Christmastime and food are inextricably linked, not only in our hearts and homes, but in pop culture. “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire”… “I brought some corn for popping”… “The Wassail Song”… all elicit food memories as they are tied to the holiday season, and they are almost all references of foods from days long ago. In our Christmas kitchens today, we expect to find a very basic list of modern foods: ham, turkey, greens, potatoes and breads (plus or minus the vegan Field Roast in the mix). But one or two hundred years ago, the Christmas tables looked very different. If you think that the references to chestnuts or figgy bread from your fave Christmas carols are odd, just read on to see exactly what Americans were eating back then. It’s a very retro Christmas menu.
Food historian William Woys Weaver writes that the typical 19th century American Christmas was heavy in fruits and root vegetables, as this was what was available during those exhausted, frigid months in the garden. Entrees that might be present at the Christmas dinner table sound reasonably similar to what we might have today—or at least not too far from it: fish, boiled turkey, roast ducks and scalloped oysters.
But in The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Simple, one of America’s first cookbooks (published in 1747 and used by home cooks through the 19th century), a December menu reads far more adventurous than that of Weaver’s rendering. A first course includes various organ meats and animal parts: cod’s head, calves’ feet pie and chine of lamb (a cut of meat taken from the backbone of an animal). For second course, one would eat more fish and fruits, although the dishes are still quite foreign to us now: sturgeon, prawns, jellies, tartlets and partridges. And for third course, a return to the obscure animal parts that would make most cringe today: calves’ burs, lambs’ tails, fricassee of crawfish and savory cakes (presumably meat pies).
Food editor Lynne Olver of the Food Timeline presents the most familiar-sounding Christmas menu of the 1800s, the kind you might imagine to find in stories like “A Christmas Carol.” From Olver’s sources, you’d gather the menu to read something like this:
The above dishes—save meat pie—aren’t all that different from today’s typical Christmas dishes, yet they have a heavier emphasis on meat and fruits tied together on the same plate. The greater disparity comes in how they are prepared, and especially in how the recipes were written. Olver cites the following descriptions as the original recipes given for the above menu. These old recipe directives give great insight into how the world of food communication—not just ingredient preferences—has changed.
A Christmas Pie
“Make the walls of thick standing crust, to any size you lie, and ornamented as fancy directs. Lay at the bottom of the pie a beef steak. Bone a turkey, goose, fowl, duck, partridge, and place one over the other, so that, when cut, the white and brown meat may appear alternately. Put a large tongue by its side, and fill the vacancies with forcemeat balls and hard eggs, and add savory jelly. This last is better for being kept in a mould, and only taken out as required. Bacon, chopped or beat up with the forecemeat, is preferable to suet, as it is nicer when cold, and keeps better.”
—The Carolina Housewife, Sarah Rutledge, facsimile 1847 edition [University of South Carolina Press:Columbia]
“Take a pound of beef, a pound of apples, two pounds of suet, two pounds of sugar, two pounds of currants, one pound of candied lemon or orange peel, a quarter of a pound of citron, and an ounce of fine spices; mix all these together, with half an ounce of salt, and the rinds of six lemons shred fine. See that the ingredients are thoroughly incorporated, and add brandy or wine according to taste.”
“Making a rich fruit cake in the 18th century was a major undertaking. The ingredients had to be carefully prepared. Fruit was washed, dried, and stoned [taking the pits out] if necessary; sugar, cut from loaves, had to be pounded and sieved; butter washed in water and rinsed in rosewater. Eggs were beaten for a long time, half an hour being commonly directed. Yeast, or barm from fermenting beer, had to be coaxed to life. Finally, the cook had to cope with the temperamental wood-fired baking ovens of that time. No wonder these cakes acquired such mystique…”
—Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson [Oxford University Press:Oxford]
Christmas Plum Pudding
“The plum pudding is a national dish, and is despised by foreign nations because they never can make it fit to eat. In almost every family there is a recipe for it, which has been handed down from mother to daughter through two or three generations, and which never has been and never will be equalled, much less surpassed, by any other…It is usualy, before sending it to table, to make a little hole in the top and fill it with brandy, then light it, and serve it in a blaze. In olden time a sprig of arbutus, with a red berry on it, was stuck in the middle, and a twig of variegated holly, with berries, placed on each side. This was done to keep away witches…If well made, Christmas plum pudding will be good for twelve months.”
—Cassell’s Dictonary of Cookery with Numerous Illustrations [Cassell, Petter, Galpin & Co.: London]
 Christmas Cookies
Take one pound and a half of flour, three quarters of a pound of sugar, half a pound of butter, half a cup of milk, and two spoonfuls of caraway seeds; melt the butter before you put it in. It is rather difficult to knead, but it can be done. Roll it out and cut it in hearts and diamonds, and bake it on buttered tins.”
—New England Economical Housekeeper and Family Receipt Book, Mrs. E. A. Howland [E.P. Walton:Montpelier]
Egg Nogg for a Party
Take 20 fresh eggs.
2 1/2 quarts fine old brandy.
1 pint of Santa Cruz Rum.
2 1/2 gallons of rich milk.
2 pounds of white sugar.
Separate the whites of the eggs from the yolks, beat each separately with an egg-beater until the yolks are well cut up, and the whites assume a light fleecy appearance. Mix all the ingredients (except the milk and the whites of the eggs) in a large punch bowl. The pour in the milk gradually, continually stirring, in order to prevent the milk from curdling with the eggs. Grate sufficient nutmeg on the mixture, and lastly, let the whites float on top, and ornament with colored sugars. Cool in a tub of ice, and serve.”
—Bar-Tender’s Guide, Jerry Thomas, facsimile 1887 editon