying bacon and baking bread.” Then heard the bacon that “cricked and rustled as it grew crisp.” And “When the smell of the biscuits struck the air both of the men inhaled deeply. The younger said, “Kee-rist!” softly. The family invite Tom to share what they have, “…platter of bacon and the brown, high biscuits and a bowl of bacon gravy and a pot of coffee,” and they fill their plates.

A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens (1843)

Yes, that story again. It’s irresistible, the recounting of how the curmudgeonly and mean Ebeneezer Scrooge earned, in the course of one terrifying night, the true title of “founder of the Feast.” There is the Christmas dinner that the Cratchits enjoy, after which “… the youngest Cratchits in particular, were steeped in sage and onion to the eyebrows!”. Though my favourite description comes with the Dionysiac Ghost of Christmas Present: “Heaped upon the floor, to form a kind of throne, were turkeys, geese, game, brawn, great joints of meat, sucking pigs, long wreaths of sausages, mince-pies, plum-puddings, barrels of oysters, red-hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth cakes, and great bowls of punch.”


Reference
Jay Rayner ‘Prosecco crisps, pigs in blankets pot noodles – please make these Christmas treats stop’ in The Guardian, 03 December 2020.
Images thanks
Main photo by 🇨🇭 Claudio Schwarz | @purzlbaum on Unsplash
Smaller image by jinsoo jang from Pixabay

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