HO HO HUMBUG:Cooking for family and friends at Christmas can be a minefield. TRISH DESEINEhas tips on how to avoid stove-side squabbles and dining table battles.
Perhaps I’ve been in France too long, but as a divorced woman over 45, I find Christmases are like sex; the best times come when you expect them least, and when they are good, they are very, very good.
I have tasted, and cooked, a lot of Christmases – the full French belle-famille feast for 25; five-course sit-downs for 65 friends; sad, grey turkey with my late father in a north Antrim hotel; Parisian palace opulence; nostalgic Irish-themed perfection, and loved-up dreaminess – when I burned everything.
And, far from it being something to bemoan, I find that Christmas arriving faster and faster is one of the great advantages of growing older. Even before this year’s has started, I’m happily saying, “Oh well, there’s always next year.”
Still, managing aspirations and expectations at Christmas can be tricky, and emotional over-investment is rife, especially when it comes to grub.
I think it helps to be honest with yourself about who is really running the cooking show. Be prepared to discover that this may not be you – even in your own home – and may include people whose plum pudding recipe lives on, tyrannically, when they themselves have been dead for many years. It’s best to accept it gracefully until it’s your turn to really make all the decisions.
Other people’s obscure festive madeleines of claggy stuffing, or gravy made with Bisto, may have little to do with good food or cooking. Let it go, and if you have children, try to make different memories for them when you at last get the chance.
If you’re a guest somewhere, unless there has been full-scale prior consultation, avoid being drawn into creating something new or to order. An exception is with family heirloom dishes like my Auntie Beattie’s tinned pineapple on crushed digestives topped with whipped cream and chocolate Flake. A pudding so brilliantly consensual it has no name, no one can argue with it, or mess it up.
But even if you’re with your own family, you will sometimes feel like you’ve got a bit part in a soap opera, you’re two series in, and still no one’s given you a script.
One year, in Paris, I was asked to cook Christmas lunch in someone else’s kitchen. It was the first time a very elderly, disapproving French father had set foot in his gay son and partner’s new home.
At the table was his sister-in-law, to whom he hadn’t spoken in 40 years, and his manic depressive daughter who hadn’t been taking her medication. My divorce had just kicked in and this was my first Christmas without my (then) small children. It was Dysfunction Central and things were tense, to say the least.
I had hoped cooking for my friends would be a good distraction for me, while making their obvious load a little lighter.
As the day went on, the slow, furious rebellion of three generations deprived of the Christmases they wanted, seemed to aim itself more and more at the cook.