Recipe for an imperfect Christmas
The season has been hijacked by celebrity chefs and lifestyle gurus but they can’t beat the taste of a real home
Christmas is not about being a domestic goddess, or trying to impress people, it’s not even about what you eat exactly but how, where and with whom.
Oh Christmas! What’s happened to you? Gone is the balding tinsel on a white plastic tree. Now it’s been upgraded and has become all luxurious, it’s Yuletide with a hint of cranberries and the scent of a real tree. Even festive adverts are no longer the home of the cheap and cheerful supermarket jingles. They’ve been replaced by contemplative moments of emotional terrorism slicing into your very soul as if directed by Michael Haneke. They focus on the mortality of elderly relatives while simultaneously reminding you to buy extra potatoes.
Food, the vital part of the season, was the first tradition to be dismantled. In came Jamie Oliver slathering everything in goose fat, cramming it with walnuts, forcing everyone to like sprouts because he hid them in a mound of bacon. Christmas became a culinary wonderland where every kitchen was expected to be fitted with an Aga and a giant American fridge. There’s no leftover turkey sandwiches for Jamie, Nigel and Nigella, it’s all turkey risotto and partridge pie now, you Paxo stuffing proles!
Christmas is already a festival of one-upmanship and can dissolve people into an anxious puddle of inferiority without having to bring the simple comfort of food into it. This is the era of food shame, where inner Gwyneth Paltrows were unleashed and social media became stuffed full of photos of artfully arranged clean eats or over-the-top gluttonous displays arranged like Renaissance oil paintings. Images of both feast and famine obviously photoshopped to evoke the right amount of envy.
The holiday season is often a time of survival, of squeezing as many people into one house as humanly possible without killing each other
It’s easy to get swept away in this blur of fancy times and attempting to enjoy eggnog in a post-ironic way or scoffing expensive salted caramel popcorn pretending to be in some voguish fashion spread, but all I crave is the slightly careworn Christmas of my childhood. Christmas is bound up with nostalgia and nothing signifies home more than the foodstuffs we’re all familiar with. It’s not about being a domestic goddess, or trying to impress people, it’s not even about what you eat exactly but how, where and with whom. It’s about memories ricocheting through you, the odd family talismans that everyone has. That chipped plate that’s been through every Christmas but no one can bring themselves to throw away, the tacky tea towel from that holiday in Greece, the pots of Chivers mixed peel and cans of Lustre fruit cocktail that seem to be lurking in every press.
The holiday season is often a time of survival, of squeezing as many people into one house as humanly possible without killing each other. It’s where siblings become fellow soldiers as you weave and dodge personal questions from extended family members. They distract Auntie Sheila with a splash of Tia Maria or clean up the Mr Kipling that’s been mashed onto the wall by a passing child before anyone notices. Swallowing a rogue Penguin bar sitting on the stairs like a cobra unhooking its jaw just to prevent one of the assembled screaming kids from eating another sweet before midday.
Mams go militant
It’s where mams go militant making an assortment of goods that all look like the same brown fruit cake but have different names which distinguish them from each other and give the eventual recipients different levels of importance.
It’s the frazzled ‘breakfast’ eaten on the way to Mass consisting of three caramel kegs, a green triangle and a Bounty one from the box of Celebrations. The Christmas Eve sandwiches made with bits of the oven-hot ham which must be eaten standing up in the kitchen, for some reason. The second layer of the tin of Afternoon Tea that’s broken into like contraband because all that’s left in the first one is the thin, dark chocolate wafer ones. The boxes of After Eights that just seem to magically appear and are never eaten because they are hateful. The “good” tin of Fox’s kept sealed up for those mythical “visitors”, the really special ones that never seem to arrive, like characters from an O Henry short story. The Proustian rush of the first crack of the Viennetta in the post-dinner haze when your half-open eye is trained on Phil Mitchell wheezing out a dose of holiday hatred to someone in the Vic.
Christmas is waking up to the smell of burning rashers, the sound of showers and hairdryers and the telly on full blast with ‘no one watching it!’
Waking up to the smell of burning rashers, the sound of showers and hairdryers and the telly on full blast with “no one watching it!”. Sneaky Guinness’s in the local that taste of freedom. Finding your mam late at night in the kitchen having a “silent moment” with a cup of tea and an Easi Single on a cream cracker. Then, later on, in the weird listless in-between days when everything descends into timeless chaos and you’re half-couch, half-human, desperate measures call for the truly sophisticated dessert of dumping a pint of Baileys over a slab of Romantica. Finally, someone will have to leave (maybe to buy some Rennies, maybe to go home) and the whole flimsy house of cards topples over, the Christmas spell is broken and an oath is uttered about not eating bread for a while.
It may not be expensive or Instagram-worthy and it might not look like the ads, but it’s a taste of home and this imperfect recipe always ends up creating the most satisfying soul food.