What Beast Is This?
The trouble with Christmas dinner.
For several decades, the turkey starred at Yuletide feasts at home and abroad, but by the turn of the century in this country, the bird had become a charity staple—the government cheese of the merry-making world. "Once it started becoming associated with the poor on Ellis Island or orphan newsboys, the socially aspiring moved to beef and venison," Kaufman said. By the late 19th century, snobbish cookbook writers were arguing for a return to European feudal traditions, in which wealthy landowners rewarded the peasantry for a year of hard labor with lavish spreads of beef and brawn. "There was the sense that turkey and goose is fine for the hoi polloi," Kaufman explained, "but if you want to be elegant, you want to do beef or venison."
Venison can be a fraught choice. Once, when the family was crammed in the Caprice Classic, driving through a snowstorm to my grandparents' place in Illinois, the car hit and killed a deer. My father and grandfather strung up the animal in the barn and cut him into venison steaks. I remember, when they sliced through the stomach, field corn fell out. We kids refused to eat Rudolph. But eating "Babe," a couple of decades on—well, with bacon and sausage on the breakfast table, that was less of a stretch. The pig has long been a staple on the holiday board. "This actually goes back to the Roman Saturnalia," Kaufman explained—the annual pagan winter solstice feast in honor of Saturn, father of the gods. "There were lines from Martial, to the effect of, 'This boar was fed on acorns to make your Saturnalia happy!' " she said. "I don't think it ever really went in or out."
In the 21st century, Saturnalia is a misty memory, if that; and since the World War II, traditions in this country have evolved to embrace the immigrant backgrounds of American households. For many Swedish-Americans, Christmas dinner wouldn't look right without lefse and lingonberries, goose with cloudberry sauce, meatballs, and pickled herring; for Japanese-Americans, turkey is negotiable, but rice is not; Russian-Orthodox Americans expect salmon pie with hard-cooked eggs (kulebiaka); Italian-Americans might lay out seven kinds of fish; Vietnamese Americans may skip the feast entirely and hold out for the lunar New Year; and British-descended Americans still long for a standing rib roast and Yorkshire pudding. The American Christmas feast increasingly celebrates the savors of the melting pot, and the room for additions to its menu is endless. Ms. Kaufman affirms, "There's definitely not one meal."
In England, where Thanksgiving is not celebrated, turkey still holds great allure as a once-a-year treat on Dec. 25; and traditionalists like to serve goose stuffed with chestnuts sage and onions, just like the Cratchits had it (even though goose was plebeian in the Cratchits day) and/or roast beef, which is never unwelcome on a Wedgwood plate. But in the colonies, turkey became the sine qua non of the iconic November meal, leaving the contents of December's roasting pan a giant question mark. After all, how many times in quick succession can a person, with genuine relish, tuck into a dish that tastes, one critic observed, "like damp terrycloth"?
In the wake of the suckling hog debacle, my mother introduced ducks for Christmas. An entire flock of waterfowl (six) were sacrificed to feed 12 celebrating mouths. Thirteen, actually; one of the bassets, Ruby, dug the carcasses out of the trash, out in the snow by the carport, and gulped down so much duck fat that her liver shut down. She had to be rushed to the vet, where the doctors said her blood was like a duck-grease milkshake. After $3,000 of emergency medical treatment (including a canine blood transfusion), duck has fluttered off the menu, never to return.
This Christmas Eve, Mama is making chicken Kiev, stuffed with apricots. We're not Russian, so this may not sound all that traditional, but it will be our tradition—at least this year. With any luck, nobody will scream at the unveiling, and no dog will end up in intensive care.
Liesl Schillinger is a New York-based arts writer.